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

the woods.


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

starting point!


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

and map.


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

  1. 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.



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

for declination.


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

getting lost:


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

  1. 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

compass course.


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

magnetic needle.



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

information brochures.


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.




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

easily discerned.


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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