Outdoor Navigation

The outdoor life

Some people are born with a natural sense of direction while others – like my wife - can get lost in their own back garden! Even if you're blessed with the orientation skills of a Bushman, you'll need a map and compass if you want to venture into unknown territory. But as any Joey Scout will tell you, a stack of maps and a top quality compass won't get you back to camp if you don't know how to find north. If you’re serious about outdoor adventures you really need to know how to find your way home without either maps or a compass.

If your GPS system is out of signal range or you lose your compass along the way, a few tracker techniques will help you orient yourself. Finding true north accurately isn’t easy but when used in conjunction with a map and landmarks you can certainly find your way in most situations. The worst thing to do is jut to wander or follow a hunch as you can end up miles off course.

Don’t be a panic merchant if you feel you may have veered off course. The clues to finding your way are usually all around you. For example, moss usually grows on the north side of trees. And instead of running away from them as most people do, find a friendly spider to help you on your way! No I’m not suggesting you ask a spider for directions but they tend to spin their webs on the south side of trees which is another clue to which direction to head in.

Another outdoor navigation tip is watch the clouds as they generally move from east to west. Again this isn’t going to give you an accurate bearing but combined with some distinguishing landmarks or features on a map you can get a good idea of which way to go. The classic outdoor navigation method is of course to use the sun. Plant a stick in the ground and mark where the shadow falls. Now sit and wait 10-15 minutes and see where the shadow falls. The line between the two points runs roughly east to west. At night look for the brightest star – the good old North Star in the constellation The Little Dipper will take you north if you face it.

The outdoor life

For reliable outdoor navigation you’re really going to need some sort of map. Serious hikers and climbers use topographical maps but even casual day hikers need to take a basic map on any adventures. If you're hiking a well marked path a trail guide or standard park map which identifies key landmarks and points of interest is usually enough.

When choosing maps for your trip think about how well they cover the area. Do you want a small-scale map that includes only the major features of a wide area or a large-scale map that gives more detailed information on a small area? Make sure your map gives you the details you need such as elevations and slopes. Knowing these things will also help you choose the right gear to take along.

Clouds, the sun and your friendly neighbourhood spider are all useful in and emergencybut these tricks are no replacement for a good compass. The classic mistake is just to tuck one in your backpack and figure you can read the instructions once you arrive at your starting point. A mate of mine did this on a bike ride in Kosciuszko National Park last year. It took us two hours hard cycling to get back on track! Knowing how to locate true north is only part of the equation and unless your path is straight north you'll need to understand your relative position. Take the time to learn how to use your compass before you head out and practice so it becomes second nature – you want to be able to enjoy your outdoor adventures without worrying about getting lost or making it to your next stop off point in time.

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