One of the great pleasures of a hunting trip is the opportunity to leave behind the familiar urban places and head into the mountains, woods and marshes. There are no crowds, malls or six-lane roads, no traffic noise or strip malls. The unfamiliarity of your hunt also usually increases the possibility of getting lost. Learning to navigate across the land with certainty and confidence is a vital skill for any hunter.
Becoming lost is more than just about the embarrassment (although there's always a lot of that involved): It can become dangerous to have to spend an unplanned night - or longer - in the woods, with injury and exposure-related harm as constant dangers. Aside from personal safety, being lost affects friends and family, who can quickly become very concerned if you don't return on schedule. Most of all, a lost hunter can result in searchers spending time and effort to find them, at great expense and potentially placing the searchers themselves in danger.
It's always possible to get lost - even the famed experienced frontiersmen of old reported getting "turned around" once in a while - but there are ways to avoid becoming lost under most conditions. With some advance planning, a little equipment (nothing particularly exotic or expensive) and practical, easily learned skills, a hunter can avoid getting lost under most circumstances, translating into an easier, more enjoyable hunting experience.
Most areas of the world, particularly within the boundaries of the United States, have been extensively mapped. For more than a century, the United States Geological Survey has been publishing topographical maps based on ground surveys (often repeated over the decades), air photography and even satellite imagery. There are more than 55,000 of these USGS topo maps in print in 1:24,000 scale (also known as 7.5 minute maps, which describes the geographic area each map covers). They provide detailed information on the geography of most areas, including hills, valleys, water courses, roads and even individual buildings. They are inexpensive ($8.00 to $15.00 each) and readably available from the USGS (http://store.usgs.gov/b2c_usgs/b2c/display/(xcm=r3standardpitrex_prd&layout=6_1_61_50_2&uiarea=2&ctype=areaDetails&carea=0000000015)/.do) or from sporting goods stores, so you should buy at least one copy of the topo map or maps covering your hunting area, one copy to be carried by each member of the party, with an extra copy for the base camp. Make sure you have a copy with you every time you go out into the field, and mark it with the details of what you see on your explorations. This personalized map can not only help you find the best hunting hot spots in the area, but can help you always know where you are at any given time... and how to get home.
For some reason, compasses have earned a fearsome reputation as being difficult to learn how to use. Nothing could be further from the truth: They're simple devices, easy to understand and operate. High-quality compasses, particularly new military surplus models, can be picked up for about the cost of about two boxes of ammunition. Take some lessons or buy a practical guide and, above all, practice using one, particularly on the ground in your hunting area. Mark your topo map with information on compass bearings from one location to another; a map at least quadruples in its practical value when used in conjunction with a compass. Mark your map with azimuths for quick routes to your parking/rally/cabin location so you can find your way out with a minimum of difficulty.
Scouting and Blazing
Experienced hunters know the value of pre-season scouting, even on territory they know well: It's important to look for signs of game and get an idea of hot spots and movement patterns, all of which can change from year to year. When hunting in unfamiliar territory, it's doubly important to learn the details of the lay of the land, easily identifiable landmarks, places that offer good overview spots or ambush locations and trails - game or manmade - that allow access into and out of an area. If you use surveyor's tape to flag your routes, make sure that these markers can be seen both going into an area and coming back out. Put up markers well ahead of the season so the animals have a chance to get used to their presence. Some hunters use infrared (IR) reflective tape that can be seen with an IR flashlight, to help them navigate in the pre-dawn hours without having to resort to shining a flashlight and risk spooking the game. Don't use permanent makers, such as notches on tree trunks, on public land or even on private land unless you have the owner's permission. If you come across someone else's markers, don't disturb them without permission. Make sure you remove your markers once the season is over.
Make a "dry run" to your hunting spot about a week or two before the season begins, under the same conditions (packing gear, but not your firearm) and in the same light you would have on opening day. The landmarks that look so easy to identify in the daylight appear much differently in the pre-dawn hours and the last thing you want, just hours before the season opens, is to go crashing around the woods while trying to find your cleverly hidden blind.
Advances in technology offer electronic versions of maps and compasses, often with greater detail, reliability and portability. Some tools, such as a GPS, were entirely unavailable to the general public just a decade or two ago. It doesn't even take a top-of-the-line iPhone to have access to applications that can combine all these tools - plus publications on wilderness survival, first aid and wildlife identification - into one small package that can be easily carried in a cargo pocket. Keep in mind, though, that any electronic device has to be kept charged to be of any use, and that they can be easily damaged. A common-sense approach to safety would allow for non-electronic back-ups; take along the paper map and pocket compass, "just in case."
Good hunters take responsibility for their actions: Firearms safety, stewardship of the land, ethical treatment of the game and cooperation with other hunters and landowners. It is also important for hunters to take responsibility for their own safety, including passage across the land. By learning basic skills, acquiring proper equipment and careful practice, a hunter can find his or her way safely and with confidence.