Winter Orienteering

So far this season has been rather mild, with daily highs averaging 7 C/45 F and nighttime temperatures hovering around 0 C/32 F. There were even a few days in December when temps rose to 15 C/60 F.  We also haven’t seen any substantial snowfall since November, unfortunately. I’ve been keeping track of snowfall accumulations, and as of now, the total for the season is right around 18 cm/7 inches. According to NOAA, in my part of the state, the expected norm is 91 cm/36 inches accumulation based on a 30 year average. Things don’t look promising, but a few decent snowstorms before spring would sure be nice.

Temperatures finally lowered earlier this week due to an ‘Alberta Clipper’ (thank you, Canadians! :D), and with it came strong winds. The thermometer read -8 C/18 F with a wind chill factor of -18 C/0 F. It gave me the perfect opportunity to test my Suunto MC-2D in these cold conditions. The forest was coated with a light dusting from the day before, and flurries were starting to fall.


Here is one of the orienteering markers. The bare landscape makes it relatively easy to spot these, though there were a few locations where the markers were missing, presumably the tree they were attached to fell, or they were blown off from years of weathering.

This one, as you can see, needs replacing and was barely hanging on.


Notice the stone walls in the background. The way these walls were positioned as depicted on my map leads me to believe that this was once someone’s property. No house or building foundation remains.

Besides these orienteering markers, I was also on the lookout for cairns – there were two marked on the map.


Bearing 176 degrees to the first cairn…

For effective navigation, it is important to always look at the terrain features depicted on the map and to pay attention to these in the 3D world. For example, it is usually not possible to travel in straight lines across long distances following a compass bearing, especially since the terrain here in the northeast is very hilly. It pays to look carefully at the elevation/contour lines so that you can choose a route of the least difficulty. The closer the lines are to each other, the steeper the terrain – likewise, widely spaced lines indicate a gentle slope or possibly flat locations.

Also, be on the lookout for natural barriers such as lakes, rivers, or marshy areas that might impede your travel. However, these terrain features can be used to your advantage as handrails or backstops. Handrails can be roads, trails, stone walls, streams, or some other elongated object that you can follow or keep within sight to get to your destination or next point. These features can also serve as backstops – if you approach these landmarks, you know you’ve gone too far and need to double-back. Of course, it is important to have an up-to-date topographical map when using these techniques. But be aware that the presence of beaver can change rivers or streams into lakes or ponds that may not be indicated on the map.

On my way to the western edge of the stone wall layout towards the closer of the two cairns, I passed a small woodland pond.


It appears to be fed by water runoff from the surrounding hills. The map showed another pond of slightly larger size nearby with a brook running from it that crosses the western wall. The cairn would be right by the brook and next to the wall.

Using both of these features as backstops, I found the first cairn.


Here it is on the right. The stone wall is behind me.

The second cairn was about half a mile away at the southern foot of a hill. As I made my way over, the snow started picking up, and so did the wind, biting my face with invisible, icy fingers.


I admit I was excited, but when I reached the second cairn, the snow petered away and the sun came out…what a tease, Nature :P.


Not much is left, just a few large stones from the base of the cairn. 50 yards away lay the trail that would take me back out of the woodland.


Here I am, getting blasted by wind gusts.

I’m really pleased with the Suunto – it worked just as it should, no frozen needle that I experienced with the Silva Ranger CL. I know more and more people are turning to GPS devices, but I personally prefer a topo map, a decent compass, and the knowledge of how to navigate using these tools. GPSs are not infallible, and they will suffer in cold weather. They also don’t show all the terrain features that a topo map will, and these details are very handy when bushwhacking.

But each to their own – no matter what tools you use to navigate with, it is important that you know how to use them effectively. Remember: don’t work against the terrain, work with it ;).

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