In the last few years, GPS technology has grown by leaps and bounds. An increasing array of units is specifically designed for forays deep into the wilderness. Nevertheless, one time-honored rule remains in effect. When headed into a remote area—or afloat in a small boat such as a kayak—GPS alone will not cut it. Why? “Because anything electronic is bound to fail at some point,” says Cathy Piffath, co-founder of H2 Outfitters, a Maine-based guide service that provides sea kayaking trips and instruction.
Piffath has paddled some of the most remote regions of the Northeast. And all the while, she never considers a GPS device her most valued piece of gear. She’s unapologetic in her devotion to the sureness of a printed map, reliability of a timeless magnetic device, and the simple safety skills she learned long ago. “I’m a chart-and-compass person all the way,” she says. Like most kayak instructors, she’s a proponent of teaching paddlers a few navigation basics rather than getting her students accustomed to battery-operated devices. Here are some of the navigation tips she believes could save your life—or ensure you stay found—while on the water.
MAPPING IT OUT Start by getting the most current charts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Waterproof versions are preferable, but this shouldn’t stop you from putting them into a waterproof sleeve easily reached or fastened to your kayak’s deck. “Waterproof charts can still smear if they are not properly taken care of,” Piffath cautions. These charts typically have an appropriate scale of 1:40,000 for kayaking. In busy areas, such as a harbor, 1:20,000 may also be necessary.
STUDY SESSION Once charts are in hand, Piffath suggests learning how to read them. Low tide depths, for instance, are often colored. And before leaving shore, examine where you plan to go and the various landmarks—buoys, lighthouses, large rocks, high bluffs, and islands—to look for along the way. “Become familiar with how they look on the chart compared to how they look in real life,” she says. Piffath suggests tying a string to your compass, putting spaced-out knots into it that correspond to the mileage scale on the chart, and noting the distances of certain paddling stretches. As a rule, take into account that most people paddle between 2 and 3 miles per hour, she says. “Your mind can play tricks on you,” Piffath cautions. “Pay attention to the chart and mark your progress as you go.” She also suggests a game that may improve your skills. “Keep track of how far you’ve gotten by looking at landmarks along the way and making guesses as to how long it will take to get from one spot to another.” If you get good at this, you’ll know rather quickly if you’re way off course.
DOUBLE UP Piffath suggests mounting one compass to your boat’s deck in order to get constant readings on your direction. Also have an inexpensive hand-held compass placed beside the chart while navigating. And always check your compass before departing. “As a general rule [on the East Coast], returning home often involves heading west.” However, if you take note of where you’re going before you leave, you can always go the opposite direction should you get lost. Another cue: “If you’re paddling against wind and waves going out, they should be at your back if you’re coming back in,” she says.
WEATHER WISE “Fog can roll in fast and unexpectedly,” Piffath says. “Even if it looks nice out, bring a chart and compass and check it repeatedly.” When landmarks are no longer visible, a compass can often get you to an island or shoal as long as you keep your compass bearing. A GPS unit is certainly valuable in this case. But possession of a chart and compass—and knowledge of how to use it—may ensure that should a battery go dead, you don’t follow suit.