• Ash

Practical navigation

When most people think about navigation, I've noticed there is a huge expectation that this is about accuracy. For me, accuracy comes with experience. When I ask about how accurate we need to be with our navigation, the answer I'm looking for is "as far as we can see".


Clearly, the accuracy of navigation needs to be much greater at night with a head torch shining out 30 metres, as opposed to a day where we can see 10 kilometres.


As much as navigation comes with a syllabus, whether it is RYA yachtmaster, National Navigation Award Scheme, Mountain Training or an outdoor youth organisation, this is only the tip of the iceberg.


Navigation is a tight blend of science and art. Both things have to happen to be a good navigator.

It's no good being an absolute genius with a compass if you can't feel the shapes in the landscape. Whatever journey you're taking the "See, Describe, Remember" mantra that I teach has to be done on the map and in what you can see in the landscape you're in.


It's also worth thinking that people have been navigating confidently for years without specific tools. Crossing ocean, following the stars, swell patterns, birds and clouds to find small ports after days at sea had it's risks when landfall was made in bad visibility, but large journeys were made focusing largely on the art of navigation, whilst the science was being developed.


When we try and improve our accuracy in navigation, sometimes we have to step away from the detail, and make things easier. This 'target enlargement' is a useful technique where we can use landforms (hills, rivers, valleys) to give us 'coarse navigation' before doing the detail. So crossing the Atlantic before science might be following the sunset, then using a star (like the North Star) to give us an accurate latitude, before using more detail like birds and cloud formation to find an island.


On the land we might use a handrail (field boundary, ridge line, path) to cover a long distance before using more detailed skills like pacing or bearings to hit our location.


A fabulous example of this is how shepherds (Bugail in Welsh) developed hill farming, and how they built their field enclosures. Navigating sheep is difficult (!) but by making structures that enlarge the target of a gate is really useful.


Often, if you study field boundaries, you can see the summer pasture (often containing 'Hafod' in Welsh) and see the farmhouse that relates to this summer grazing.


When gathering the sheep the walls (green on this picture) focus downhill to a corner, and in that corner is the gate.

In this way the sheep can wander around between the walls, being encouraged downhill by the shepherd. before the field boundaries naturally come to a 3 metre gap in the wall, and into the farm's fields around the house. The walls enlarge the target of the gate. And it's this kind of technique we can use in our journeys.


For a navigator, practical navigation can be very simple. Experience will give you more tools to spot more things that will help your confidence. A great example of this is finding streams in hilly areas, and whether what is marked on map can only be found after rain or all year round.

In this example, I'd be confident that I'd find the stream to the south of the field enclosure all the way through the year.


That's because the contours in the blue circles are heavily shaped or 'nicked' where the water has run through this for years and changed the shape of the land.


In the black dotted circles, the contours are unchanged by the passage of water, so this indicates that in warm or dry weather I'd be less confident that I would find the stream.


It's having knowledge of all these small details in our landscape that come with experience or learning.


So when we "See and Describe" on the map, we need to look at a lot of details initially. And then we need to be questioning of what we're seeing on the map before relating it back to the landscape we're moving in. If we're confident in what we should be seeing, then we can 'feel' when things are wrong. And this feeling of when something isn't right, actually, I think is the crux of good navigation. The time it takes to know when things aren't right is a crucial skill. Remember that after a course with no-mad you will never get lost again - you might be temporarily misplaced, but that's a bit different to being lost ;-)


Teaching navigation so that people can use it is about some key skills that are found in a syllabus, but practical navigation is far more exciting than just a list of learning outcomes, well, I think it is!

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