The importance of nighttime navigation

11:15 a.m. on March 7, 2009 (EST)
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While in the Ozarks a couple of weeks ago, I got a painful lesson in how easy it is to be stupid if I'm not careful.

I was on a 3-day solo camping trip in the Upper Buffalo Wilderness, and had made camp for the night. From the parking area, I followed a trail that led to the "camping area" for a mile or so, then cut off the trail and headed a couple hundred feet into the woods to make camp. Since it was cold and bugs weren't a problem, I was using a bivy instead of a tent (the military CWSS bivy, which is woodland camo). After getting out my bivy and bag and throwing down my pack, I put on my headlamp and headed off about 70 feet back toward the trail to cook dinner.

It got dark while I was cooking, and when I started to head back to my gear, I couldn't find it! I knew I wasn't far away, but I hadn't thought about the fact that I had a camoflage bivy and no tent. My headlamp seemed really weak for trapsing around in the timber in the pitch black. I decided to go back to my cooking gear and start again, only to realize that I couldn't find my cooking gear either! Great! Now I had no bearings at all.

I had a compass, but after all the turns the trail had taken, I wasn't even sure which direction I needed to go to get back to it. It was starting to get cold, and I only had on a light jacket. I knew it was going to be below freezing that night.

Keep in mind that I've been camping for a long time, am an Eagle Scout, and was an orienteering and wilderness survival instructor for the scouts when I was still active. Luckily, despite having ignored every bit of training and common sense I had learned in those experiences, I knew well enough to sit down when I felt that little surge of panick hit. I laughed at myself, because this was the kind of stupid crap I thought only city-slickers got into.

I decided that I was going to sit until I had a reason to move; not just wander aimlessly. I retraced my steps from the parking area to my campsite and tried to remember every detail. It dawned on me that a small trickle of a creek had crossed the trail not too far from where I turned off and headed into the woods. I strained my ears for a few minutes until I was fairly certain I heard water trickling to my right.

I got up and blazed the log I had been sitting on, and slowly started to count paces toward the water (taking compass bearings the whole way, so that if nothing else I could find my way back to my log). After about a quarter of a mile, my foot splashed into a small creek. I was able to follow this upstream to the trail, take a compass bearing, and look for my cooking gear. Once I found it, I hung my pot from a tree so that it would catch light, and followed the same pace-counting plan to find my gear. I had to come back to the cooking gear a time or two and start in a new direction before I tripped over my sleeping bag. No telling how many times I had walked right past the stupid thing.

At this point, I was able to get my much more powerful flashlight from my pack, hang my headlamp from the pack, and go back to clean up my cooking gear.

Modifications made: when I got back from this trip, I started looking for some sort of light to attach to my pack in case I have to leave it after dark. I was thinking of one of those lapel pins with an LED light that I sometimes see people wearing here, or the light-up bobbers. After some research, I found some magnetic LED strobe lights worn by kids at raves for a steal, and they'll be in my pack for future trips!

Moral of the story: don't let your guard down! Even experienced outdoorsman do stupid things if they're not careful!

3:51 p.m. on March 7, 2009 (EST)
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Also try some reflective plastic ribbon tied around a couple trees high above your camp / sleeping / cooking areas. Make sure to pack it back out.

This works well for me, I do a good bit of wandering at night not too far from camp and can see the ribbon for a good long ways with a decent light.

Another trick I use is to camp near a stream (100 yrds. or so) and at a right angle to a prominent feature at the stream, such as a huge boulder or unique tree. I don't plot a course just to go fishing 2 or 3 hundred yrds. from camp.

The ribbon is low tech and doesn't quit working or have dead batteries when it is needed.

If this fails I follow my dog back to camp, seriously.

10:46 p.m. on March 7, 2009 (EST)
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I had a similar experience several years ago on a solo elk hunt. I quickly set-up camp and had an hour or so of light left, so I grabbed my bow and headlamp and headed out. It got dark before I could make it all the way back to camp. Like a fool I had left all my suvival gear, etc at my campsite. I wondered a bit until I was sure I was within 100 yards of my camp, but it took at least a half hour to find my camp. I walked within 30 yards of it several times but couldn't see it. Suffice to say I also use reflective tape and always bring my daypack with survival gear

12:47 a.m. on March 8, 2009 (EST)
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I did something similar a couple of years ago in Yosemite. I was winter camping and skied and hiked out to Dewey Point, which overlooks the valley. I set my skis and pack against a tree and walked maybe 25-50 yards to take pictures. When I turned around, I had no idea where my skis were. It took me about 15 minutes or so to find them. Even my footsteps in the snow didn't help that much. This was in broad daylight, no less.

On a different trip, same area, I took my candle lantern (like an UCO) and hung it from a tree by my tent so I could find my way back after a short hike to take some night pics. Worked great as you can see. Solo trip, so the pic was with a tripod and self-timer.

6:39 a.m. on March 8, 2009 (EDT)
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We have all messed up at one time or another. I do a lot of solo camping too and my first night is usually after dark. I have good navigation skills thanks to the Boy Scouts & USMC but it all changes when that sun goes down. I myself always keep a couple Chem-Lights in my pack there cheap, light, bright & they normally last 24 - 36 hours. Well after 36 hours there not real bright but they still work. Anyways they work good for a marker weather it be for your gear or a location I have even hooked one to my pack when its dark and i'm in a group (I usually end up leading the pack anyways) Like I said there cheap about a buck or less each and they come in different colors maybe this helps you or at least a different point of view.

12:15 p.m. on March 8, 2009 (EDT)
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I hear the light sticks that you snap that give off flourescent light are very useful and can be seen quite well at night from quite a distance. They are made by Coghlan's and are very light weight, relatively cheap and can be picked up at Walmart. They are safe, reliable , non-toxic and non-flammable. I was at a winter wilderness survival course this winter and they said they could be very useful in a survival situation where people are searching for you especially if you may be in a natural shelter, you wouldn't stand out in any way, I have added one to my survival kit. We tried one while winter camping just in the site and it worked fine and glowed quite well. It says it gives 12 hour light and you can get different colours. These if hung high enough in a tree near your camp or several trees along your path would work well. May be worth a try!

P.S. Are these the same as Chem-lights? I'm not sure.

1:00 p.m. on March 8, 2009 (EDT)
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Yes Wilderness Gal, they are the same.

This is a good idea, I keep one in my pack for emergencies and have used them for light in my tent on boy scout trips. They can be seen for a good distance. Most of the ones I've used put out good light for 8 hrs. and last up to 12 or 14 hrs.

I personally don't use them to mark my campsite, or lights for that matter, as I wish to keep my sites discreet (fishing secrets and other dumb male stuff). I just use the reflective ribbons that can be seen very well with a quick flashlight search. I untie them when breaking camp and re-use them next time.

1:28 p.m. on March 8, 2009 (EDT)
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You folk don't know what "Dark" is! Years ago, when I was doing a fair amount of spelunking, something we used to do way down in the caves, especially with newbies was to find a comfortable stopping place (usually in one of the larger rooms), sit down, set our headlamps on the floor next to us, and everyone turn off the all the lights for 5 minutes (someone would have a timer). For the first minute, we would make sure no one had anything luminous (watches, tabs on gear, etc). When the 1 minute chime sounded, we would keep silence for 1 minute. At the 2 minute chime, we could talk, but were to sit still. At 4 minutes, you were to reach down and retrieve your headlamp. At 5 minutes, you turned on your light. The reason for sitting down was so that no one would start wandering around and trip over anything, plus you lose an important balance cue, your vision (the eye keeps sending random signals, so you see "lights"). At low light levels, the eye will start adjusting and see surprisingly low light levels, but in the cave, there is no light (I have been in caves where there are fluorescent minerals that get activated by the lights we get there with). The 4 minute "search for your headlamp" teaches newbies a strong lesson about keeping track of that light source - you think it is within arms reach, but keep feeling around for it for a while before finding it. Some people start getting panicky after a minute or so in total darkness and silence (is anybody here with me, or did they all abandon me to die?). And the 5 minutes seems interminable, even with the 1 minute chime to start the 1 minute of silence (you start hearing the breathing pretty quickly, plus little movements, dripping water, etc). The next 2 minutes it is comforting to hear another voice. We always reminded the newbies - consider what this has felt like, and what it would be like to be on your own with dead batteries for your lamp (or no more carbide when we still used carbide lamps), far into the cave, and you get injured.

I have never been lost/disoriented in the dark in anything like the conditions described above, nor even truly lost in my entire life. Even the time I set out on my own from our house in Tegucigalpa to go to my father's office at 5 years old, I wasn't completely lost. I knew I had to get to the Plaza, and I could tell directions from the Sun.

I have been in whiteouts where I had to proceed very carefully and slowly. Perhaps the most risky was during one of my stays at 17,000 ft on Denali, when we were still using a central latrine rather than WagBags. The latrine was a box with a lid, with a plastic bag liner. When the bag got filled, you were supposed to close the bag, place it in another compartment of the box, and insert a new bag. Anyway, most people were camped on a little rise above the latrine, so you to walk about 100 meters to the box down a little incline. To your left was Rescue Gully, a straight shot sloped about 40-50 degrees down to the 14,000 foot camp (that's 3000 ft lower, used by the rangers to lower accident and HAPE victims by rope in a sled, but you would slid all the way rapidly if you slipped). About the 3rd or 4th day of the storm we were sitting out (temperatures below -20 and down to -45F the whole time, winds above 30 knots and sometimes up to 60 or 70 knots according to the rangers' measuring devices), I headed for the latrine during a clear spell. Having accomplished my purpose, I started back, just as the wind picked up and found myself in a whiteout with visibility quite literally not being able to see arm's length, with the snow blowing so at times I could not see my boots. I knew the general direction back to the tents and started for them. I quickly discovered that I could feel the packed path under my boots and could tell when I got to the side of the (literally) beaten path by feel. I knew that only a few 10s of meters to my right was Rescue Gully and a long fast ride downhill. So I took about one step per 10 seconds or longer. It got harder as the slope up to the campsite got steeper (good! I'm going uphill instead of down toward the couloir!). I had gotten perhaps 3/4 of the way and was just getting onto the flatter area when the winds slowed and visibility improved, allowing me to see the tops of some of the tents peeking above their windwalls. My tentmates commented that I had been gone a long time, and after I related my adventure, said that they were indeed starting to worry a bit.

I have had other whiteout experiences - try skiing in a whiteout when the snow is blowing over your skis. Sorry, but headlamps, chemical lights, and reflective tape don't help in those circumstances, and the usual placement of wands at rope length intervals doesn't help in visibilities of single digit meter distances. It can be done, if you have previously learned some techniques.

3:14 p.m. on March 8, 2009 (EDT)
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Bill what do you mean I don't know what dark is I have been in my far share of caves. When I lived in North East T.N. I was part of the cave rescue team and let me tell you when people get lost in a cave, its a cave most normal people wouldn't even go in to start with.

Wilderness Gal
Yes they are all the same more or less they have diff names but there all the same some last longer or a shorter time some are bigger or smaller. But Most of all the ones you will see around are 12 hour 6" in diff colors

7:43 p.m. on March 8, 2009 (EDT)
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Well, Mike, then you know what I mean. However, when you say

when people get lost in a cave, its a cave most normal people wouldn't even go in to start with.

are you implying that you and I are abnormal? Even though that is true, you should not let that secret out in a public forum. People might get the idea that woodsy folk are strange or weird or something.

10:20 p.m. on March 8, 2009 (EDT)
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Well Bill its kind of like a fireman when the house is on
fire every body is running out of the house but the firemen are running into the house. Lol

1:52 p.m. on April 6, 2009 (EDT)
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But then again it could be those Fireman who are also chain smokes on top of it all...

9:24 a.m. on April 7, 2009 (EDT)
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My favorite use for light sticks is as a marker for where we placed the latrine when camping as a group. Eliminates the excuse of "I couldn't find it in the dark at 4 AM". I keep a couple in my pack, too, for emergency purposes.

I like having a bit of reflective cord or tabs on my gear to help me find it should I get disoriented or whatnot.

10:04 a.m. on April 7, 2009 (EDT)
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Perry, on my last trip I discovered a VERY compelling reason for not having a reflective pack. I can't seem to find a way to send you a private message, but it's not really something I want to discuss in open forum.

12:44 a.m. on April 8, 2009 (EDT)
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Nate--feel free to send me an email if you like; my email address is now accessible on my profile, I believe. (I just changed my privacy settings.)

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