Off The Beaten Path
By Evan Morgan
Exploring, like adrenaline, is a very addictive thing. For the majority of us backcountry enthusiasts there are just not enough hours in a day to get out there and explore. If you’re anything like me, a regular part of your everyday life is spent on Google Maps studying the backcountry and familiarizing yourself with places you’ve previously explored or charting your next excursion into the bush. Be it snowmobiling, dirt biking, ATVing, canoeing or backpacking, being prepared and knowledgeable enough to navigate new terrain is crucial to you and your sidekicks.
If you’re a snowmobiler chances are you’re a pretty fortunate person. You venture into new areas, see wildlife that most people don’t usually see and enjoy laughs with your close friends on a regular basis. Embarking on a journey into new areas should always be planned especially if you’re going to be moving far off the beaten path. When scoping new terrain, having a manageable size group is key. Three to four person groups, in my experience, is usually the ideal number but any more than that can sometimes become a hindrance. Prior to any excursion, group discussions to plan routes and set daily goals are a must. Of course, some days are meant to strictly slay pow but exploration days can be just as fulfilling and it never hurts to test your backcountry navigational skills. Finding a new zone with unique terrain features can be just as enjoyable as nailing that 80-foot drop you’ve been sizing up for the last couple of seasons; or you may even find that feature you’ve been searching for but never seems to line up quite the way you like it!
Any exploration comes with a consequence and that’s the sole reason you should always be prepared (even over-prepared) when planning your next backcountry reconnaissance mission. Having an experienced group of riders and avid outdoorsmen is a great asset and in the event that something was to go wrong, it’s always important to know that your group is more than qualified to take charge of a sticky situation.
Trip planning means just that. Complete a trip plan before you leave home. Let someone know where you’re going and when you plan to return, and if you can, leave a detailed trip plan with those persons. If someone knows where you’re going and when you plan to return, if you do not show up in that general time frame, chances are they will notify someone before its too late. Winters in our province (NL) can be brutally unforgiving and if you run into trouble miles from civilization you’ll want help as soon as possible!
With today’s technology you can send and receive text messages and make phone calls from just about anywhere in the world. (Personal SPOT GPS’ & In-Reach units are two of the more familiar). Use these tools to your advantage but never rely 100% on them. Make sure you pack a map and compass and all the essentials you will need to spend a night in the bush. I always carry my personal Spot GPS and pre-program messages pertaining to my trips before I leave home.
Last year a close friend and I ran into a group of riders while out on snowmobile for the day. We were miles into the backcountry and it was snowing pretty heavily. This particular group had been riding for a few hours and were not from the area, nor did they have any GPS units. One of the first questions the group asked us was if we were familiar with the area and how they could get to the nearest gas station. Within 10 minutes of conversation it was snowing heavily enough that seeing 100 feet was difficult and they asked if they could follow us out. We were more than happy to show them the way but I’ve thought many times what would they have done if we hadn’t shown up? It wouldn’t have been a good feeling to be caught in a blizzard with miles upon miles of open country in unfamiliar territory with no navigational equipment.
A simple technique many adventurers use is taking a “mental picture” of unique landmarks also known as Landmarking. If you’re always staring at the sled in front of you its hard to familiarize yourself with your surroundings; which leads me to a saying I heard a few years ago that I’ve always been fond of. The saying goes, “Unless you’re the lead dog, the scenery never changes”. Of course this saying is not 100% true but leading the pack can test your knowledge of terrain navigation and leading a group will always make you more aware of where you’re headed.
While following a bearing and pacing towards your goal, you will want to stay on track and maintain as much of a straight line as possible. To stay on track you’ll need to know where you are, where you’ve been, where you’re going. It’s very important to develop a sense of direction when you’re in the backcountry. You should always be aware of where you are on the map and stop regularly to check your position.
An understanding of land navigation is a very important skill that you will most certainly need if you plan to be moving far off the beaten path. Determining direction, interpreting maps, knowing how to use basic map & compass skills, being familiar with your GPS, knowing simple first aid, planning your route and following through with them on the ground are just some of the many skills you will need. Knowing these techniques will make your excursions more enjoyable and, even more importantly, more safe. Always remember to leave no trace that you were ever there. If you pack it in, pack it out. Next time you’re out why not take the road less travelled. Unless you’re in a hurry of course!