We can easily forget that REI is not just a place you buy all that cool gear for your outdoor adventures, but one of the main company goals is education. Each local REI store hosts a variety of events and courses that are relevant to both the novice who wants to learn a new activity, as well as to the seasoned outdoor adventurer who simply wants to brush up on some skills.
I have been to a few of the events at my local REI in the past, but am now trying to take better advantage of all the Outdoor School courses and outings on offer. Last week, I attended the Map and Compass course to brush up on my backcountry navigation skills. For $30, we spent the evening reviewing how to read a topographic map, how to use a map to navigate on the trail, compass basics, how to plot your course using a compass, and finally, using triangulation to figure out where you are on a map in case you get lost.
Trail maps are easy enough to read, but for any of you thinking about winter backpacking, where following a trail is almost impossible, or wanting to make your own way through the wilderness, a Map and Compass course is extremely helpful. With current Leave No Trace principles, many people are getting rid of trail cairns or not building them at all, which can make route finding much harder over certain terrain.
Many of us rely on a handheld GPS these days to get us where we want to go, but technology has a funny way of failing right when you need it the most. Batteries can die or freeze without notice. Granite peaks or heavy tree cover can block satellite signals from reaching your device. In terms of safety, a map and compass beat a GPS device, and they are two items that every person entering the backcountry should have in his or her backpack (and know how to use), without exception.
For people that want to learn more about navigation, our instructor recommended a couple of books: NOLS Wilderness Navigation by Darran Wells, and for the adventure racer, Be Expert With Map And Compass by Bjorn Kjellstrom. He also recommended the Suunto MC-2 (Global edition if you plan to head South of the equator) or a Brunton Mirrored as his compass of choice, as you can adjust for declination and use the mirror for more accurate long distance readings.
I encourage you to check out the events and courses offered at not just your local REI, but at any local outdoor retailer. Taking advantage of these great resources, I have now learned how to change a flat, brushed up on my navigation skills, and plan to get up to date on Wilderness Medicine techniques in the near future.