COMMENTARY | I was eighteen, a backpacking guide at Philmont Scout Ranch, the world’s biggest privately-owned backpacking preserve, and I was terrified. I didn’t know how to navigate well. Intimidated, I had always shied away from navigation. I had either gotten lucky or there was always someone else there to man the compass.
Now I had to learn this important skill so that I could teach it to others.
I had to devise a plan on where to begin. With topographic maps color-coded to reveal vegetation, there was a glut of information. Launching into the compass, I figured, would alienate many of the teenagers whom I was teaching.
Like any new skill or subject material, I began with vocabulary. I had to learn what all the symbols on the map meant and created flash cards for that purpose. They came in handy for teaching the material too. Once you knew them, it was easier to check your progress on the trail.
Once I knew which symbols meant what, I could go into navigating by terrain. “The trail should start in an area of sparse vegetation, meaning less than six feet, and should follow a stream, not gaining or losing much elevation” was a much more user-friendly set of instructions than “declinate your compass to 350 degrees.” I jotted notes about what I would encounter on the day’s route to allow myself a progress-determining checklist. Would I be gaining elevation? Crossing many streams? Crossing roads or other trails?
When it came to navigating and knowing how to handle intersections in the trail I developed a “tick-mark” system of [gently] jotting arrows in pencil on my map showing my current direction. That way, when I reached an intersection, I could easily see whether I need to take a left or right. I knew to instruct crews that, before taking a lengthy break, they should know which fork to take upon starting again.
I approached the compass last, teaching Scouts how to make sure both they and the compass were pointing north. That way, should they ever become discombobulated, they would know which direction to head. I encouraged them to take notes on final “rules of thumb” that, if they were ever separated from their compass, would still help them find home.
By saving the intimidating compass until the end I helped myself learn how to read a map, navigate, and teach those skills to others.