Where in mountains should I get lost?
Orientation in the field - the 5 most popular mistakes
Anyone who is out in the country, in the forest and in the wilderness has to deal with the subject of orientation sooner or later. Because even in relatively small forests like we find them in Germany or Austria, it can easily happen that you get lost and at some point no longer know how to find your way back home. It becomes even more important, of course, when you are traveling in countries that still have real jungle areas. Areas that have not yet been destroyed and / or cultivated by humans and have retained their original, wild character. In Canada, for example, there are areas that are three to four times the size of Germany - and in which not a single person lives. Anyone who loses their orientation in this area and does not know how to find their way in the wilderness has little chance of survival!
Dangerous half-knowledge in orientation
The central danger, however, is that most of us barely understand orientation - but rely on a lot of dangerous half-knowledge. There are a number of legends, errors and misconceptions that have lingered in our heads for a long time and that we like to remember in an emergency because we picked them up somewhere. If we then believe them and rely on them, it can lead to us getting so lost in the terrain that in the end we no longer even know where south and north are. That is why we want to dispel the most popular and common misconceptions about orientation once and for all!
Five misconceptions about orientation in the field
1. The moss-covered side of the trees always faces north!
This is probably the "most popular" misconception about orientation. If you get lost in the forest, it is particularly important to first of all know about the cardinal points. Because if you are clear about this, you can at least get a rough overview of which direction you have to go and which not. But how do you find out where which direction is in the field if you don't have a compass?
One of the first things that comes to mind for most people is the moss growth on tree trunks. The associated theory sounds obvious at first: The sun moves from east to west and is never in the north in the northern hemisphere. The north side of the trees is therefore always in the shade and thus offers the ideal conditions for a growth of moss. Because, as is well known, moss loves it cool and damp. That’s the theory. However, there is one crucial catch: the growth of moss on a tree trunk depends on numerous factors - not just the position of the sun. There are shady, damp valleys where the trees are completely mossy on all sides from top to bottom. In other places there is no moss on the trees at all. The moisture that the moss needs to grow depends not only on the absence of sun, but much more on the main wind direction and the humidity. If there is almost always a strong westerly wind blowing in a region, which brings a lot of moisture with it, then the moss will mainly form on the west side of the trees. Provided, of course, that the wind can always blow freely from the west. This is especially the case when you are in an open space. In the interior of a forest, however, the wind is diverted from the trees and the undergrowth and sometimes comes from completely different directions than expected. If there is a stream or a lake nearby that gives off moisture, then you have so many "disruptive factors" together that you no longer have a reliable basis for orientation. The theory of orientation based on mossy tree trunks sounds tempting and logical, but on closer inspection it is quickly reduced to absurdity.
2. Ants always build their hills south of the trees!
A similar case applies here as with the moss-covered tree trunks - only that this theory has not gained quite as much awareness. Probably because anthills are far less common than tree trunks overgrown with moss. In fact, however, this theory has a real core. Ants like a warm and sunny, but still protected, place as a building site for their mound. So if you get the chance, build your mound on the south side of a tree. But they also have a magnetic sense - very similar to chicks, pigeons and various mammals. The magnetic force of our planet is not the same everywhere, but runs in certain orbits, similar to a grid.
So if you see an anthill in the forest, it may well be that the little builders chose this place because of the sun. But the magnetic nature of the place could just as well have been the reason for their building activities. This means that you cannot rely one hundred percent on this theory of orientation. There is also the problem that there are naturally a lot of shade providers in a forest. The south side of a tree trunk does not necessarily have to be the "sunniest". Ants also swerve to the left or right to find the optimal construction site.
In a dense forest there is another factor that makes orientation based on anthills completely impossible. The trees are sometimes so close together that the anthills fill the entire space between them. So how can you tell which tree the insects were referring to when they decided on the southern location for their construction ?! If you have decided in favor of the southern one at all ... see above!
3. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west!
Every child knows that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west! Or maybe not !? How else do we come to the conclusion that this should be a mistake? Quite simply, the flaw here is in the details. The sun really goes up, of course approximatelyin the East on and roughly in the west under. But only roughly and also depending on when and where you are.
When we humans once divided our days into 24 hours, it wasn't just made out of the blue. We had a concept behind it. This concept is based on the sun. At 12 noon, the sun in the northern hemisphere is at its southernmost point - that is, exactly at the point above the equator where we are. At midnight, however, it is exactly on the opposite side of our earth. In between - at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. in the evening - it is exactly in the east and exactly in the west. In summer, however, the sun rises well before 6 a.m. and sets well later. In winter, however, it appears later in the sky and disappears earlier.
For orientation, this ultimately means that the sun rises in the north-east and sets in the north-west, while in winter it rises over the horizon in the south-east and disappears again in the south-west. Only in autumn and spring does it largely adhere to the "guidelines" with east and west. At all other times you need to look at the watch to see where it is. However, it is important that only winter time is based on the sun. In summer you have to subtract the artificially added hour of course!
4. You just have to go straight ahead, and sooner or later there will be a street!
If you are in a relatively small wooded area, this idea may not seem too bad. There are always roads and forest paths in our forests. So if we walk straight ahead long enough in the terrain, sooner or later we should come across a path that leads us out of the forest into the open again ?!
But here, too, there is a crucial catch - because everyone has a dominant leg. This means that we do not step with the same force with our legs. One leg is our drive leg, with which we transfer most of the force. The other is correspondingly weaker. So if we walk down a street and use our eyes to constantly orientate ourselves on the basis of guidelines, then we don't notice it. However, if we walk through terrain in which we lack these guidelines, then we walk in a circle completely unnoticed due to the inequality of our steps.
You can easily test it out by blindfolding your eyes and trying to walk as straight as possible across a meadow. After just a few meters, you realize - what feels like turns into a curve. The same thing happens when we walk through a forest. We believe we are following a straight line, but we are really walking in circles. As a result, a forest area of five square kilometers can be enough to never find your way outside again because we are constantly walking in circles.
To prevent this, you need a guideline that works in a similar way to the curb or road marking that helps us to stay on a straight line in the city. Since forests usually do not have such lines, you have to create one in your mind. The best way to do this is to aim for three trees that are in a line one behind the other. When you reach the first of them, you use the other two to look for a new, third tree. This way you can run really straight without fooling yourself!
5. If I have a GPS device with me, I can't get lost!
Perhaps the greatest misconception about orientation is the assumption that we actually no longer need it at all, because there are now a lot of technical aids that do our work for us. Navigation and GPS devices are undoubtedly useful and helpful inventions, but they can easily cost us our heads in an emergency if we rely solely on them.
Because in order for them to function reliably, the devices need two things: electricity - and a satellite signal. However, neither is reliable and, above all, is not permanently available. The battery life is relatively short. On multi-day tours, electricity is only available in certain places and often not at all. If you are not careful, a little unforeseen thing is enough, which leads to the schedule being extended - and you are in the middle of nowhere without an idea of where you are, where you want to go or how to find your way around without technical help ...
However, the reception of the GPS signal is even more unpredictable. Often even halfway dense treetops are enough to weaken or completely shield the connection with the satellites, so that the device itself loses its orientation. So it can happen that even in areas with good infrastructure in Central Europe you suddenly find yourself without a signal, even though you had good reception at the beginning of the tour. GPS devices often have the greatest difficulties with their reliability when they are needed most - in dense, impenetrable forests or in deeply cut valleys and canyons. In addition, like all other technical devices, they are never completely free from malfunctions and failures.
Especially on longer expeditions, it can happen that a properly functioning device suddenly no longer works. It is often suggested that buying an expensive GPS watch or a highly complex GPS device is a kind of infallible outdoor life insurance, but in reality you should be absolutely sure of the standards of orientation with a map and compass. If you rely solely on technical devices for orientation outdoors, this can be fatal in the worst case. Aids such as GPS devices can only be used as an add-on, but never as the only orientation aid!
And that's how it works!
Which presumptive tips for orientation have you ever fallen for? Or do you have valuable tips on how to do it right? Let us know in the comments!
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