If someone were to ask you, right now, where North is, would you be able to tell them? Does the idea of orienting yourself when you’re hiking in the woods make you break out in a cold sweat? Well, you’ve come to the right place. I’m going to share some simple steps you can use daily to help you hone your sense of direction.
It takes practice. Navigation is like any skill, if you don’t use it you’ll lose it. Don’t wait until you’re lost in the woods, or on your way to Starbucks, to remember how to find the cardinal points. We’ve become reliant on GPS to tell us where we’re going. But GPS is a tool, and like any tool, it is best used to enhance skill.
Part of the fun of hiking in the backcountry is exploring the landscape. Confidence in your ability could help you enjoy nature safely and stress free.
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On Your Commute
The easiest place to practice is when you know where you are. On a typical day, most people follow the same route. We go from home to work and back. Maybe we make a couple of deviations to run errands on the way. Which direction do you travel when going to work? Take a mental note of which direction you go when you start your commute. Whenever you turn off that general direction, readjust your mental map. Did you turn right and are now going South? Left to go North? When you get to your destination, check your route with Google maps and see how accurate you were.
Throughout your day, as you sit at your desk going over TPS reports (shameless Office Space reference) try to guess which direction North is. There are many compass apps for your phone that you can use to confirm your guess. With time, you’ll find you are getting more and more accurate. Knowing where you are and guessing the direction of the cardinal points is a good place to start, but will only take you so far.
Let’s practice when we are out around town. If we know the direction we started, with a fair bit of accuracy, we should be able to figure out any point. You may need to go over the route you took in your head, which is a good habit to get into. Think about your position in relation to the cardinal points at each of your destinations while running errands.
Making mental maps of where you live could build your confidence in your sense of direction. Get into the habit of doing it no matter where you are. But knowing where we are in the city differs from knowing where we’re going in the wild.
On A Hike
You can put these tips into use on a familiar hike. When hiking a trail you have done several times before and have no fear of getting lost try practicing getting your bearings. It is a good time to verify that these tips work for you and that you understand them.
Points of Reference
Points of reference are a fundamental part of navigation. Knowing landmarks to look out for will help you know that you’re going in the right direction. In a new city, look up easily identifiable landmarks like highways, rivers etc. Make sure you know where those are in relation to your location. Use these landmarks with your mental map skills and enjoy exploring the new city.
This concept works the same way when you’re hiking in the beauty of nature. Before you go out, look over a map of the area and find natural landmarks. Is there a river? A Mountain? Always know your starting point and end point. Should the river always be on your right? As you are on your hike, make a mental note of some points on the way and add them to your mental map. These points should be obvious, like a large rock in the middle of nowhere, a fallen tree. Make sure you look at both sides of these points. When you are on your way back, you could use them again.
If the terrain allows you to pick out a point in the distance that you won’t reach on your hike, you can use that as a constant point of reference. Knowing where that point is in relation to where you’ve traveled could help you orient yourself.
You’re out on a hike through an unfamiliar forest. There are no designated trails. You used up your phone battery taking pictures of interesting mushrooms and selfies for the ‘Gram. Now it’s time to head back to camp. You know when you left you started by going North, so you need to go South. The problem is that you’ve taken a lot of twists and turns and didn’t make a mental map. Don’t worry, you don’t need to go full Man vs Wild yet.
If you’re able to see the sun through the canopy of the trees, you can reference the sun. It rises in the East and sets in the West. So if you traveled North in the morning then it would have been on your right. Now in the afternoon when you want to go South it needs to be on your left. Seems simple enough, right? This works in theory, but when the sun isn’t visible, then you’ll need other options.
This may sound strange and isn’t common when discussing navigation. Ants are wonderfully predictable. They always build their hills on the South side of trees and other objects. Using this, you can orientate yourself and head in the right direction.
Individual coniferous trees, when growing away from others, are bushier on the South. Poplars are whiter on the South and darker on the North side.
These tips are not the only ways of improving your sense of direction, but they are easy to implement. Being aware of where you started, where you are, and where you’re going could keep you safe when hiking and camping. Try to practice making mental maps and pointing out cardinal points regularly and you should build your confidence. It could also help you avoid arguments with your spouse when you’re on vacation.