Category Archives: Maps & Charts

Navigation

Colonial SurveyorMaps and charts of all kinds have fascinated me as far back as I can remember. Some of my fondest memories are of time spent using or making maps. I have had numerous occasions where my skills with maps and charts have allowed me the pleasure of teaching others the art and science of navigation; on land, sea, and in the air.

As a Boy Scout I used topographical maps frequently in a wide variety of environments. As a Search and Rescue team member I used them almost daily and was an instructor for land navigation from time to time. As a pilot and ground instructor I have worked with students on chart reading and all aspects of aviation navigation. Throughout my life I have used maps and charts in my day to day work. Being a navigator with all of these experiences I have noticed a trend over the years (much like the societal trend) to rely on electronics. In this case, reliance on electronic navigation aids.

GPS is an awesome tool! I have been working with GPS systems since the 80s and I love using them with all of their advanced tracking, trip calculating, and time/distance features. They can help navigation by taking on the simple and tedious calculations and displaying the results in an easy-to-use format. As a pilot I use other radio navigational aids as well as GPS. All of them are fantastic tools, but they do share a common down side; they breed laziness, complacency, and a degradation of basic navigation skills.

It would be fair to say that well over half of the people using GPS in recreational navigation, if forced by circumstances to use a map or chart, a compass, and having an initial bearing and heading, would find it very difficult to get from point A to point B, let alone points C, D, E, and F. Even in aviation where navigation and situational awareness are critical, the advances in safety through electronic navigation have come at a potential cost: the disuse and thereby degradation of basic navigation skills.

A disheartening indicator of this complacency and loss of basic skills comes from an unlikely source, the USGS. Due to budget constraints, rapidly changing technologies and rapidly changing topography, topographical maps have gone out of use at an alarming rate. As a USGS Earth Science Corps volunteer, I supported the USGS efforts as a map annotator for many years. Several years ago the ESC was disbanded and a new organization put in its place with a new task for its volunteers; providing GPS coordinates for prominent structures. This change happened at about the same time Google Earth hit the open market, making the new USGS project seem a bit superfluous.

Even before the technological and organizational changes at USGS came the changes in product cycle. It seems that the only topos being updated were ones needed for special projects. The rest of the catalog was ignored entirely, despite vast amounts of changes taking place in the Quads. A prime example of the neglect in the new cycle is the San Jose West quadrangle. The current version is dated 1 JAN 1980. This map is now almost 30 years old. I live near this quad, I can assure you that a few things have changed, including the addition of a six-lane freeway.

I firmly believe that terrestrial navigation should be a regular subject in primary education. It leads to proficiency in so many other areas that it should be considered a foundation skill set, but with the tools available, one has to ask… Has the USGS completely lost it’s focus? Should it be retasked? Or has it become so useless, like the Census Bureau, that it should just be eliminated all together. I would hate to see the service abandon, but I think the service should be seriously reevaluated. It has become a clearing house for demographics and basic geodetic data with little real unique value due to the proliferation of GIS services offered by private companies like ESRI; a task I might add that is duplicated by the GIA and other TLA agencies. However, an increase in topographic map consumers to meet the needs of basic navigation education might drive a better product response from the USGS and generate a revitalized commercial market for there topographical products.

My apologies for the soap box here. Government waste has been piling up, and I get frustrated seeing services like the USGS destroyed with scaled-back funds rather than retasking and developing a new fiscal plan. It makes no sense to reduce budgets and staff, then expect the same workload and quality. Something has to give, and it’s usually the product. It would be better to disband the organization all together. Ether elimination or retasking would produce a better budget reduction.

But back on the subject of navigation basics. A good understanding of the basic principals of navigation can be a strong character building skill. The tasks in navigation quickly and easily become analogues to the skills in navigating life.

So what does all of this posturing mean? I guess it is thinking out loud. I have been developing projects for so long that I have gotten into the habit of thinking of projects first from the cloud perspective, then deconstructing to the smallest elements then reconstructing from the ground up.

While putting together plans for some short adventures I began working on a Basic Survival Kit (a story in and of itself) but it got me thinking – more important than the basic kit, is the foundation knowledge behind it. The tools are of little benefit unless you know how to use them. In some cases the tools will do more harm than good without proper background knowledge. The same is true for navigation, and navigation is in the top five of primary skills in a survival situation: fire, shelter, water/food, navigation, communication.

From the adventure perspective, I am looking at the basic skills needed for a successful adventure where navigation moves to the top of the list in the planing phase. You need to know your route before you can asses the equipment and materials you will need. Even the Basic Survival Kit is determined to some extent by the navigation/planning.

From a navigation sense, it is back to the basics; a topo, compass, straightedge and a pencil. Time for some back to basics thinking.

Until next time,
Trek Safe