Navigation, as opposed to map reading, is a dynamic process by which you find your way from one place to another. You can use a map as part of this, with or without a compass, or the line of a river, road or coastline – or all five and a great many other things too. Readers of Rider Haggard adventures will realise that ancient legends can also play a part; and as Mr Haggard’s taciturn hero Allan Quartermain would have found equally useful, satellites.
In an aircraft, one measures the distance and direction between places, and after adding corrections to take account of winds along the route, aims the nose and flies in a gentle curve at the proscribed speed for the determined time, and arrives at the other end. Wind changes may require alterations of direction and alter arrival time, but that’s pretty much it. At sea, one has also to take into account ocean currents and tides.
But on land, with hills, ravines, rivers, lakes and vegetation, the straight line route is invariably impossible – and more arduous. The best way think of land navigation is “fiddling ones’ way” across country, using obstacles like rivers as guides to a known point, from which you then fiddle your way to the next point.
Because it takes time and effort to climb and descend hills, especially when carrying equipment, it’s usually quicker and less tiring to walk around than over the tops of hills. ‘Naismith’s Rule” quantifies this: “Allow one hour for every three miles forward; and half an hour for every 1,000 feet of ascent.” A Scottish mountaineer, William Naismith published his rule of thumb in 1892. It translates into a metric version: 5km per hour, and 300 metres in half an hour…. One useful tip is that contour lines are usually every ten metres, so for each one you cross, add one minute to your time estimate.
However, it’s hard to cover rough country at any sort of constant speed, so we only ever use Naismith as a rough guide – as he intended.
Direction finding is usually done using a compass, for which the key tip is always to believe it…. The best way to use a compass is in conjunction with your map, and start by setting the general direction to your destination. In mountains, you should always have a bearing set even if you can see exactly where you’re going – as mist can very descend leaving you blind.
You may set specific bearings to find particular points along your way, but remember that a compass isn’t pinpoint accurate especially when you’re walking. The technique of “aiming off” to hit “hand rails” is the best way to cope with this; by choosing natural features like where a bridge crosses a river as way points, then rather than trying to walk straight to the bridge, with the high probability of missing it but not being sure whether it lies to your left or right, of “aiming off” well to one side, then using the river as the “hand rail” to guide you in the opposite direction to the bridge.
You need to take particular care when navigating off the tops of mountains, as a very small error in direction can rapidly end up with you on the wrong side of the mountain – even in the wrong country, as has occurred coming off mountains like Everest.
Navigation is a very satisfying skill to get right, and deeply disturbing when you get it wrong – or as we say in the trade “Lost”.
However getting “lost” is a greatly exaggerated condition, as noone can ever be truly lost – unless they panic and lose their head. Determining a ‘lost drill’ prevents this alarming condition, by which you decide a box of easily identified ground features within which you will walk. If you cross any of these features – say two roads, a river and a ridgeline; you are sure to notice. If you find you can’t identify where you are, you at least know you are still within this box – hardly ‘lost’, and can work out where to walk to somewhere you will be able to identify.
There’s a lot to navigation, and I’ll be adding helpful pages to this section. I would of course refer you to my various Wilderness training books and Backbacking Handbook for detailed navigation guides.