17 October, 2012

A Guide to Navigation

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Expert Bloggers

A Guide to Navigation

Explorers Connect is an online community for expeditions and adventure travel enthusiasts & professionals to meet and share advice and opportunities.
Here David Leaning, a partner at Explorers Connect, who has navigated over 5,500 km on foot and skis across various parts of the world, shares his expert advice on navigation skills.

Do you recoil in horror when someone presents you with a map and compass? Are you looking at cryptic lines and symbols like a spider has climbed out of an ink jar and danced a polka over some paper? Then focus in fear on the crazily spinning needle of a compass which you’re sure was pointing the other way just a few seconds ago?

Navigation can at times seem like a black art. However there are a few tips which can make sense out of the chaos.

Always trust the compass.

This is probably rule No. 1. Your compass will never lie to you. Depending on which type you use, one end of the magnetized needle will always point North, everything else to do with “nav’ing” follows on from this unalterable truth.

N.B. never wear mitts or gloves with a magnet in them while holding your compass – I am speaking from experience – during an expedition to ski the length of Norway my father had given me some mitts which had an ingenious finger pocket which could be folded back to allow some dexterity of the fingers, the pocket was held back with a magnet. It took me several days to work out why my compass was pointing every which way.

The map is a two dimensional representation of a three dimensional environment.

Imagine your bedroom if viewed from above, with line representations of all the furniture, contour lines and spot heights to show the shape and elevation of all objects above floor-level.

One common error is for people to try to make the terrain they can see in their surroundings fit with where they think they are – or want to be – on the map:

You have a point on the map where you THINK you are, so you look and see what features are marked around it. You see a wood, some hills, a river and a road and then you look up from the map and try to find these around you. Wrong! You should always identify features on the ground FIRST and then try to find them on your map. Otherwise, wishful thinking can get in the way of objectivity.

The best features you can use as reference points are the most obvious ones.

Structures like power-lines, radio masts and bridges, their singularity and prominence make them great reference points – like the pole star. In the absence of these try to find a prominent natural feature that you can use and always keep half an eye on it while you are steering/walking so as to maintain your course. Rivers and tracks or roads can be good but if you are right off in the ulu then you may have to find a prominent hill or mountain and use that as far as possible.

Don’t get too confident.

As with all things, confidence in your own abilities is good, but when navigating it is always best to keep an open mind and continually question your appreciation of the features and terrain. Failure to do so can lead to overconfidence in what may be a flawed initial judgement – so always keep comparing what you see on the map to what you see on the ground and don’t take anything for granted, as your perspective changes you may discover that the ridge or river which you thought you were on is in fact a different feature altogether.

Always orientate the map to the ground.

If you turn the map so that the top is pointing North then it will help you to match up the features on the ground with features on the map, making it much easier to find your way. If you get lost, always retrace your steps to the last place where you knew where you were.

For equipment, a full-size clear plastic Silva compass is probably a good bet. Keep it on a lanyard and secured to you, either around the neck or on a mini- carabineer attached to a belt loop. Your map should be kept in a waterproof case, also secured to you. If your map gets wet or blown away it won’t be much use to you.

If you are planning to go off into the wilderness then there is no substitute for experience. You could read all the books, guides, videos and get a doctorate in theoretical navigation, but you still don’t know diddly until you put it into practice. So get out there with a map and compass amongst the hills and do some routes on your own before you head off into the wilderness.

One last tip – never use a green head-torch to read a map – try it sometime and witness all the woods and main roads vanish as if by magic!


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You can find a wide range of gear for climbinghill walkingmountain biking and other activities.

(2) Comments

Have your opinion? Have your say…

  1. Similar to the never use a green headtorch – even worse is using a red one, as you’ll find yourself coming across many ‘uncharted’ hills, cliffs and mountains!

    The same also applies to blue headtorches and rivers/motorways of course.


  2. “Always trust the compass”.

    Except when you’re in an area of magnetic rock.
    Except when the compass has flipped its polarity.
    Except when you have something magnetic influencing it (as per the article…).

    Trust nothing completely; things fail and go wrong. Always question discrepancies, and ask why they might be occurring. That applies to maps, compasses, GPS, your thinking, etc.

    captain paranoia

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