Last week Type 1 Academy students began CoCoSAR’s two-evening Advanced Land Navigation class. In the classroom, students learned all the ins and outs of maps and compasses.
Today they were tasked with putting those skills to work as the class concluded with an all-day, solo field test at a secret location. This year, students were joined by current Type 1 team members who were conducting a simultaneous field exercise to refresh and maintain their navigation skills.
Mixed in with the inevitable excitement was some trepidation about what the field-test day might have in store for students; however, graduates of the class reported that it was a fun-filled day and an extremely useful experience.
Class instructors Dr. Mark Sembrat and Jack Peabody discuss the class and how they came to lead it in the following Q&A session.
How did each of you get so interested/passionate about navigation?
MS: I was involved with adventure racing in a former life and since the course is not marked, you’re very dependent on the efficiency of the navigator to get from point to point. I’ve seen teams lose races because of mistakes, so I took additional weekend classes to brush up on skills and learn new ones.
Historically, navigation was a weakness for our team. It was presented to me that I knew “just a bit more” about navigation and was asked to develop a navigation course for CoCoSAR. Then, with the depth of the team, suggestions by students and proctors, the class, and the result is that our collective skill as a team has just gotten better and better over the past five years.
JP: With a name like Search and Rescue, I always thought that after medical skills, your navigation skills had to be the second-most important item for a team member. My passion comes from many years as a Boy Scout leader and many more years of being in the wilderness with groups of people in which I learned that good navigation will make the trek more enjoyable and with less drama.
In your experience, are some people just inherently better at navigation than others? How do people who don’t have an inherent sense of direction overcome this?
MS: Some are naturally better navigators than others, but there are a few things to make it easier. Pay attention to the everyday navigation tasks. Learn what your tendencies are and if they are correct or need to be tweaked.
JP: I do not think anyone is inherently better at navigation, only that some people are paying more attention navigating through their day and have more current route-finding skills. The human brain is good at remembering a story and navigation is about the story of the trip you are about to take by reading a map. See Mark’s “The Six Steps to Becoming a Better Navigator.”
How has technology, like GPS, impacted our ability to navigate?
MS: GPS navigation is easy, plain and simple. We use it all the time in SAR work. GPS uses orbiting satellites to find your location on earth via calculating how long it takes for a radio signal to reach your receiver. You can carry a huge variety of maps in the palm of your hand. Whether you're hiking up a mountain or you're driving cross country with friends, it's much easier to look at a screen that shows exactly where you are than to puzzle out your course without technological aid. If you don’t understand the information it provides, it becomes only an expensive paperweight.
JP: GPS makes locating yourself and getting to locations much easier. This is all well and good until the GPS device fails, and then it compounds most people’s problems for they now don’t have a map or were not paying attention to how they got where they are and do not know the route to their destination. So orienteering skills are invaluable regardless of the tools you have.
What’s the biggest difference between CoCoSAR's basic and advanced land navigation classes?
MS: I personally believe focus should be on map-reading skills. This is useful in maximizing both the GPS and compass. Unlike basic land navigation, advanced land navigation gives people the opportunity to get personal with primarily map and compass where detail is the key. Mostly what we use in SAR provides an exact location in a UTM format.
The GPS unit will let you know how much distance you've covered and how much further you have to go. It will even tell you your altitude.It can mark and retrieve location points or waypoints. This ease of use shouldn't be taken for granted, though, since if your GPS stops working you'll still be on the trail, road or out in the wilds. As such, you should have a back map or atlas and stay aware of your surroundings.
The downside of this is that these devices are still electronics, and as such are vulnerable to bad weather, rough handling and even electrical discharge, which can damage even the most modern system. They run on batteries (extra weight) and require good signal strength. GPS is a great tool, but it’s important to understand the strengths and weaknesses and compensate with other techniques.
JP: Basic land navigation is a team-building map exercise to navigate in a car using a Thomas Guide and on foot using topographic maps using the collective wisdom of the group. These are primary skills for searchers to get to the search and find a subject. Advanced land navigation is a simulated helicopter drop into the wilderness in which you are all alone with your map and compass skills to navigate a course. It is the only SAR training in which the individual is NOT part of a team but is on their own using their brain and refined orientation skills.
Why are advanced navigation skills important for the search and rescue team member?
MS: Using a compass is less expensive, does not require electricity, but often requires a map. You need to learn a few skills in order to read a compass properly. Most people know they should always carry a compass, but do they all know how to actually use it? In my pack I carry a Garman Map 60CsX, a Silva Ranger compass, map and grid reader tool for redundancy and to resolve all possible limitations.
JP: As noted above, advanced land navigation is a simulated helicopter drop into the wilderness, which is a real situation MRG searchers face on a regular basis; thus these are skills you must have mastered.
In your experience teaching this class, what do students seem to have the most trepidation and/or confusion about?
MS: The field portion of advanced land navigation because it’s the only time I know of that as a CoCoSAR team member you’re placed in situations alone, not in teams, not with a partner – no one! You are depending on your brain and skill to pass the class. This can be nerve-wracking for some students.
JP: Looking at a topographic map and visualizing what the terrain looks like and vice versa, seeing the terrain on the map to plan a route. They have the most confusion about how to operate a compass and GPS.
Which books or other resources do you recommend for team members to learn more/brush up on their skills?
MS: Resources are endless on the Internet. All you need to do is use Google and you can be overwhelmed with information. Admittedly, some is dry and hard to process. I lean more to videos for brushing up on skills. A good book is Wilderness Navigation by Burns and Burns.
JP: Mark did a good job addressing this already.
In your experience, how does navigation stack up as a perishable skill compared to, for instance, medical training?
MS: Learning to read maps is critical. Often a good map and the ability to read it is all you need. Build a tool kit of skills and techniques, so you can draw upon and apply more helpful skills for the situation you may find yourself in. Like all perishable skills, practice is the key.
JP: Navigation is about as perishable as medical skills, although ironically you use your navigation skills every,day, but you’re usually on auto pilot, so you are not aware of the process. The navigation machinery, such as topographic maps, compass use, and operating a GPS is like working with any software, i.e. if you don’t use it on a regular basis, you quickly forget how to make it work for you.
What are the 3-5 things that you'd like to see every team member know and be confident about?
JP: At Type 3, how to read a topo map to plan and follow a route off streets; at Type 2, how to operate a GPS to record tracks and get to locations or coordinates; and at Type 1, how to figure out where you are and navigate in any kind of conditions and terrain.
For those curious about what the advanced land navigation day entails, below is a video of the 2013 class, produced by Mark Sembrat.