Tips for Navigating Like a Boss: By Caro 'Lotsafreshair' Ryan, Who Wrote The Book on Navigation

‘Ah ma gawd! I know right. Can you believe it? When he told me I was blown away. Did you hear about the cave they ended up having to stay in? No? Well, it was just… wait. Hang on. Shouldn’t we have come to that creek by now?’

And just like that, we are faced with what I call the ‘Yoda Truth’ of navigating in natural places:

“The secret to never being lost is always to know where you are.”

Whilst it might sound like something you’d find on a coffee mug or 90’s inspirational corporate poster [cue image of a blissed out solo hiker in the middle of a dense forest], it is one of the fundamental principles and keys of navigating with a map and compass.

It cuts to the heart of a concept called thumbing the map and yep, it is what it says on the box: keeping your thumb/finger/compass corner/etc, firmly on your map and as you move through the landscape, move it along as you pass the various features (man-made or natural). You could even think of it as ticking off landforms as you go. ‘I’ve just crossed that creek - tick, there’s that spur coming down to me on the left - tick, and here comes the sharp right-hand bend in the river where it turns to the south.’

Before you can progress to thumbing a map, there are a few things you’ll need to learn first and have built confidence in:

Reading a topographic map

Like Ikea flat pack furniture, a topographic map comes with instructions. Though many a home decorator/weekend warrior may disagree with me, things become a LOT clearer when you read the instructions. Fight the urge to become overwhelmed by the masses of colours, links, icons and symbols that you’ll find on a topographic (topo) map and turn instead to the map key. Slow yourself down and read the whole key, top to bottom, and you’ll find that the fine print, is very fine indeed. It teaches us a lot of things including the contour interval (ie. the vertical height between each contour line) and what the map scale is. For example, a 1:25,000 scale means that for every 1 mm you move your finger along the map, you are moving 25,000 mm (25 m) in real life.

Understanding Map to Ground

Because we live in a world where Google or Apple Maps are flat and two-dimensional, where we rely on Siri (personally, I prefer female Irish Siri) and her blue dot to tell us where to go, most of us aren’t used to reading and interpreting contour lines which appear on topographic maps. These lines are used to define and join together areas of the same height above sea level. 

Learning to interpret the shapes and squiggles of these lines is the start to being able to translate what they mean in real life; a concept called reading map to ground. 

One of the easiest things to learn about contour lines is that the closer they are together, the steeper the terrain. When things get really spicy, and there’s a sheer cliff, NSW Government maps show this by what I call ‘dragon’s teeth’. It keeps the map cleaner and avoids having to use a very thick line.

Putting on Your NavHead

Flick back to the opening paragraph of this article, where our hero is out in the bush, catching up with a mate and sharing stories of a mutual friend. We’ve all been there: driven to the trailhead, grabbed your backpack, re-tied the shoelaces, locked the car and started walking, all while deep in conversation.

Navigating effectively in wild places requires focus and an approach that I believe is deeply connected to mindfulness. Being present and slowing down enough to allow yourself to see (really see) and switching on all 5 senses, lets you look for clues and solve the mystery of ‘where am I and where am I going next?’.

Speaking of next, break your whole route down into a route plan, made of up instructions that take you from one checkpoint (usually a landform or feature) to the next. At each one, answer a set of questions:

  1. Do I know where I am?
  2. Where’s my next checkpoint?
  3. How far is it?
  4. How long will it take me to get there?
  5. What direction or compass bearing is it?
  6. What will I feel/see/experience on the way?
  7. How will I know when I’m there?
  8. How will I know if I’ve gone too far?

And Most Importantly… 

Am I following the 4 principles of the Think before you TREK campaign

  • Take everything you need
  • Registered your intentions (tell someone exactly where you’re going… give them your route plan!) 
  • packed Emergency communications device (PLB - Personal Locator Beacon or two-way satellite device), and
  • Know your route and stick to it

Video producer/director by trade, bushwalker and search & rescue volunteer by passion, Caro Ryan started to inspire, teach and encourage people to get into hiking and the outdoors safely. It’s all about connecting people to wild places in meaningful ways, so they can look after themselves, their mates and these precious places we visit. She teaches wilderness navigation, authored the book, How to Navigate - the art of traditional map & compass navigation in an Australian context’ and hosts, Rescued - an Outdoor Podcast for Hikers and Adventurers.’