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Backcountry Land Navigation: Aiming Off

Updated: Feb 3, 2023

How adding intentional error to your compass bearing can save you time and prevent you from getting lost...

Intentionally heading a few degrees to the left or right of your destination while navigating in the wilderness sounds counterintuitive. This is especially true when you consider the effect of compass variation across greater distances. For example, if you are only one degree off from your target, at a distance of a mile you will be 92 ft. away from your destination. This may not sound like a massive distance at first, but if you take into account the possibility of traveling through difficult terrain or heavy brush and tree cover, 92 ft. could make finding your target extremely difficult.

Aiming off is a navigation technique that involves traveling a couple of degrees to the left or right of your intended destination in order to simplify and “error-proof” your path of travel. For example, let’s say you have been camping along a river with friends. Your group sees an interesting rock feature on the topographical map at an azimuth of 90° from your campsite. The group navigates to the rock feature by following the 90° azimuth. When the group is ready to travel back, it would be reasonable to index the back azimuth (270°) and follow it to the campsite.

However, after traveling towards the 270° back azimuth, your group eventually reaches the river but your campsite is nowhere in sight. It seems that when traveling, the lead navigator drifted off the direction of travel. Now you have two options, you know that you are camping along the river, but is your campsite to the left or right? If you make the wrong decision, at best you may be traveling much further than anticipated until you realize your mistake and turn back, and at worst you could end up lost, injured, or caught in a situation where you are separated from your gear during nightfall or inclement weather.

Now if one uses the technique of aiming off and intentionally setting your direction to one side of your campsite, the guesswork of “which way to turn to camp” is removed. For example, instead of traveling directly at 270°, your group decides to aim off and travel at 273°. This intentional deviation will place your group to the right of your campsite so that once you reach the river, you know that turning left will put you in the direction of the camp.

When used in conjunction with a backstop such as a river or a road, this technique can be easily implemented with little knowledge and preplanning. Aiming off can be incredibly useful to find a vehicle parked along a road, a treestand set along a powerline, a trailhead that leads to a secluded fishing hole, and several other scenarios only limited by your imagination and navigational prowess.

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Tyler Bryant

Wilderness Survival Instructor

Woodsrunner School, LLC

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