The Wilderness Route Finder


I grew up reading – devouring, really – the works of two great outdoor writers.  One was Brad Angier and the other was Calvin Rutstrum.  These two adventurers had been living the ‘back to nature’ lifestyle long before the backpacking craze hit America in the 1960s.  Both were prolific writers, turning out books and papers that extolled the wilderness lifestyle.  Angier’s works were more philosophic – he fancied himself a modern day Thoreau and his books reflected that outlook.  Rutstrum, on the other hand, didn’t just live the wilderness lifestyle, he actually worked in and made a living from the wilderness, primarily through guiding.  Rutstrum’s advice was always more down to earth, more practical.

Some of Rutstrum’s advice would cause modern day enviroweenies to fall over in a dead faint. For example, to deal with the biting insects that invariably got into your tent when camping in the north country Rutstrum recommended just tossing a DDT ‘bomb’ (spray canister) into the tent, zipping it up and letting the insecticide do its job.  Go off and do your chores and when you come back you’ll have a bug-free tent to sleep peacefully in.  Keep in mind, however, that Rustrum’s books were written from the late 1940s through the 1970s, so some procedures and ‘best practices’ are now out-dated and in many cases downright illegal.  Regardless, his books like ‘New Way of the Wilderness’ and ‘Paradise Below Zero’ are still considered classics of outdoor literature.

Another gem that Rutstrum wrote is ‘The Wilderness Route Finder’.

My copy, purchased in the late1970s and well
thumbed

I first came across this book over 30 years ago and read it cover to cover multiple times.  I believe it is the first broad application land navigation work written for the general public.  (The Army land navigation field manual, FM 21-26, pre-dates this work by several decades.  While an excellent work is targeted at military users.)  Rutstrum approached land navigation the way he approached so many things related to the outdoors – use what works.  He presents a broad range of techniques and discusses use of a number of pieces of equipment  that can assist in navigating the high latitudes where the magnetic compass becomes unreliable due to declination issues and local magnetism.

Obviously this book was written before GPS was even a gleam in the eye of senior military commanders, and many of the pieces of equipment Rutstrum discusses are out dated or simply not available anymore.  For example, cruiser compasses have not been made for decades and have now entered the status of collector’s item.  However, some of the techniques he discusses, while at first glance seemingly archaic in the world of cell phones, wireless internet and GPS, are still valid and those serious about land navigation ought to give them a try.  For example, the concept of using a marine sextant to determine latitude is quite valid, and quality used sextants are available today for less than $400.  Equip one with a bubble horizon and bring along a quality quartz watch and you could even do reasonably accurate longitude determination.  Think of it as an exercise in confidence building.

The reader should be aware that Rutstrum wrote this book specifically for those navigating in the far north regions of the US and Canada.   There is little in this book about desert or tropical environments.  Rutstrum was also a man of his time and wrote like it.  Many of the explanations are a little wordy and personal pronouns are few and far between.  Keeping in mind these shortcomings, the book is still an undisputed classic and belongs on the shelf of anyone serious about learning land navigation.

– Brian

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