In our last navigation blog post, we talked about your map, compass, scale, etc. Now let us put you on the ground.
Just the other day, I was out doing what I planned to be a 7 miler for the PATHFINDER Stirling program. I wasn’t really planning on doing any 'pathfinding.' I had mapped out a 7 mile route, downloaded it to my phone and off I went.
Suddenly, I come to what was supposed to be an exit off the trail system onto a street. (My proposed route was in yellow, actual in orange). There was no trail for the last 50 meters and I came to a draw in between two houses with a sign clearly marked: “PRIVATE PROPERTY.” Not to mention a yappy dog and a couple sitting in their back yard. I asked if there as a way through to the street and they said “No, private property.”
This leads to the first lesson of on the ground land navigation, have a backup plan. My backup plan was simple. Stay oriented (as discussed previously) and continue to head north. In this case, I found a series of trails that allowed me to generally head North. Since my map was electronic, I kept North “in front of me” and skirted the private property, eventually finding a link up with my original route.
A little while later, I found myself in another misoriented position. My planned route was in light blue, but the actual path was the orange line. This leads me to my second lesson in land navigation. Maps lie, especially trails. The terrain and the compass don’t lie. In this case, you can see the powerlines running parallel to the trail. I knew I had to move NE and cross those power-lines to stay on my route. I course corrected, found an overgrown trail, and continued my route. This can happen quite often. Don’t rely on the map, especially man-made features on the map, like trails. Trails are used as fire breaks and are shifted by land managers often. New trails are added, etc… The reliable lines on a map are the terrain features.
Third lesson in land navigation: Human’s don’t naturally walk in straight lines, or know what azimuth or direction they are facing in.
To orient yourself, think about it like this. Instead of “what direction is this trail going,” think "what direction is the terrain feature the trail is on going in?"
I have found myself many times moving on a trail down a ridgeline thinking I was heading East, when in actuality, I was 45 degrees off. Once I oriented myself to the direction the ridge was actually oriented, I amazingly found myself!
AN OPTIONAL EXERCISE
A useful exercise to learn how to orient yourself is to do short orienteering courses without your compass, using only the map. The Raleigh, NC orienteering club used to run what they call a sprint course in the summer months. Maybe 1-3 kilometers. One time, I drove from Charlotte to Raleigh and forgot my compass. They didn’t have any loaners, so I said the heck with it and ran the course using only the map.
The final lesson in land navigation is: Use your common sense! Here are some lessons learned that I have done for real:
I just found a point on a 10K orienteering course. I plot my azimuth to my next point and see that I have to go say, 65 degrees for 700 meters. Since I know I take about 75 steps (remember this!) for every 100 meters, I start walking. After about 150 steps, I see an orienteering point off to my left, about another 100 meters. Not only is it 90 degrees off azimuth, but I have only gone 200 meters. Can that be my point? No way. Do I go look at it like a moth to the flame? Well maybe the first 100 times, but not anymore 😉
Another lesson learned: Course setters are human. I am in Hong Kong on a hellacious course. I am looking for a point that should be easy to find -- it’s on a boulder. I come to said boulder and no point. Now I look about 150 meters up the hill and see a point. Could it just have been misplaced? Yup. I go up, use my e-punch and “check-in” at the point.
Now normally, when you are competing, and find a point that is off, you at least let everyone around you know. I see a bunch of folks standing down at the boulder looking lost. I try to signal them, but they were not using their common sense… Just remember, the person who set the course is human also.
PRACTICE! Don’t enter into some long distance event, or go out into the wilderness with just your cell phone. Practice, learn.
When I ran orienteering courses, I remember running into a person out on the course at West Point (a “high-end” A Meet). She was cursing and screaming because she had mis-punched. In those types of events, you can’t mis-punch or you are disqualified. Now having driven to West Point from Charlotte, I understand the investment, but I had lots of practice and was confident in my skills. You pretty much have only the event to lose, but if you go into the wilderness without land navigation skills, you could have more to lose.
I mentioned orienteering, you can find information about orienteering all over the US at:
Also, there are many organizations out there teaching land navigation:
Here is mine: http://www.tacticalfoxes.com
There is also Green Beret Fitness: https://www.greenberetfitness.com/
And Range University: https://www.rangeuniversity.com/