NOLS releases latest wilderness navigation guide

NOLS Wilderness Navigation, By Gene Trantham and Darran Wells

The National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) has published an updated edition of its manual on wilderness navigation, and with the techniques tested in the field by NOLS instructors, this may be the only book you need to find your way in the woods.

The third edition of Wilderness Navigation differs from the two previous editions in two ways. First, water navigation is expanded in this newest offering; and the reliance on electronics is de-emphasized, but for good reason.

“This was not done because they are less important than they were when the second edition came out, but these days,digital tools evolve rapidly and new features are added almost more quickly than they can be reviewed,” the authors write. “What you read here about digital tools may be wrong or out of date after next year’s Consumer Electronics Show.

“More importantly, we are concerned that students learning to navigate from electronics will, (a) engage more with their smartphone than with the environment through which they are traveling, and (b) become helpless and adrift when the cell coverage dies or the battery runs out. We want students to learn to navigate by learning principles and practicing with basic, robust and reliable tools.”

The authors also stress that having navigation, first aid and survival techniques in your brain is superior to relying on technology.

“Keep the tool between your ears sharp, and ask yourself what you would do if you lost your GPS, your compass or your map,” they write.

Although navigation may be better learned by taking a class and getting in-the-field experience, the authors have set up the book in such a way that self-teaching is an option. By reading a chapter and then practicing what’s learned before moving on, the authors say an understanding of backcountry navigation can be developed.

With its de-emphasis of electronics, the tools of the trade in this book are map and compass. And probably for good reason.

“NOLS teaches navigation with fundamental tools, such as map and compass, because they are fail-safe,” they write. “It is difficult to break a map so badly that it is worthless as a navigation tool.

“Compasses are easier to break than maps, but it still takes some work (and some bad luck). Electronics rely on batteries, a complex infrastructure and a narrower range of acceptable use conditions, and they are much more fragile.”

Although electronics play a smaller role in the third edition, there is a whole chapter on digital maps and smartphone apps. However, that chapter comes after others, including “Fixing Your Position,” “Using a Compass” and “Planning a Route.”

Each chapter builds off skills learned in previous chapters, and the authors include a chapter on “Competitive Navigation” for those looking to test their skills.

“Unless you are a wilderness instructor or are in the military, you will have to seek out ways on your own to test and improve your navigation skills,” the authors write. “Whether you are competitive by nature or just want to sharpen your eye for maps, there are a number of competitions that may suit your navigation needs.

“Competitions needn’t be about winning ribbons or medals. Think of the events described here as an organized way to compete against yourself and measure your improvement.”

Authors Darran Wells and Gene Trantham also make a push for everyone to use Leave No Trace ethics, going so far as to close the book with a message that should sound familiar to avid Adirondack recreators.

“Recreational users are both the reason we have these lands and one of the major threats to their continued existence,” they write. “Public lands in North America … face ongoing threats, from over-development to overuse. In areas near large population centers, we are loving our public lands to death.

“You can help with the ‘lighter usage’ factor by carefully following the Leave No Trace principles. Users must be diligent in caring for these areas … When there’s a choice, choose the road less traveled, and avoid crowded, highly impacted areas.”

And having a solid grasp of backcountry navigation can certainly help get you into the less crowded parts of the Adirondacks.