Recently, an article in an online magazine on navigating off-trail crossed my social media feeds. There were five tips, four of which were tangential at best, and completely useless at worst, the final was one of those trite platitudes that have some limited relevance. That article got me thinking about both navigation and tangents. This blog post is about off-trail navigation, the next will be about tangents.
Good navigation skills needed
- The first thing you have to do to become a solid off-trail navigator is learn to read a map, really, really well. Reading a map really, really well means that you can visualise a realistic three dimensional picture of the terrain from the two dimensional sketch in front of you. This takes a long time and a lot of practice in as many different situations and conditions as you can possibly manage. Learning to read a map is life-long and iterative. Each time you go out you imagine the terrain you will encounter based on the map then go out and test your theory. Use the feedback in front of you. Did the terrain look as you imagined it or was it steeper, flatter, was the valley broader, the ridge more narrow? Drive your companions mad by getting the map out at every possible opportunity and comparing it to the terrain around you. With the availability of cheap mapping software (raster maps are better than vector maps) you can easily print out the section of the map that you need for that days travels and keep it handy in a zip lock bag in your pocket (a tip I learnt many years ago from an ACMG guide).Does the terrain look how you thought?
Now this all sounds deceptively simple, but proves difficult for anyone starting out since the advent of readily available GPS units as the temptation to “short-cut” - remember there are no real short-cuts – the process of learning to read a map is irresistible for most. Additionally, GPS units provide positive feedback to the user who turns it on (or more commonly leaves the unit on for the entire trip) and can then authoritatively point at the small map on the screen and say “we are here” thus getting the idea that they are fantastic navigators. There is a negative feedback mechanism in place too. The user can't really read a map so on the rare occasions when they get a map out all the squiggly lines seem incomprehensible and they are unable to draw a mental picture of the terrain from the map. Understandably frustrated and experiencing great cognitive dissonance (remember, their GPS is giving them the opposite feedback) they put the map away. Map reading is a practical skill, the more you practice the better you get. People who are good at reading maps get better and better because the map conveys a wealth of information so they constantly refer to it. Once you become proficient with a map, this takes only a few seconds and, if you keep your map handy, can be done without breaking stride. But, for the hapless, who turn the GPS on as a matter of course and seldom refer to the map, any minor skill acquired is quickly lost and the map is useful only if the emergency supply of toilet paper runs out.
Working out where we go tomorrow
Unfortunately, Google Earth (GE), a semi-useful tool for navigating off-track, has not helped at all as the fuzzy and clearly imperfect three dimensional view that is produced acts much like a giant GPS unit propping up the egos of the self-deluded. A tangential word on Google Earth for those that believe technology can solve all our problems. The accuracy of the three dimensional image you see is influenced by the quality of the elevation data available and rarely gives an accurate representation of slope steepness and frequently even shape. Things that look terribly steep, possibly impassable on GE frequently turn out to be easy to traverse, while the converse can also be true. Smooth ridgelines can become saw-toothed nightmares in reality. The images are also influenced by cloud cover, snow cover, time of day etc. and the conditions you see on GE may have little relevance for your planned trip.
Was this visible on Google Earth?
Don't feel bad or take my criticism too harshly. The search for positive feedback is a universal human trait. A sense of competence enables us to push off into untracked terrain but overconfidence furthers neither the progression of your trip nor the development of your navigation skills. If you are really aren't sure (are you being completely honest?) which camp you are in, take your next trip without the GPS and use only the relevant map. If you don't know where you are at all times, your navigation skills need work.
Look away from the screen....
- This long tangential digression brings me to point number two, have a solid foundation in the basic navigation skills, that is, know how to orient your map with your compass, how to correct for declination (buy a compass where you can set declination and you'll never have to worry about this), how to take and walk a simple bearing, what your pace is on various types of terrain. Triangulation, long taught in navigation courses, is a handy skill, as is being able to shoot bearings, even if you only ever use these skills to identify that attractive looking peak in the distance. Don't feel bad about getting your compass out to check direction or orient your map, there is no shame in this (shame should be reserved for those that automatically use their GPS units instead of their brains). Trust your instruments, not your instinct. The backwoods are full of people wandering about half (or completely) lost after declaring “the compass must be wrong.” Perhaps they will eventually meet up with the people who “know a short-cut.”
Orient the map
- Before you head out on your trip, use the map to break your journey into legs or segments with defined start and end points. It's best if these segments make some kind of logical sense, such as, follow drainage A to Lake B. At Lake B follow the ridgeline C to intersecting ridgeline D. Between each start and end point include hand-rails, backstops, checkpoints, even compass bearings. Estimate how much time it will take to complete each leg. Write it all down and take it with you. Planning the trip in this way has the added advantage of helping you work out what time you need to start the trip in order to finish at a certain time. As your skills increase, you can often omit the writing down stage and simply do this in your head, but, on long complicated trips, you may still want to revert to this basic practice.This was an 8 day trip,but it could still be broken into segments
- As you travel through the terrain mark off in your head each hand-rail, backstop, check point you pass. If something does not seem right, for example a lake does not appear where one should, stop and work out where you are. The sooner you can error correct the better. Backtracking (which all humans hate) may be necessary. Refer to point number two, trust your instruments, not your instinct.
This tarn makes a handy checkpoint
- Which, brings me finally, past many tangents to point number five, always debrief from your trips. Was your mental image of the terrain accurate? Did your handrails, backstops, checkpoints prove useful? Were you on pace for your planned times? Were you lost or misplaced and, if so, where did you make your navigational error? Just like learning to read a map, debriefing from trips is an iterative process where you identify your weaknesses, develop a plan to correct them, assess whether or not the plan is working, identify new weaknesses, in an endlessly repeating loop. Making mistakes is mandatory, sadly, learning from them proves optional.
Sit around and debrief after the dayScott F. photo