The ability to navigate is one of those fundamental skills that all hikers need. The pattern for most hikers when we begin hiking is to start with simple hikes or for the more complex trails, tag along with friends, family or organised groups such as scouts where someone with more experience has the responsibility of leading us to our destination. As we gain confidence and ability we progress to more complex adventures, take on more responsibility on the hike or break out on our own and become solo hikers.
Navigation is what gets us from point A to point B and ensures that we not only remain safe but also enjoy what we are doing. The variety of navigation skill ranges from the simple to the complex. Which ones you use when hiking is dictated by your ability as well as the type of hiking. For instance, are we following a well defined and well signposted trail, or do we just have a start and finish point that we have to determine the best way to get there?
Some hikers have the ability to navigate by the sun and stars or they can recognise particular patterns in nature such as vegetation growth that allows them to tell which is north or where the water sources are. These are skills that some gain with experience and something to aspire to as your hiking becomes more complex however we all have to start somewhere.
The following five skills provide the foundation for all navigation and form the foundation for future learning:
Regardless of the length or the complexity of the hike you need a plan. In addition to working out what equipment you need, a well thought out plan will allow to you ensure you have the right skills, ability or group members for a particular trip and will minimise the chance of getting lost. Speaking of which have a plan for what you will do if you do get lost. Let someone know where you are going and when you will be back
Ensure you have the appropriate navigation skills needed for the trip you are planning. If not your own skills then ensure that someone in the group has the ability to navigate the proposed course. If not, reconsider the trip
For me this is a biggie. You may not be the most experienced hiker in the group and you may have zero ability with a compass or map but paying attention almost seems to be a forgotten skill amongst many hikers. It may be the that the person navigating has an accident or needs help. In this case you will need to have a basic idea of which direction you are heading, where the key landmarks are, and in case of an emergency how to get back to the trail head or to some other relevant location such as a main road or town. So don’t work on the basis that someone else is doing the navigation and that you don’t need to contribute.
Carry a map and compass at all times (at least one per group). At its most basic, know how to work out where you are at any given point in time on the map and where the cardinal points on the compass are e.g. north, south, east and west. Learning how to recognise various features on the map such as ridges, valleys, rivers and roads will help with this. The more you use a map the easier it will get and at some stage you will be able to see the information on the map as 3-dimensional and relate it to the terrain that you are on
This is where you improve your ability. Even when doing a hike you have done a hundred times before, try to recognise where you are and where you are heading in relation to the terrain. Bring out the compass and see if you can work out the direction in which you are heading. If someone else is leading the trip and doing all the navigating, ask questions and ask if you can help.