Getting Lost and Un-Lost with the GPS, Map & Compass


Trail to Trappers Lake, Flat Tops Wilderness, Colorado

Your navigation skills suck. Oh yeah, and they are getting worse. Riding your GPS and counting on gadget wizardry is one dangerous way to roll in the backcountry. It is the equivalent of rock climber using a shoestring for a rope; it’s cool until you fall.

Make no mistake, I use the GPS heavily in the backcountry when we are running our trips. It provides great information about speed and distance. It’s super cool when the trail is buried beneath three feet of snow and the screen shows that you are, in fact standing above the trail.

Where I struggle with the GPS is a) its reliance on batteries which are heavy and burn out and b) reliance on the map maker to accurately draw the pink trail lines on my screen. And good lord these things are heavy. If we are attacked by a bear, I know what I can throw to stop the charge.

You see, back in the dark days when I was first trampling the dirt paths of central Arizona, we found our way around by USGS topo maps and Silva Ranger 15Ts. We had way finding skills pounded into us as rote. And I can’t count the number of times we were hopelessly lost. Your well being relies on your ability to find your way home.

But more than that, I always dug the elegance of the topography lines depicting ridges and canyons that surrounded us. The relief in locating the map’s blue rivulet on the earth and knowing that our thirst would be quenched. The topo map is indeed soul.

And then there is the history. I totally relate to the crusty old surveyors traipsing across the the hills and valleys with that silly black and white striped stick, measuring the elevation points. They must have been true hard-men. What a cool and useful job.

In our scout troop we spend a significant amount of time teaching the guys how to use map and compass. As part of their advancement, they are required to have a basic knowledge of how they work together.

This past summer in the Flat Tops Wilderness trusting the GPS got us lost. Ultimately the map and compass got us unlost.  We were heading cross country looking to pick up the trail that would take us to a back country lake. When we found the trail, it did not show up on our GPS. So we used our gut instinct and headed right, down the trail looking for the lake’s turn off. After two miles, realizing we were not in the right place, we pulled out the map and compass to find our actual location on the map. Indeed, we had missed our turn off by about 100 feet. Had we used the map and compass to verify our location much earlier, we would have no doubt made it to our lake.

Thirty five years of backcountry travel and the map and compass still serve to get us unlost.

Gear Me

Everything and adult needs for Boy Scout Camp


When I think of traveling I can’t help but conjure the images from old movies when porters for the “wealthy old woman” load trunk after trunk of gear into a car that is two sizes too small….Piles of leather bound boxes strapped to the back of an old Duesenberg . What on earth could she be taking with her? Are the facilities so primitive as to lack running water? Or a stream?

Somewhere along the line I was taught that “light is right”. To me this means take the bare minimum of gear and find multiple uses for each. The end result is much lighter packs, much faster movement through the woods and less damage to my carcass. In my experience, this applies to all manner of travel.

But what to do with a week at Boy Scout Camp? The set up is similar to a car camping trip without the RV. You are going to be in camp for an extended period of time.

The answer is what you see above. The breakdown is pretty simple as it follows closely what I take on a full-on backpacking trip with the addition of reading material and electronics. To make this pile, I followed the same methodology as I do for every trip…and it does not include consulting any pre-made, one-size-fits-all list.

To create my mental packing list, I mentally work the trip two ways: House and Step-By-Step. This allows me to, usually, not forget anything essential.

By House I consider all the rooms of a house and make sure I have them in my bag. For example, House = Tent/Ground Cloth, Kitchen = Stove/Utensils/Food etc. By working through every room of my house, I am covered for how I am going to live.

The second method I use is to mentally walk through every step of the trip, starting with what I am wearing as I walk out the door. Do I have the keys? How about gas? Do I know how to get to trailhead and do I have the map?  I walk this thinking though to the moment I return. By doing this I can mentally see what I will need for each event along the way. This also covers the items not associated with a house…like fly fishing gear.

Make no mistake, I have forgotten important gear before. In these instances, you make do with what you have. Consider Les Stroud manages to spend 10 days in the wild without any gear. If he can do it, so can I.

The lesson here is that my two methods for packing for the wilderness (or any trip really) serve to keep my gear load to just the things I need.




Climbing a Fourteen Thousand Foot Peak (14er)

One of the exciting elements of living in Colorado is the volume of peaks over 14,000 feet. There’s 53 or 54, depending on how you count. I’m sure there are purists that desperately care about how high a peak rises above its saddle…I’m not one of those.

The real estate above tree line (roughly 11,000′ here in Colorado) is a very strange place. It’s been said that it is never summer above 11K…my experience confirms this!

The video attached above is a short “gear guide” for what gear I use to make my ascents. I am sure there are many other items that folks like to take…just as there is gear some speed demons (or knuckleheads) might leave at home.

What I have found interesting is this set up is basically what I take on all of our trips. Sleep system, food system, clothing and hygiene system. Basic stuff.

Just as most mountaineers do, this system has been developed to suit my needs based solely on my experiences. When taking first timers up the “big hills”, there tend to be a lot of questions. This can be one of the funnest parts of the trip…just like the hero stories after a successful trip.

da Bear!

Black Bear in the Holy Cross Wilderness of Colorado during Summer 2012

Colorado Black Bear Arrives for Breakfast

The American wilderness system was put in place back around the turn of the century (the 20th) by good ol’ Theo Roosevelt. It basically set aside large tracts of land in pristine condition for the use and enjoyment of the American people. This means no permanent buildings or motorized access within the boundaries of the large swaths of land. I’m fairly certain this was happy news to the fauna living within the new wilderness boundaries including this fine example of a Colorado Black Bear.

Bears are amazing as they are one of the few earthly beasts that can do some real damage to man. Wild bears are even more terrifying in that there is are no bars protecting you from a mauling. What’s more, you are more likely to see them when backpacking where you are particularly exposed and without protection.

We saw this guy on backpacking trip this past weekend. He meandered into our camp and looked fairly confused by our presence. He sort of mopped around for about 15 minutes before deciding to head off in a different direction. The picture doesn’t do justice to his magnificence. He looked very healthy in that his coat was shiny and he looked well fed. A very beautiful creature.

Interesting is that your methods of dealing with wild bears are determined by the type of bear. For instance, a Colorado Black Bear is an excellent tree climber where a Grizzly is not so good. As such, when you are confronted by a grizzly in Alaska, climb a tree. Doing so with a black bear would make your situation much more dangerous.

For the purpose of this boy, the recommended strategy is to get big and loud to run him off. Not surprisingly, a black bear will analyze the situation and calculate their odds of success against you. The larger and more noisy you (your group) is, the more formidable to a bear you will seem.


Boots? Nah, barefoot.

My Merrell Barefoot Trail Glove shoes over Wall Lake

There is a lot of information available on the subject of proper backpacking footwear…especially if you dive into researching on the internet. For more brain damage, head to your local outdoor retailer and get more scary facts on “ankle support” and “terrain”.  My experience with these resources has historically lead me in the direction of heavy duty, leather, high top boots. Makes sense. If you are going to be carrying weight and the ground is rocky and sharp, you are going to need protection, right?

Enter the Rayway and lightweight backpacking. Ray Jardine’s true gift to humanity, like Tim Ferriss, is that he challenges people to use their minds. Think, test, find what works and what is bunk.

In my experience, I found that super-de-duper leather backpacking boots have a place, just not on my feet in most situations.  In testing out ideas and theories, I hauled monster packs in everything from heavy plastic shell style boots to sandals. I’m sold on the principle of light makes right…and fast. As such, I’m always looking for the lightest possible option that will do the job.

On our most recent five day backpacking adventure into the Flat Tops Wilderness of Colorado, I wore my Merrell Barefoot Trail Gloves. I love these things for a reason that might surprise you…it’s fun. The idea that you are “breaking the rules” and getting away with something is appealing. More importantly, walking in these things brings me mentally closer to the ground.

As you can see from the photo above, I’ve put these shoes through the ringer. I have worn these for six straight days in scout camp, gone rock climbing in them, climbed 14ers etc. The only place I have found that these shoes stink is when you are standing on concrete all day.

The point is, you need to use your head. Heavy, leather boots are ideal for carrying huge 70 pound loads while wearing crampons but are overkill for your 20 pound weekender pack. A running shoe (lighter) will allow you to move faster and be more comfortable in the backcountry. Your shoes need to match what YOU actually need.



Sand Dunes, Climbing, Mountain, Sand, Summer, Awesome, Sky

Great Sand Dunes National Park

Adventure is everything in scouting. It’s the launching off on a trip, not knowing what you will see or if you can do it. It is captured in the the Scout Law as “A Scout is Brave”.

When a young man puts aside his fear and heads into the wild where self reliance and resourcefulness are required, he learns how to take care of himself. He no longer needs his parent to take care of all his needs. He must overcome his own physical limitations, discomfort and psychological barriers all on his own.

This is a quality lacking in today’s young man for one reason alone: he is not permitted to have these experiences. When a young man is allowed to successfully take care of himself, if only for a weekend, he becomes a stronger, less-needful person.

and this is why we go!

Nature Requirement

A couple of my favorite advancement requirements are tied nature identification. The scouts must identify 10 plants and 10 animals in the field. I am sure this could be more challenging in harsh desert climates, it really forces the guys to pay attention to the things that are all around them….awareness.

I bet that few adults take the time to notice the tress or animals as they head off on their daily efforts. This is sad. There is so much nature around us, sometime we just have to look.

When I lived in Los Angeles, finding nature daily was a bit of a chore. So much concrete, so little fauna.  But even in a huge concrete city one can find pigeons, gulls and the like.

The photo here is a Stellar’s Jay that landed in the tree next to us this past weekend. They are stunning birds.

The Things You Miss

This past weekend we spent within the boundaries of Rocky Mountain National Park camping and snowshoeing. It was a truly excellent time. What strikes me is the number who chose not to attend.

You see, we only had about 20% of our troop attend. I’m sure that sports events wiped out the weekend for some of our guys. But why doesn’t everyone come on the outings? They are tremendously fun, we see incredible stuff and learn about the amazing wilderness…non stop.

As you can see from the above photo, the fun doesn’t stop when the sun goes down. Astronomy, photography, nocturnal nature, fire building, fellowship and on and on.


The Wild

It’s nearing the end of winter and we are off into the mountains with the troop this afternoon. Snowy activities are us for sure.

Since December we have been snow skiing, igloo camping (OkPik), snow camping (Klonderee) and now snow shoeing in Rocky Mountain National Park.  We are become powder hounds of a different stripe.

It’s interesting to see that we have 55 or so guys on our active roster. For this weekend’s event, we have 15 total participants including the 4 adults.  This seems to be fairly typical for our group.

We live in an age of over scheduled youth and are constantly competing with sports, theater and other, non-scouting interests. It seems that when comparing competing activities, going into the wild feels a bit more scary than participating in, say, a baseball game.  It seems that this is the factor that limits our attendance numbers.

So into the wild we go!

The Sky is the Limit

Venus, Jupiter and the Moon over Denver

This is a shot of the crescent moon with Venus, Jupiter, an airplane and the Denver city lights. To take this photo, my son and I climbed up on a the mountain behind our house on a windy night with temperatures in the low 20s. Needless to say the conditions were inhospitable.

We had a great evening enjoying the view and the fact that we had the whole place to ourselves. We chatted about the stars, planets and the natural world. It was a fun.

This really typifies the outdoor experience. Scouting teaches how to be comfortable in tough environmental conditions. You learn that enjoying the beautiful often involves suffering at some level.

Many have seen this picture and marveled at it’s beauty. But it does not compare to the experience of standing on the top of a snow and ice covered mountain with my son in wind chill approaching zero, being awed by the wonder of nature. I can thank Scouting for getting me there.