Let’s face it, navigation is a skill often put on the back burner. Most find it too boring, too hard, or don't take it seriously enough to put any significant effort into it! And with the rise of GPS watches and smartphones with GPS, it’s now more important than ever to make sure that if that fancy watch dies or your phone goes flat, you have the navigation skills to ensure that you don't face the search and rescue team red faced because of some simple navigational errors!
Why everybody forgets the most important component of navigation!
Do some google searches of navigating in the outdoors and you will find many articles outlining how to read a map, contours, grids, take bearings and so on.
What many seem to miss, is that on top of knowing the basics, you need to learn something even more important.
Something that is going to help you, even without a map in front of you.
What is Situational Awareness?
Situational awareness, in terms of outdoor navigation, is your perception of environmental elements in relation to you, and your occupation of the surrounding space.
This is really just to say, you know where you are! You can sense and feel it. In Australia we called this bush sense.
Why is it important?
Unlike learning to read a map and use it, you still need to accurately have a sense of what you are passing, where you are in the greater picture, and which way you are going.
It's not so much a logical, process intensive skill, rather, it's feeling your way through the environment and terrain.
And this is learned skill, and takes specific focus to hone it.
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How to master navigation with situational awareness.
When I first started hiking, I went by myself. With no one else responsible for where I was going, I developed some good situational awareness early on. I had to. Otherwise I would wind up on the evening news!
But I would advise, somewhat hypocritically, not to go by yourself initially. Its best to go in a pair at a minimum. Ideally, you should both take turns in navigating, and be patient and willing to let them have a good go. I'll say that again, because I am guilty of not applying this as well.
Be patient and willing to let the navigator have a good go.
Try not to interrupt. People often realise the turn off they missed or the mistake they made after a minute or two. Don’t jump on it. Give the navigator time. Nobody learns well when being constantly interrupted. Only step in if it is getting serious that you are getting off course.
Now that that is covered, here is my method at getting your situational awareness dialled, and with it, you will master navigation.
► Learn to read a map and compass first
I'm just going to state the obvious here, but you do need to know how to read a map and compass. However, once you got the hang of it, often after an hour or two of putting it into practice, it's time to start challenging yourself in a safe way.
I'm not going to cover all of that on here as it's already been covered all over the internet, so head over to the Lots of Fresh Air blog and read Caro's great articles on navigating by map and compass. Best yet, find a hiking group or club, and learn the basics off someone experienced if you are unsure.
► Follow small creeks
Follow SMALL creeks. Just make sure you use common sense when crossing water and always go with someone else!
Creeks are by far the best way to start getting your navigation mastered with situational awareness. Follow the creeks and note the bends, the size and direction of them, to start getting a feel for mentally putting yourself on a map. Note the distance you travel as well, in relation to time. You can soon work out your average speed along a flat creek. The best thing is, you can’t get lost following a creek, but you can still learn a lot!
Once you feel good doing this, start cutting over the bends, go small distances initially, then get a bit bigger each time. This is a good way to start doing ‘off track’ stuff, as you can hit the creek again and the risk of getting lost is low. This technique is called 'handrailing'. But take it easy when starting and don’t get out of sight of the creek too much.
Lacking confidence as you begin, you need to have lots of small wins. I find people's lack of confidence the biggest hurdle to overcome as they often give up before developing their navigation skills properly.
Everyone can do it. You just need to keep at it!
► Practice on marked tracks
Using marked tracks, take note of what you pass, and make little memories of interesting things you see. Often, saying it in your head or out loud can strengthen it.
As you pass an interesting rock feature for example, say out loud “that looks like a (whatever it looks like), and is 10 minutes from (the last interesting thing you noticed).”
This helps solidify the memory and if you had to backtrack, you would have a better idea of where you are. It helps to develop a mental 3D picture of the outdoor space you are in.
► Vary the terrain
You should vary the terrain and work on your weaknesses. Make sure to start on easy stuff, and work your way up to densely vegetated 'marked trail' hikes. Dense vegetation is some of the hardest terrain as you often have no point of reference or line of sight.
Practice in the harder terrain makes it easier for when you really need it. The more you do it, the better you'll get.
► Start hiking on ‘unmarked trails’
In the above map, you can follow the black dotted line (the marked 'track'), and then drop in the creek and follow it (red line) until you hit the other part of the track again. Just be sure to be cautious around waterfalls, go with someone else and leave a message with someone as to where you are.
After you feel confident in creeks and marked tracks, start hitting up short, easy unmarked (faint or not well trodden) tracks.
Be sure to research the map and track notes thoroughly. The best tracks are ones the follow creeks part of the way. Stick to a hike only a few kilometres long. Don’t overestimate your confidence, but try to balance caution with challenges.
If you can also find outdoor areas that are surrounded by roads, trails and creeks, this is great because if you get lost, you can always stumble upon something by walking in any direction.
► A trick to navigating dense vegetated areas
Moving through thick terrain like this requires lots of patience! Pretend its not there and try to 'visualise' the terrain around you when taking bearings or using your situational awareness.
One great trick for the tough to navigate forests and vegetated areas, is to work on developing that mental 3D image of your space. Don’t just look at the tree in front of you, LOOK THROUGH the trees to your goal or target. Pretend the trees aren't there and focus on getting a clear direction (with compass and map) by ignoring them. This takes mental focus using visualisation. Again, practice this as much as you can.
► Stay calm if lost
If you are unsure or feel you are off course, IMMEDIATELY STOP. Do not think or assume you will get the direction or trail back again. Stop, think, and retrace your steps. It's important to take it slow, stay calm, and think it through.
Get your senses working and place yourself on the map. Only when you are fairly confident in your location, should you proceed again.
► Always let someone know where you are going!
Please, please, please, tell someone where you are going! So many long searches can be avoided if people let others know their plans! Having been involved in a search before, the single best thing you can do at a minimum, is let someone know where you are going!
And if I can't convince you, watch the movie '127 Hours' about the true story of a canyoneer who got stuck in a canyon and kind of lost an arm in the process...
just keep practising!
Working with my adventure outdoor group a few years ago, I shared many of these tips and found they worked quite well. The key thing to remember is to not let yourself get rusty. Work on those skills. Hone your situational awareness.
Navigating no longer needs to be a skill you're unsure of or not good at!
Happy, safe, adventures everyone!