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Ocala National Forest

Bear Safety in the Ocala National Forest

THE AMERICAN BACKPACKER

October 2019

Practicing bear safety in the Ocala National Forest, (ONF), is important for all wilderness backpackers and hikers. Florida Black Bear encounters in the Ocala National Forest, (ONF), have been on a steady rise. The ONF is located in Central Florida, and it has one of the largest Black Bear populations in the state. 

This increased bear activity is not only occurring in the Ocala wilderness but also in rural cities surrounding Ocala.  The increased activity is due to our encroachment into the Black Bears habitat. 

Conservation efforts that began in the 1970’s are also contributing to these wilderness encounters.  In 1970, the Black Bear count in Florida was around 300 bears. Today there are over 4000 Black Bears in the state. 

Encountering a bear in the ONF can be very exciting and dangerous.  Educating yourself on what to do during an encounter and how to properly store your food are very important for your safety.  This article will discuss (5) topics on bear safety to make your stay in the ONF safer:

Alexander Springs Wilderness (Ocala National Forest)

Topics that will be discussed

  • Florida Black Bear Background and Information.
  • How to deter and mitigate contact with a Florida Black Bear.
  • How to defend yourself from a Florida Black Bear if attacked.
  • Basecamp Security in Ocala.
  • How to Properly Store your Food in Ocala.

Florida Black Bear Background

 The largest land mammal in Florida is the Black Bear.  The Florida Black Bear range in size from 200 to 400 pounds with the largest recorded Florida Black Bear being over 740 pounds.  The Florida Black Bear is considered a carnivore, (meat eater) but they are also classified as Omnivores, (meat and plant eater).  Their diet is mostly plants and berries.  They also consume and are not limited to , insects, rodents, wild hogs, and deer. 

At night and in the early morning hours is when they forage for food. They have a very keen sense of smell that allows them to smell food up to a mile away.  The Florida Black Bear semi hibernates during the winter months which means that they can stay active year round.  They hibernate in dens which are located in heavy vegetation, palmetto thickets, pine straw, and leaves.  Black Bears can climb trees and they can run up to speeds of  30 mph per hour so running from a Black Bear will not work. 

How to deter and mitigate contact with a Florida Black Bear

When you are traveling in one of the (4) wilderness areas in the ONF noise is your friend when it comes to deterring a Black Bear.  Most of the bears in Ocala will keep their distance from you if you are loud or making some type of noise.  Now for some this may be counterproductive.  I personally believe that using stealth and noise discipline is how I conduct operations in a wilderness area. 

Sometimes there needs to be a tradeoff when practicing bear safety in Ocala.  Being in a group and talking can be enough for a Black Bear to keep its distance from you. Below are some recommendations for you to follow as you travel along trails in the ONF.

Use noise to deter Black Bears

  • Talking with others in your group.
  • Attach gear such as Bear bells to your pack that will make noise as you walk.
  • Have a whistle with you if you to make audible sounds on occasion.
  • Have an electronic audible device with you if a curious Black Bear approaches you.
Audible Devices

Audible Devices I carry into the ONF

 Using noise will be the most effective way to lessen your chances of encountering a Florida Black Bear.  The purpose of the noise is to scare of these Bears before you see them.  If you do see a Black Bear leave it alone and do not approach it.  Slowly leave the area calmly and reroute your path. 

It is important to remember that you must stay vigilant while traveling through Ocala not just for Black Bear but all species of wildlife to include the Florida Panther, (a rare sighting) and Bobcats.  Scan your area (360), front sides and back.  Don’t forget to look up into trees as well.  Florida Black Bears have the ability to climb trees and they may be watching you as you walk by.

How to Defend Yourself from a Florida Black Bear

When you venture into the ONF there are some gear items that you should have.  These are the items I carry into Ocala to defend me from a bear if it decides to attack.

KNIFE:  Always carry a knife.  I use a fixed blade knife and your preference may vary on the type.  Knives in an attack would be for close quarter combat if a Black Bear is on you.   The neck and head area for a bear should be your strike areas.

HIKING POLES:  A hiking pole can be used as a spear in a close quarter situation if you are attacked.   

FIREARM:  I carry a firearm with me on all of my wilderness adventures.  A firearm in the hands of someone properly trained to use it can protect you with well-placed rounds at the vital areas of a bear.  A firearm can also be a false sense of security if it is underpowered, (small caliber), not quickly deployed, (practice), or if shots are not placed on target.  Practice firing and deploying the firearm you choose to carry.  Also adhere to state and local laws pertaining to the carrying and use of any firearm.   

BEAR SPRAY:  Bear Spray is my first line of defense if a bear is charging at me.  I know some will not agree, but statistically bear spray has been shown to be very effective in deterring a bear.  Take time to practice deploying bear spray and have it readily available.  I did an article on Bear Spray vs a Firearm where I go into detail on the pros and cons of bear,  click on this link, Bear Spray vs. a Firearm to read that article. 

Bear spray can be counterproductive in a close quarter situation.  So, if you are in a tent and a Bear comes into your tent deploying Bear spray may incapacitate you.  In situation like that I would use my firearm or a knife to defend myself.

IF YOU ARE ATTACKED:

Having the right gear with you is important if you are attacked and need to defend yourself.  Not everyone will carry a firearm but at the least have Bear spray and a knife with you. If you are attacked by a Black Bear fight back and do not play dead.  A Black Bear who encounters a victim that fights back is likely to retreat.  Focus on the vital areas of the bear which would be the head and neck area.

If you kill or injure a bear get out of the area and report the incident to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) or local law enforcement.

Basecamp Security

Once you have found your basecamp location make sure that you are far enough off the main trail.  I did an article on where to place your basecamp that you can review by clicking on this link, Where to place your Basecamp. 

Once you have found an area scan the perimeter and make sure that there are no game trails around your basecamp.  Game trails can bring in bears or animals a bear consumes. 

Check the perimeter for bear dens or signs of Black Bears.  These signs can be paw prints, and bear scat (feces).  I use a perimeter trip wire alarm system that I set up around my basecamp.  If you want to learn more about this trip wire alarm system click on this link, Perimeter trip wire alarm system.

I also use a thermal imager, (Flir TK Scout), which I have been using for over three years on all of my wilderness adventures.  Stay vigilant at your basecamp.    

Flir TK Scout and me preparing to set up my Tripwire perimeter alarm

How to Properly Store your Food in Ocala

 Storing food in Ocala is very important and overlooked by many.  In March of this year, (2019), a Florida Black Bear in the Juniper Prairie Wilderness, (one of 4 Wilderness areas in Ocala) was going into basecamps and taking food out of tents. 

This bear became acclimated to this behavior and it was posing a very serious threat to all backpackers.  This habit started with backpackers who were not properly storing their food or feeding this bear which is illegal. 

This bear began indulging on easy food that it was not eating in its habitat.  Sadly, it was trapped and euthanized by FWC (Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission).  The Juniper Prairie Wilderness was shut down for over a month until all bear activity subsided.  

For some the thought of not storing your food has led no consequences and it’s only a matter of time that this will change.  When you are in Ocala there are 2 ways to store your food if you are not vehicle camping which allows you to store your food in your vehicle. 

Credit to FWC and Orlando Sentinel

Taken from an article in the Orlando Sentinel Newspaper

HANG YOUR FOOD: 

Hanging your food in a tree is the most common way to store your food and personal hygiene products.  I include personal hygiene items such as toothpaste and hand wipes because they give off a scent that will attract these Bears.  Hanging your food in Ocala can be difficult due to the terrain and trees.  In Ocala you have a lot of pine trees.  Some of these pines are scrub pines that have many tightly spaced branches.   

Trying to get a rope into these dense branches can be difficult.  The rule of thumb is 10 feet high and 6 to 10 feet away from the trunk of the tree.  These branches can also be small and brittle.  It can be done, and I have used this method allot in Ocala.  If you use this method mark your bag with some reflective tape so you can easily spot it at night if you need to get to it.

Bear bag with reflective tape and bags hung in the Glacier Peak Wilderness

BEAR CANNISTER: 

A Bear cannister is easy to use and deploy.  The problem with these cannisters is that they can be bulky and heavy.  There are varying sizes you can purchase, and they can store not just food but other items you bring into a wilderness area.  Some areas in Ocala may not have the necessary trees to support you hanging your food and this may be the only way to store your food.  So, research the area where you plan on setting up your basecamp.

Both methods will work, and it comes down to your choice on how you will store your food.  There is another method that I have not used and that has been recommended. That is using a Ursack bear resistant sack.  This is a Kevlar bag that you put your food in and tie to a tree or a stationary object.  It is bear resistant and they say very easy to deploy. 

I can imagine that if a Bear gets to this sack that your food will be damaged/destroyed.  Some National Parks and wilderness areas have not approved the use of this sack.  Currently the Ocala National Forest requires food to be stored in (3) ways.  First is an approved bear resistant container.  Second, is a hard topped vehicle.  Third is to hang your food.  If you use the Ursack you will have to hang it. 

Bear Cannister’s (BV450 and 500)

Bear Cannister’s (BV 450 and 500) with reflective tape

CONCLUSION

Wilderness backpacking in the ONF offers a unique ecosystem different from many other wilderness areas you may have adventured in.  Ocala is a mystic place especially in the evening hours. Part of being in the wilderness is to see and possibly have encounters with the wildlife.  Some of the wildlife can be extremely dangerous and you need to research and understand their habitats and dispositions. 

Bringing food into the ONF provides you the sustenance to explore this unique and beautiful ecosystem.  It also allows wildlife like the Florida Black Bear a free meal if it is not properly stored.  When you are in the ONF make sure you take time to properly store your food and have the necessary gear with you to protect yourself if you are attacked by a bear.

Bear Safety Video

Flir TK Scout

Flir TK Scout  (2019 Update)

THE AMERICAN BACKPACKER

October 2019

It has been over 3 years since I purchased the Flir TK Scout Thermal Imager.  This article is an update on my initial review of this thermal imager, Flir TK Scout.  Since my purchase, I have used this unit countless times on many wilderness adventures.  I have also used this unit in my professional career as a law enforcement officer as well.  This unit has been an invaluable tool for me over the years, especially when I have used it at my nighttime basecamps.  I have not had any issues with the use of this unit. The durability, functions, and features of this unit have allowed me identify objects and wildlife near or around my basecamp. 

A thermal imager is my choice when it comes to spotting and identifying objects in a wilderness area.  It has its advantages over night vision optics, because it detects heat given off by objects and living things. Night vision Optics need ambient light or IR (Infared), light for them to function effectively.  A thermal imager also can be used during the daylight hours to detect and identify heat signatures given off by objects.  This unit is not cheap but affordable.  The cost is much less than other thermal imagers in the market.  The Flir TK Scout is an affordable thermal imager with the necessary features to enhance your safety in a wilderness area. The unit has its limitations on resolution and target detection distance whereas the more expensive units do not.

Applications that a Flir TK Scout can be used for:

  • Wilderness Backpacking
  • Hiking
  • Home or Business security
  • Boating
  • Fishing
  • Camping
  • Detecting moisture in drywalls or AC leaks
  • Other Applications
Weminuche Wilderness

Basecamp in the Weminuche Wilderness

My use of this unit over the last 3 years has allowed me to test this thermal imager in some very remote and rugged wilderness areas.  My most rugged use came when I was in the Blue Range Primitive located in Arizona.  I was glad I had this unit while I was exploring an area near a habitat of Mexican Gray Wolves.  I was able to make informed decisions while I was at my nighttime basecamps.  The TK Scout has a compact and durable design which allows you to use it in various temperate and wet environments.  The unit allows you to use 8 different color palettes for various applications.  The TK Scout requires no case for you to store it in.  You can throw it in your pocket for quick deployment or in your backpack without worries that it will be damaged.  Below are my pros and cons with this unit.

TK SCOUT PROS:

  • Small and compact
  • Durable (Rubberized external case)
  • Waterproof
  • Various features such as: 
  1. 8 Color Palettes
  2. Ability to record internally photos and videos.
  3. Large eye cup
  4. Built in battery and easily charged using a solar panel or battery pack.
  • Easily stored and packable
  • 5 second start up

TK SCOUT CONS:

  • Affordable but for many still expensive, ($500 to $600 Dollars).
  • Limited range for accurately identifying objects
  • To change out the battery you need to send it back to the manufacturer, (Flir) for replacement.

The  specifications indicate that this unit will reach out and identify objects up to 100 yards.  I have found that I can identify objects between 50 to 75 yards not the 100 yards indicted.  At 100 yards you will see a heat signature of an object, but you will not be able to readily identify what it is.  This unit will reach out past 100 yards which is still good letting you know that something is there.

Conclusion

My personal experience using this unit has been very positive.  The battery has maintained itself over the years with no notable signs of wear. I am guessing that as time goes on that I will eventually need to send it back to the factory to have the battery replaced .  As a solo wilderness backpacker my safety and security is important.  My purchase of this unit was well worth the investment. I am not a payed sponsor nor was I given this unit for free. My intent on providing you this update was to give you my personal opinion on this unit to give you information so you can make an informed decision on buying it. I believe that this thermal imager will enhance your security and safety in a wilderness area without adding bulk to your adventure. 

2019 Flir TK Scout Update

The American Backpacker

My Wilderness Adventure into the Weminuche Wilderness (Colorado)

THE AMERICAN BACKPACKER

August 2019

The Weminuche Wilderness is in the San Juan National Forest located in southern Colorado. I along with a friend, Christian, spent 4 days and 3 nights in this wilderness area.  Our adventure began from Orlando, and we flew into Albuquerque, New Mexico.  We drove 5 hours North into Durango, Colorado and spent the night there before heading out the next morning.  We parked at the Molas Pass Trailhead which is south of Silverton Colorado.  Thunderstorms and rain moved in as we began our trek to the Colorado Trail.  Once we made it to the Colorado Trail, also known as the Elk Creek Trail, we set up our first basecamp at the Elk Creek Trailhead.  

Top Left: Christian and I, Top Right: Our 1st Basecamp, Bottom: Durango Silverton Tracks near our 1st Basecamp

This trailhead also allows backpackers the opportunity to be dropped off and picked up by the Durango Silverton Steam Locomotive Train.  This old Steam Locomotive was founded by the Denver & Rio Grande Railway in 1879.  The Durango Silverton is a Narrow Gauge Railroad that provided transportation for both passengers and freight between Durango and Silverton.  It still operates today for those wanting to see the scenic beauties of the San Juan Mountains.  Incorporating this train ride into your adventure adds an exciting dynamic and overall experience to your adventure.

Silverton Durango Train

Durango Silverton Steam Locomotive at the Elk Creek Trailhead

While we were at this basecamp, we devised a plan to get on this train and take it to Silverton on our return trip.  Once at Silverton, we would hitchhike back to the Molas Trailhead where we parked. The night was quiet with some rain that lingered into the early evening hours.  On day 2 we continued heading east on the Colorado Trail toward the Continental Divide.  The weather was sunny with blue skies.  

The trail was very strenuous as we worked are way up to higher elevations.  We encountered several Debris Field caused by an avalanche during the winter months which were challenging but navigatable.  As we worked are way along the Colorado Trail we met other friendly hikers that gave us information on what was ahead.  We set up our second basecamp in an open meadow just past some Beaver Ponds off the Colorado Trail.  

Above 2 Pictures: Some Debris Fields We Encountered

Hikers and Backpackers we met on the Colorado Trail

We spent 2 nights at this basecamp which allowed us to see some great sunsets and sunrises.  That evening allowed me to explore the area next to a creek that flowed near our basecamp.  That evening brought some awildlife into our basecamp that I caught on my Flir Thermal Imager.  I observed them grazing about 25 to 50 yards from our tents.  These animals were either a Deer, or and Elk based on what I was seeing.  Two of the animals moved out while on large one stayed by the creek.  I am not sure what this animal was, and it could have been a bear due to its size and shape.  

Weminuche Wilderness

Flir Image at our 2nd Basecamp. Our tents in the background with a large rock structure and 2 animals near our tents.

Weminuche Wilderness

Flir Image at our Basecamp with some animals close to our tent by a Creek

On day 3 we headed to the Continental Divide.  As we were about 1 mile from the Divide a thunderstorm moved in.  We found a place to hunker down as we waited for the storm to pass.  We made it to the switchbacks ascending  to the almost 13,000 foot elevation with clouds and rain.  The 25 plus swithcbacks made the ascent much easier.  The temperatures dropped dramatically, and visibility was very poor.  I could not see much because of the weather, but it felt great to be on the Continental Divide. We stayed for a while and then worked our way back to our basecamp and had a nice and well deserved dinner.

The American Backpacker

On Day 4 we started our trek back to the Elk Creek Trailhead hoping to catch the train to Silverton. We were not sure if we would be able to but once at the trail head we spoke to a railway worker, aka Nacho, who operated a safety car before the train.  He explained many things about the railway and its operations.  He was very knowledgeable, and I learned allot about old steam locomotives.  The train pulled in and we were able to board it.  The fee to Silverton from his trailhead was $35.00 dollars a person, cash.  We payed our fair and enjoyed the scenic ride to Silverton.  

Once at Silverton we ate at the famous Brown Bear Café.  The meal was excellent, and we enjoyed the historic aspects of Silverton after our meal.  We were able to find a ride back to the Molas Trailhead and the rains moved in as we traveled in the back of a pick-up to our vehicle.  Once at our vehicle we began our long drive back to Albuquerque, New Mexico for our flight back to Orlando Florida.

Brown Bear Cafe (Silverton CO)

CONCLUSION

This adventure was my second trip to Colorado.  Colorado offers great opportunities for all types of outdoor adventures.  Navigating the Colorado trail from the Elk Creek Trailhead to the Continental Divide is a very strenuous adventure especially with the several Debris fields that you will encounter.  All of these debris’ fields have paths marked though them that have been worked on by the forestry services making it easier to navigate but challenging.  I wish I had better weather at the Divide, but I was still able to see and experience many great things on this adventure.  

The American Backpacker

5 Things You Do Not Know About Me

THE AMERICAN BACKPACKER 

August 2019

I was recently tagged by another Backpacking You Tube Channel, (Maryann Hazel). She tagged me on doing a video about five things you may not know about me. In my video below, I discuss my background and what I bring to you when it comes to wilderness backpacking and survival. This video was posted to my You Tube Channel and Facebook Page.

Silverton Durango Train

How To Hitchhike out of a Wilderness Area

THE AMERICAN BACKPACKER

I recently had an adventure in the Weminuchi Wilderness located in Southern Colorado. I along with friend spent 4 days in this amazing wilderness traveling the Colorado Trail to the Continental Divide. On our way back we decided to see if we could get a ride on an old locomotive train to Silverton Colorado. The train travels through and makes stops at the Elk Creek Trailhead. We got to this trailhead early and waited for the train. The below video is the result of our endeavor.

Smith and Wesson

My Backpacking Handgun

THE AMERICAN BACKPACKER

Backpacking with a handgun/rifle is a choice that you need to make based on your KSA’s, (Knowledge Skills and Abilities).  Knowing and understanding how to properly deploy any firearm requires you to train with it.  When I go wilderness backpacking I carry a Smith and Wesson (Model 329 PD) .44 magnum revolver.  I also carry on occasion my AR7 (.22 survival rifle), with me. I find that carrying a handgun reduces the bulk of carrying a rifle for protection. My AR7 is also compact and it makes for a good survival rifle.

Before you carry a firearm into a wilderness area please make sure that you are familiar with the type of firearm that you will carry, (handgun or rifle), and fire it at the range.  Become proficient in deploying it properly and accurately.  Make sure that you research the laws,  state and local, before you carry it with you.  I posted an article on carrying a firearm in a wilderness areas in Florida that you can read here on my website, (Backpacking with a Firearm, Florida State Statute).

Why Do I Carry A Firearm:

I carry a firearm into a wilderness area for the same reason many others do and that is for protection.  I do not carry it into a wilderness area to indiscriminately shoot it at different targets.  It is a defense tool for wildlife and humans who seek to do me harm. 

WILDLIFE:

There are various large species of wildlife found in North America that can pose a threat to you while backpacking. Those species may be Bears, (Brown and Black), Cougars/Mountain Lions, and Moose, to name a few of the larger species. These species for the most part will not bother you and you may never see them.    If confronted by these animals and an imminent threat of serious bodily injury or death is likely then you will need to stop that threat.  A firearm used properly can do this.  A firearm that is not accurately deployed may also piss off and further anger the animal even more. 

A firearm that is under powered may also not affect an attacking animal.  You must also ensure that you also have the right caliber handgun with you on any adventure.  My three choices for handgun calibers are:

  • .44 Magnum
  • 10 mm
  • .357 Magnum

There are those that will carry a firearm other than the one I listed above. Those handguns can also be effective in stopping the threat and that will be based on your abilities to place rounds on target. A .22 caliber weapon is a great survival weapon and it can take down large animals with good shot placement.  I have also seen those individuals carrying air rifles into the field as a survival rifle.  Air rifles are good survival weapons for taking down small game, but I do not endorse them for protection against large attacking animals. 

Maybe in the future as they develop it may be a viable option for wilderness backpackers.  For those not wanting to carry a firearm then Bear Spray is a must and I carry Bear Spray on most of my adventures.  Bear Spray is an effective alternative to carrying a firearm and I also have posted an article on that topic here on my website, (Bear Spray vs. a Firearm).

HUMANS:

You must also consider that there may be individual(s) in the wilderness that want to do you harm.  We are seeing more documented attacks on backpackers in the wilderness. A firearm may deescalate the threat or put you on equal grounds with the individual(s) threatening you.  There was a tragic attack in May of this year, (2019), involving 2 backpackers that were hiking the Appalachian Trail in Virginia.  They were attacked by a man with a knife.  One of the backpackers an Army Veteran with three tours in Iraq was killed and another severely injured.  That suspect, who had criminal history to include mental health problems, was caught.

It is unfortunate that that the violence we see in our urban areas is now spreading into the wilderness. Protection is something you must think about and if you do not carry a firearm have some type of weapon with you and have a plan on how to use it if you are attacked.  I have talked about and written articles about wilderness safety and safety devices such as a trip wire alarm system that I have posted here on my website, (Basecamp Perimeter System, How to Stay Safe While Backpacking).

My Choice Of Firearm:

I Choose to carry a .44 magnum.  A .44 mag will deal with most of the threats you may encounter in a wilderness area.  I also recommend, as I stated above, the .357 magnum and 10mm handgun.   The reason I like the Smith and Wesson (Model 329 PD) is for the following reasons:

Smith and Wesson 329 PD
  • It is lightweight, (A little over 25 ounces, empty). The frame is made of Scandium a strong and lightweight alloy, the cylinder is titanium another strong and lightweight alloy, and the barrel is stainless steel.
  • It is a .44 caliber making it sufficient to effectively deal with most threats in a wilderness area.
  • It is a Revolver, which means it has fewer moving parts and it can be more readily maintained in the field.

The 2 down sides for this revolver is that you do not have the round capacity as you would have with a semi auto handgun.  This revolver also has a kick to it that a semi auto handgun does not. 

Alaskan Chest Holster

My Chest Holster for my .44 Mag

CONCLUSION

Carrying a firearm is a choice that you will have to make.  If you do please make sure that you practice good weapon safety.  Having a firearm with you can give some a false sense of security if it cannot be properly deployed.  Make sure you choose a good holster and get some range time in with it. You can also practice at home, with an unloaded firearm, on quick and accurate deployment.  If you choose to carry a rife the same rule applies.

Blue Range Primitive

Measuring Distance on a Topo Map

THE AMERICAN BACKPACKER

Measuring distance on a topographical map is not difficult and there are different techniques for you to use when measuring distance.  Measuring distance is important because it gives you the opportunity to do two things. First, it will allow you to examine the terrain in the area you will be exploring.  Second, it will allow you to establish a timetable on how long it will take you to travel from one point to another.  That timetable will be based on your physical capabilities, which would be speed of travel.

My technique to measure distance on a topographical map utilizes a pencil and clean piece of paper.  You then will need to look at the Legend of the map. The Legend gives you important information and references about your map. One of those references is the scale of the map giving you distance measurements.

PROCEDURE:

1. Take the sheet of paper and lay it under the scale of your map.The scale will have length in miles and kilometers.  The below picture shows the scale with miles and kilometers.

Land Navigation

2. Place the corner of the sheet of paper on the zero portion of your scale and then mark out the tick marks on the paper with your pencil. In the below picture you see that the scale on this map has me mark out .5, 1,  2, and 3 miles.

3. Next, find your starting point on the map. On this map it is the Turkey Creek Trailhead.

Land Navigation

4. Put your scale on the starting point. Use your pencil to begin pivoting on the trail. Continue following the trail using your pencil to pivot your scale along points of the trail. Continue doing this until you determine the length of distance between your 2 points.  (See You Tube Video Below). Use a pencil on the map so you can erase it if needed.

Trails are not all straight and using this method allows you to accurately pivot around turns and curves on any trail.  This method should be used in your pre-planning method and it can be used in the field as well.  You can also use other methods such as using a piece of thread or even 550/paracord, (the strands inside the 550/paracord), to measure a length of trail. You can then take the thread or paracord and use the scale in the legend to determine your distance. This method, using a thread/paracord, can be a little difficult when measuring out tight turns but it is a viable choice to use in the field.

The above technique, (paper and pencil), is a very easy and accurate way to  measure distance on a Topo map. Please see my video below for further information on this technique.

Using a Military Protractor on a Topo Map

THE AMERICAN BACKPACKER

Land Navigation is a topic I enjoy teaching.  Understanding the basics of Land Navigation will make your wilderness adventure enjoyable and more importantly safe.  This lesson will discuss how to use a military protractor on a topographical to get an azimuth/bearing.  A protractor is an instrument used to help you measure angles (360 degrees) on a map.  Protractors come in different shapes.  The more popular shapes are:  

PROTRACTOR TYPES:

  • Circle
  • Semi-Circle
  • Square
  • Rectangle

In this lesson, I will be using a square (military) protractor which I learned to use in the Army.  This protractor has the following features:

FEATURES:

  • Mils Scale (6400 mils 1 mil = 17.8 degrees)
  • Degrees Scale (360 degrees)
  • Index Point (Center point of the protractor where the baseline and horizontal line crosses).
  • Baseline
  • Grid Coordinate Scale (1/50000, 1/100000, 1/25000, 1/250000)
Military Protractor
Components of a Military Protractor

USING THE PROTRACTOR:

In this lesson, we will be using 2 components of the above protractor. The (360) degrees scale and the index point.  The other components will be discussed later in another lesson. Some individuals cut away the mils portion of the protractor because it is rarely used for land navigation.  Units in the military such as the artillery will use the mils scale for accuracy.  Below is a picture of a protractor that has a cut away mils scale.  The below protractor also has duct tape around its border.  The reason you may want to put tape on the back of a protractor is because the black lettering on a protractor blends in with many topo maps. The tape allows for more contrast and it allows you to see the black degree tick marks we will use to get the azimuth.  I used gray duct tape but any dark colored tape will work.

Protractor with Mils scale cut away and tape on back for contrast

  1. Find a point on a map that you will begin from when plotting an azimuth. In the below map lets say we are starting from (hilltop #1).
  2. Next find your destination point. In the below map our destination point will be (hilltop #2) .
  3. Draw a line from your starting point, (hilltop #1), to your destination point, (hilltop #2). Use a pencil so you can erase afterwards.

Starting point #1 (Hilltop) to ending point #2 (Hilltop)

Place your index point on your protractor on hilltop #1.  Make sure that the baseline is parallel to a nearest grid line on your map. There are many grid lines on a map to choose from so use the one nearest to your starting point, (hilltop #1). 

Military Protractor

Topo Map Grid Lines to use when signing up your Protractor

Follow the line you drew from your index point to the degrees scale.  The azimuth is 327 degrees.  This is your map grid azimuth from hilltop #1 to hilltop #2.  Now you are ready to convert this grid azimuth over to a magnetic azimuth on your compass.  If you use a compass such as the Suunto MC-2G compass you can set the compass to the magnetic declination of your topo map so no conversion is necessar. If you need to convert the grid azimuth because you do not have this feature on your compass then go to this article I wrote on how to do so, Magnetic Declination

Protractor Azimuth

327 Degree Grid/Map Azimuth

CONCLUSION:

Basic land navigation is becoming a lost skill.  This skill is being forgotten because of modern day technology, (GPS units), which we all use in the wilderness.  I always carry a GPS with me and you should to.  Understanding basic land navigational skills will allow you to navigate a wilderness area if this technology goes down or you run out of battery power.  I have a section on different land navigational topics/skills here on my website under Backpacking Blog: Land Navigation, for your review.

Backpacking the Blue Range Primitive

My Adventure into the Blue Range Primitive

THE AMERICAN BACKPACKER

My adventure into the Blue Range Primitive (Blue), in Arizona was epic, (April 27 – May 1).   I spent five days and four nights in this remote and rugged wilderness area. The Blue Range Primitive is one of the last designated areas to be called a Primitive in this country.  A Primitive is in its essence a Wilderness area.  The Blue was designated a Primitive in 1938.  The wilderness act of 1964 changed the terminology from Primitive to Wilderness. This area has been on my list of wilderness areas That I wanted to explore.

I spent two nights in Alpine, Arizona before my trip into the Blue by acclimating myself to the high elevations of this wilderness area.  I traveled on the Coronado Trail Scenic Byway (US-191) to get into Alpine. This highway was named after the Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado who explored this area in 1540. This long stretch of road brings many to this area for its very scenic views especially around the Mogollon Rim. The elevations in this area range between 8000 to almost 10000 feet above sea level. 

I stayed in a motel called the Sportsman’s Lodge, which is approximately about 22 miles from the trailhead I started from. Below are some pictures of the Sportsman’s Lodge, (owner Frank), the Bear Wallow Cafe where I had a nice dinner, and the sign for US-191. The Apache National Forest Ranger Station is also located in Alpine, Arizona.

(Above) Pictures from my stay in Alpine Arizona

I began my adventure from the Hannagan Meadow trailhead located off off 191. There was some residual snow at the trailhead with some downed trees that I had to move.  Once at the trailhead I signed the roster at the information kiosk. The kiosk had some good information on the 2 trails available for you to travel from this trailhead, (Steeple trail and the Foote Creek trail).  I took the Steeple Trail, (#73), south and I worked my way to trail #65, heading east  This trail is a primitive trail that paralleled Grant Creek. 

As I worked my way along this trail, I found myself going over downed trees and doing a lot of creek crossings. I was glad that I had my water shoes on this trip.  The temperatures were in the lower 70’s which was very pleasant. (Below are pictures of the Hannagan Trailhead, Kiosk, and the trail sign for the Foote Creek and Steeple trail.

(Above) Hannagan Meadow Trailhead Photos

 At the 6 mile point into my journey, I began seeing the bones of large elk and deer.  These animals are a food source for the Mexican Gray Wolthat inhabitthis area.  The Mexican Gray Wolf, also known as the El Lobo, are an endangered species. These wolves roamed the Southwest portion of the United States before European settlers began populating this region. There were thousands of these wolves that were hunted and poisoned to almost near extinction by the 1970’s. 

In 1973, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act.  By this time, there were only seven of these Gray Wolves left. All of which were in Mexico and none in the United States. A wolf recovery program was developed and the Mexican Gray Wolf was re-introduced into Arizona and New Mexico in the mid-1990s. There are approximately 100 of these Wolves roaming these areas today. (Below are pictures of some of the bones I saw on my adventure).

(Above) Various Bones I came across during my Adventure

On my first nightI set up my basecamp off Grant Creek a mile from Moonshine Park. It was a long day of slow travel as I navigated this primitive trail.  Once at my basecamp, I began a fire and dried out my boots and socks. I had a nice meal by the fire while relaxing and reflecting on my days journey to this point.  That evening was relatively quiet and I heard some wild turkeys not far from my camp. I enjoyed the cooler temperatures which got down into the 40s that evening. Around midnight I experienced some severe leg cramps in my hamstrings. These leg cramps were from my strenuous exercise getting to this basecamp. 

I had been drinking plenty of water, but I wasn’t replenishing the salts and minerals that I was sweating out. I corrected the situation by implementing the use of electrolyte replenishment packets I had with me.  I slept outside under the stars without a tent enjoying the night’s view and cool temperatures. I stayed warm in my sleeping bag, (Sierra Design Mobile Mummy) with my Klymit insulated air mat. (Below are pictures of my first basecamp, my fire, and a partially built cabin nearby).

(Above) Pictures from my different Basecamps

On Day 2, I awoke and started a fire.   I had a warm breakfast as checked my top map and planned my next route.  I broke camp and I traveled to Moonshine Park which was an open flat scenic area that in many ways looked like a large park you would see in the city.  There was some green grass with many trees surrounded by hills.  I observed a lot of bones from elk and other animals in this area. This area was probably the hunting grounds for the Mexican Gray Wolf.

I contemplated on setting up a basecamp here but water was scarce. There was a mud hole here which looked like a watering hole for the local wildlife.  The water was not suitable for consumption due to the wildlife contaminants.  If you needed water you would have to travel a distance back to Grant Creek.  I spent some time in Moonshine Park walking the area taking both videos and pictures as I enjoyed the view.  (Below are pictures of Moonshine Park with that muddy watering hole).

(Above) Pictures from Moonshine Park

I set up my 2nd basecamp near Grant Creek.  I started a fire and settled in for a cool evening.  As I was relaxing by my fire,I did a perimeter check around my Basecamp sometime after 2000 hours, using my Petzl headlamp.  As I was scanning the area, I came across a pair of orange and green eyes less than 50 yards from my basecamp. these eyes belonged to a Mexican Gray Wolf that was watching me.  It was exciting to see this endangered species roaming the wild next to my camp.

As it stood there watching me, I took a picture of it. The picture came out grainy but you can make out the features of this endangered animal.  I estimated it’s size to be between 90 to 100 pounds. After five minutes, the wolf continued its track along a trail looking for food. After it left, I took out my floor Flir TK Scout (thermal imager) and I did a scan of my area wondering if there were other wolves around me. I saw none.  These wolves hunt in packs at night, and I am sure there were others around. This was a great experience for me and one that I will remember.  (Below are 2 pictures of the wolf and my second basecamp).

I went to sleep not long after my encounter enjoying the cool nights.  I heard howling from these wolves until the early morning hours. I awoke the next morning to a red overcast sky.  I checked the weather forecast on my Garmin Inreach Explorer Plus and it stated that rain was moving in. I broke camp and began heading west along Grant Creek.  I made it to my third base camp, day 3,  in an open area which looked like a prairie.   I spent my last two nights on my five day adventure in this area.  (Below are pictures of my 3rd Basecamp with a creek near by).

Not long after I set up my basecamp rain moved in quickly. The timing was perfect, as I just completed setting up my tent when the rain moved in. The temperatures quickly dropped into the 50s. It rained for about an hour as I stayed dry in my tent.  After it stopped raining, I started a small fire and had dinner.  There was a creek close by and I was able to get water easily and quickly.   (Below are pictures of me preparing dinner and a night picture of me getting water by my basecamp).

 I went to bed early that evening, and I awoke about midnight too loud thunder and lightning.  The temperatures were in the freezing range and the rain turned into hail as it was hitting my tent. The rain subsided sometime after 0130 hours and the temperatures dipped into the upper 20’s by 0500 hours.  I awoke around 0630 hours and started a fire with a quarter moon above. I had breakfast and I began exploring the area.  I conducted some camp maintenance and repairs on some damaged gear. (Below are pictures of the elevation, temperature, hail, and frost on my tent).

 That afternoon was sunny with the temperatures in the upper 60’s.  I was able to sit under the blue skies and reflect on my adventure up to this point.  I took many pictures and videos of the area.  There were no bones around my basecamp that I could see, but I did see the tracks of many different animals elk, deer and wolf. I saw nbear tracks on my adventure.  I had a sense during the day that something was watching me but I saw nothing. 

I did have a tree fall not to far from my camp but many of the trees in that area had been damaged by fire so it was not that unusual.  I made sure that I set all of my 3 basecamp’s up during my adventure utilizing the acronym that I came up with (W. E. S. S.), (Water, Elevation, Security, and Safety). I finished day four with a warm basecamp fire and meal. (Below are pictures of me at my basecamp and charging up my gear via solar panel).

CONCLUSION

If you are looking for an adventure where few travel than I highly recommend you planning an adventure into the Blue. There are many good trailheads you can start from with plenty of loop hikes to choose from.  Make sure that you carry a GPS, Compass, and a good Topographical map.

Much of the trails in this area were damaged by the Wallow fires and you will have to do some bushwhacking to navigate around the downed trees. It is a remote and rugged area and you will definitely have an adventure to talk about for many years to come. You may even encounter a Mexican Gray Wolf which will definitely make the experience more memorable.

Video on My Blue Range Primitive Adventure
Backpacking in the Blue range Primitive

My Encounter with a Mexican Gray Wolf

THE AMERICAN BACKPACKER

I recently returned from my adventure into the Blue Range Primitive.  The Blue Range did not disappoint me.  It was rugged and remote.  I saw no one out there, and I did allot of bushwhacking in this beautiful Alpine wilderness located in the eastern part of Arizona bordering New Mexico.  The area was very scenic, and I am working on doing a separate article documenting my entire adventure.  This article is about a specific encounter I had in this wilderness area with a Mexican Gray Wolf.  My contact with this wolf happened at my basecamp on the second night of my adventure. 

I had been following Grant’s Creek navigating east toward Moonshine Park.   As I was navigating, I found an area off the creek to set up my basecamp.  Not long after getting my basecamp set up I started a fire to warm myself for the cold evening that was slowly rolling in.  I had a nice fire going and I ate my meal while I reflected on my day’s activity.  I started scanning the perimeter of my basecamp with my headlamp when I hit on two eyes across the creek.  The colors of the eyes were orange and green and they changed intermittently as I moved my headlamp. 

I found this unusual and I increased the intensity of my light. As I did this, the object moved and I saw that is was a Mexican Gray Wolf on a game trail watching me.  It stopped as I moved my light, and It stayed in place curiously focused on me.  The area around me had many bones from elk that were probably taken down by these Mexican Gray Wolves. My research told me that elk in the Blue Range are a food source for these wolves.  I was definitely in their hunting area.

Bones I found Throughout my Adventure

Elk Bone

As I watched the wolf, I wondered if there were other wolves nearby.  This wolf was out looking for food and they usually hunt in packs. Hunting in packs allow them to take down the large elk in this area. I began looking around the perimeter of my basecamp looking for others wolves that may have infiltrated or surrounded my camp.  I knew through my research of these wolves that they are a curious breed that could be scared off by humans if threatened.  My fire was going strong and I continued to watch my friend.  I had my Flir thermal imager with me and it was not readily available for me to get it. My concern was the wolf and what its next move would be. It was less than 50 yards from my location and I estimated its size to be approximately 90 pounds. 

Pictures of the Mexican Gray Wolf I saw

After a few minutes, the wolf began moving along the creek paralleling it heading east toward Moonshine Park.  I was able to get a picture of it using my cell phone with my headlamp shining on it.  The picture came out grainy, but you are able to see in the center of the picture what the wolf looks like, (tail and head).  After it was out of my sight I grabbed my thermal imager and scanned the area for other wolves with negative results.  I went to sleep not long after my encounter hearing the sound of howling wolves. The experience to see this endangered species on my wilderness adventure was amazing. 

Below is my video of my thoughts right after the encounter and a video taken the next morning.  In the morning video, I show you where I saw the wolf the night before.  

My video discussing my encounter with a Mexican Gray Wolf