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The Ten Essentials for Climbing Safety


Mount Hope from Mount Elbert in the Sawatch Range, Colorado.

Use all your navigation skills and tools to keep from getting lost in the Colorado Rockies.

Photograph © Stewart M. Green

The first survival system on the Mountaineers Ten Essentials list is Navigation.

Get Lost and Found

You’re out in the big wide world roaming around and it’s easy to get lost, maybe in fog or dense forest or darkness. If you do get lost, the best thing is to get found. If you have the proper navigation tools, then you’re the best one who can find yourself and you won’t have to rely on having a search and rescue outfit called to track you down or not.

Map and Compass are Essential

The old navigation items on the classic Ten Essentials list were a map and compass. Both are excellent and mandatory items to have in your pack whenever your trekking or climbing out in the wilderness. Of course, you need to know how to orient the map and to use your compass, accounting for declination or the difference between true and magnetic north, which varies depending on where you are in the world. Your compass points to magnetic north, which can be as much as 20 degrees off from true north.

Carry a Topo Map

Your map should be a topographic map published by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and preferably a 7.5-minute quadrangle for sufficient close-up detail of the topography. Carry it in a waterproof container or get it laminated. I always carry mine folded in a quart-size zip-lock baggie. The bottom of your map, if it’s of a place in the United States, will have the angle of declination so that you can easily figure where true north is.

GPS Units

There are other high-tech navigation tools available that can help you stay found. The best is a GPS or Global Positioning System unit. These units use information from satellites to determine precisely where you are. If your unit has built in maps, it’s a cinch to locate yourself. If it doesn’t, then you’ll have to translate your position, using latitude and longitude, onto your map to find out your location. Does a GPS unit take the place of a compass? No. A compass is lightweight, doesn’t use batteries, and is an ideal back-up for GPS. Some cell phones also have a built-in GPS locator so if you are able to make a phone call, then the rescuers can figure out where you’re at.

Use an Altimeter

Mountaineers often carry an altimeter to determine their elevation. An altimeter on your wrist watch will do the trick. Altimeters use a barometric sensor to measure air pressure, providing an estimate of your elevation.

Wands and Tape

A couple low-tech navigation tools are wands that can be used to mark your trail across glaciers or across snow-covered terrain and colored plastic surveyor’s tape which you can tie around convenient trees to make a bread-crumb trail to follow back in dense woods. Just remember to remove the tape from the trees as you backtrack.

Use Your Brain

Lastly, use your brain—the most important Essential. Tell someone where you’re going and when you’ll be back. Learn navigation skills like map and compass reading. Carry extra batteries. And charge your cell phone before leaving—it just might work out there in the wild.

Compare prices and buy a guide-recommended GPS Unit:
Garmin Oregon 400t GPS Unit Excellent, multi-functional, handheld, big screen, maps.
DeLorme Earthmate PN-40 GPS Unit Excellent, affordable, lots of maps, fast, altimeter function.
Garmin Colorado 400t GPS Unit Excellent, easy to use, big color screen, 3D view.

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