Which Way Is Out?
By Julie Murchison McSherry
Photography by Lloyd Poissenot
Ever chase a deer into the woods so far you lose your direction?
Ever find yourself thinking you were walking in circles–and you were?
Well, this story deals with those situations and answers the age old question...
Which Way is out?
It's a well-known fact to sportsmen
that they're not going to find game and
fish in heavily populated areas. But it's
not always the easiest thing in the
world to successfully arrive at those
promising out-of-the-way spots. . .and
what's more, getting home is often
more difficult. The ability to use a
compass and read a map in the field are
necessary outdoor skills that not only
save the outdoorsman from becoming
lost but help make him self-reliant in all
travelings afield or afloat.
Have you ever been caught in the
woods with that trophy deer bagged
and ready to be carried back to the
truck when suddenly, in all the
excitement, you realize, "Hey. . .
which way is the truck?!" The anxiety
attack which is sure to follow as you try
to figure the quickest and easiest way
out with your heavy load could have
been prevented had you taken a simple
compass reading before you headed for
the deerstand. Then you could easily
backtrack and go out of the woods the
exact way you came in, bypassing
hours of walking in circles.
But, its not too late.
You could take a bearing of the exact
location of your deer, head back to the
truck to round up a friend, and return
to your original deerstand with a hand
to help you bring your prize kill out of
Ever been madly chasing squirrels
through a dense canopy of the bestlookin'
squirrel trees, bag your limit,
prepare to walk out, then suddenly
wonder, "Which way is 'out'?! Had
you only known which way you had
gone in, you would easily be able to
determine the easiest way back to your
The list of situations continues. The
fisherman stumbles upon the hotspot of
a lifetime only to never be able to find it
again on subsequent trips. The duck
hunter is late getting to the blind
because the direction he assumed was
right was sixty degrees off to the east.
In every case, much time and effort
could be saved with the use of compass
Ability to use these two tools is an
excellent aid in exploring new territory
to get to the best hunting ground or the
best stocked lake. But others besides
fishermen and hunters can benefit too.
Campers, cross-country hikers, and
scout groups can quickly and easily
travel to off-the-trail camp sites.
Vacationers can explore with confidence
state and national parks. Canoeists can
save travel time and distance through
shortcuts and can explore out-of-the way
tributaries of main waterways.
Yet, there are many outdoorsmen
who regularly venture out without the
aid of compass and map. And many
who do carry them do not know how to
read them or do not realize their full
Each hunting season, more people
than care to admit are temporarily lost
in the woods. Al Frierson, supervisor of
Pearl River Wildlife Management Area
in southeast Louisiana, says that
almost every night during hunting
season, he or one of his men must go in
search of at least one missing hunter.
Often, he complains, the lost party has
a compass but doesn't know how to use
- To Frierson, it seems that hunters
should be responsible enough to keep
themselves from getting lost. "Nobody's
gonna get lost if they'll just
carry and know how to use a little ole
dollar compass," he told me recently.
Would you go on a vacation without a
road map? Then why go in the woods
with only the attitude that ' 'I think I can
make my way out." Why not be sure.
Learn how to rely on a compass and
read a map. It's not that hard and a
little extra effort can save you hours of
time and anguish — and embarrassment.
You should find that there is real
satisfaction in mastering the art of
using map and compass, in being able
to prevent yourself from getting lost.
Outdoor lovers have long found a
romantic fascination in being able to
find their way, on their own, through
wilderness or over hidden trails. The
pioneering and exploring mystique
appeals to almost every woodsman.
HOW TO READ A COMPASS
Historians estimate that as long ago
as 2500 B.C., the Chinese discovered
that a piece of a certain ore, floated on
water on a piece of wood, would "turn
until one end pointed in the general
direction from which the sun shone half
way between sunrise and sunset
(south). And if one end of the floating
ore pointed south, the other end
obviously pointed north. Out of this
discovery emerged the compass
needle, a strip of magnetized steel,
balanced on a pin point, and free to
swing in any direction. When left to
itself this needle comes to rest with one
end pointing north.
There are three main purposes of a
compass: (1) finding directions or
"bearings" from a particular location;
(2) following a direction, or bearing,
from one location to another; (3)
returning to the point of origin.
In finding your way with a compass,
there are a few cardinal rules to follow.
First, know where you are on your map,
if you are using one, or according to
your knowledge of the layout of the
area, and know the direction in which
you are going according to your
compass. This is called taking your
Next, be aware of declination. This is
the term for the angle between true
north (the North Pole) and magnetic
north. This angle exists because the
geology of our continent affects the
magnetized compass needle. The angle
varies from as much as 20 degrees west
in Maine to 30 degrees east in parts of
Alaska. Always check the compass
Declination in the bottom margin of
your map and memorize the declination
for your territory. In Louisiana, it
averages between six and seven degrees
east which is not too much to
make a big difference. In some parts of
the country, it is necessary to compensate
Affairs Branch, Eighth Coast Guard
District, and boy scout master who
teaches compass reading, suggests the
following tips to the outdoorsman
interested in learning how to keep from
Get a good map of the area to
familiarize yourself with new territory.
A little preparation before you go is the
most important consideration.
Learn how to accurately read a
compass. Study printed guides on
orienteering and compass reading
found in book stores, libraries, sporting
goods stores, outdoor outfitters, and
the directions that come with a compass
or map when you buy it. Field
practice is the best teacher.
Get a feel for your compass before
you go out in the field and learn to trust
- Set up a trial course in your backyard
and neighborhood. Orienteering games
can be fun activities for the entire
family. Who will find the hidden
treasure first? Who will be the fastest
to arrive at a particular point?
Plan ahead. When possible, set out a
little trek on your map and plot a mini
Before you enter the woods, orient
yourself. This means determine exactly
which direction you are walking in. For
instance, a squirrel hunter who walks
in at 135 degrees (SE) knows by looking
at his compass that to return to his
original location, he must reverse this
direction and walk a line 315 degrees
(NW) determined by adding (or in
some cases subtracting) 180 degrees to
the original bearing.
Check your compass every now and
then in the field to make sure you're
still on your intended course. Keep
your sense of direction, that is, utilize
your compass while you still know
where you are. Don't wait until you are
lost to check it or it will be too late to do
you any good. It won't help you much
to know where north is if you don't
know which direction you came from.
In other words, if you don't know where
you came from, it's hard to get back
Keep track on your watch of the
length of time it takes you to go in so
you'll know how long to walk out. It is
easy to lose all sense of time while
stalking a deer or chasing a squirrel
and not realize how many hours you
walked away from your original point.
By timing yourself, you can prevent the
panic that results on the return trek
when you estimate how far you walked
in and think you should be out
already, when in actuality you still
have some distance to go. In this way, a
watch can be very helpful in keeping
you on course.
Knowing how to judge and measure
distance accurately can be helpful
when it comes to backtracking the exact
same distance out of the woods as the
route you came in.
Overcome obstacles such as sloughs
or waterbodies impossible to walk
through by making right angle turns
around them. To insure that you stay
on course, take compass readings off
landmarks before each turn, or count
your steps so that you walk the same
distance in each direction. If you can
see across or through an obstacle, the
matter is even more simple: locate a
prominent landmark on the other side,
such as a large tree, walk to it around
the obstacle, and take your next
bearing from there.
When fishing in strange waters, try
to pick out landmarks and mark them
on your map with a compass bearing.
This will help you find your way back if
you later desire. Remember, what
seems so familiar going in may look
completely different upon return.
To prevent an incorrect reading, be
careful not to place the compass too
close to metal objects such as gun
barrels, binoculars, cameras, watches,
or beer cans as they will attract the
A WORD ABOUT MAPS
A map is a reduced representation of
a portion of the earth's surface. It has
its own language of signs and symbols.
The key to reading what looks Uke mass
confusion is to learn the basic symbols.
Generally, a map can tell you description,
details, directions, distances, and
Maps showing water and vegetation
features, elevation, and man-made
structures are very useful to outdoorsmen.
A good map should also include
roads, trails, rivers, canals, lakes or
other waterbodies, railroads, powerlines,
dams, bridges, and boundaries.
A topographic map indicates these
features and in addition, woods, mountains,
hills, valleys, and plains.
Aside from highway maps, which are
excellent for giving you an overview of
the general area you plan to explore,
there are several other types that are of
particular interest to outdoorsmen.
The Louisiana Department of Wildlife
and Fisheries provides maps of
each of its 36 wildlife management
areas, state-owned public hunting
grounds. They are available, free of
charge, from any wildlife and fisheries
district office in Alexandria, Monroe,
New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Lake
Charles, Minden, Ferriday, and Opelousas.
The department also has contour
maps of 30 major Louisiana lakes.
The Office of State Parks in Baton
Rouge supplies rough outline maps of
twenty-five state parks in separate
Fishing maps for coastal lakes,
bayous, bays, and estuaries, the Gulf of
Mexico, plus the two largest freshwater
fishing bodies, Toledo Bend and Atchafalaya
Basin, can be obtained from
numerous map companies and major
sporting goods stores in southeast
Louisiana. These maps show bayous,
bays, canals, creeks, islands, lakes,
lagoons, passes, points, rivers, and just
about every nook and cranny. They also
include dams and pipelines if they exist
and in some cases boat launches and
bait stand location. Some contain
detailed indexes and water depth.
There are three series of fishing maps,
including a total of about 24.
These maps are not only invaluable
in preventing fishermen from becoming
lost while exploring unfamiliar
waters, they can show the experienced
reader where the fish are. . .or at least
where they are likely to be, according
to the presence of structure, location of
inlets, and water depth.
Topographic maps or "topos" will
serve you well when you're ready for a
detailed rendition of a relatively small
tract of land. These maps are available
on the entire state which is divided into
approximately 800 quadrangles. These
sheets are available from the U.S.
Geological Survey and can be obtained,
for a small fee, by writing Map
Distribution, Federal Center, Denver,
Colorado 80225 for all locations west of
the Mississippi River, and 1200 South
Eads Street, Arlington, VA 22202 for
all locations east of the river. Ask for
the free Louisiana Index to Topography
Maps and the brochure on how to read
them. You might also check local map
companies, sporting goods stores, and
outdoor outfitters, as many of these
specialty shops keep a good supply of
topos in stock.
FINDING DIRECTIONS WITHOUT A
COMPASS: NATURE'S SIGNS
Since the sun rises in the east and
sets in the west, its location in the sky
is always a reliable source of direction.
For example, if you face the sun in the
morning, you will be facing east; north
is therefore to your left. If you face the
sun after noon, you are facing west;
north is to the right. If you find it
difficult to tell, place a stick straight up
in the ground; mark where the shadow
end falls. The shadow will be on the
side farthest from the sun so you can
then determine which direction the
sunlight is coming from.
At night, the North Star is one
constant compass point that is more
dependable than a compass needle
because it always hangs near true
north. It is easily seen (assuming it is a
clear night) as the last star in the
handle of the Little Dipper and in the
straight line formed with the two
pointer stars at the end of the Big
Dipper. It often appears as the brightest
star in the sky.
When lost without a compass on an
overcast day or cloudy night, one good
solution is to follow a river hank, ridge
of hills, overgrown trail, cross-country
wires, or pipeline because eventually
they will probably lead you to a road or
perhaps even a small settlement.
Learning the direction of prevailing
winds in a particular area can be of
some assistance in keeping you from
getting lost in unfamiliar territory.
In woods which get a sufficient
amount of sunlight, the moss will grow
thicker on the north side of trees. In
dense thickets, this does not hold true
because moss will grow evenly around
all sides. Some expert woodsmen are
able to look at a tree and tell that the
bark is thicker on the north side of
many hardwoods. However, for the
average sportsman this is not always
On fishing or canoe trips, when the
current is too slow to tell which way the
water is flowing, note the brush pileups
which will generally occur on the north
side of trees, logs, or other obstacles.
This outdoor lore is interesting and
somewhat useful but not always helpful
to casual woodsmen. Pathfinding is a
much simpler matter with a good map,
a dependable modem compass, and the
ability to accurately utilize them. With
a little practice, it's not that hard to
become an expert and it can be fun.
With map and compass for steady
companions, the skill of finding your
way through woods and water, over
fields, marsh, and lakes, can become a
time economizer, perhaps a life saver,
and even an intriguing sport.
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