If there is one skill, that can make the biggest difference, it is definitely navigation. Think of it: If someone is outpacing you be being faster, let’s say, 5 minutes in an hour, the difference in effort is huge. If you make one stop more for 5 minutes, you lose five minutes just like that. But 5 minutes is all you lose. But, if due to bad navigation, you go 5 minutes in a wrong direction, you have to first discover the mistake, find your way out and then probably go at least another 5 minutes back. In the end you lose much more than initial five minutes.
I just returned from Ukrainian mountains with a group of friends and what was a nice trip could turn into a horror story with poor navigation.
Let’s ask simple questions:
1] How can I make my navigation efficient and reliable?
2] How can I do it in a bad weather?
Well, to answer the first question – navigation takes time to learn and is a question of long-term experience. To answer the second question – it depends… Yes, it depends, as always. But this answer does not give us any clear and definite information, does it? Let’s try keep it simple as possible. After all, it’s navigation, not rocket science.
It is always to hard to strike the balance between general and theoretical information that would give us insight into the mechanism and piece of information that is practical, useful and above all simple enough that we can use even tens of hours into the race when our judgement is not very sound. After long hours of thinking, I came to this:
Let’s list all things and techniques, that can be used for navigation: GPS, Compass, Map, Signposts, Landscape features… Anything else? If you don’t see “Grid reference”, that’s OK. It is not a mistake. Why? Don’t use grid reference. Why? Just don’t. It is useless. In every respect there is some better technique.
The tricky part is, that you don’t use just one of these tools. You need to be able to use more of them, ideally all of them. Each of them at proper time. Let’s make a series of them like this [in this order]:
GPS – Compass – Map – Signposts – Landscape features
The more the tool is to the right, the faster you can move while using it. The more the tool is to the left, the more reliable it is. And the key part is to know, which of them should be used in which situation. If you know the course by heart, you don’t need to look in the map, look for signposts, you can just fly and look for the features you know [provided you can see them]. On the other hand, if there is heavy fog and hardly anything is there to see, GPS or Compass is the way to go. These are the two extreme cases and most of the time you will be somewhere in between.
Let’s start in the middle, use a map. Are you confident with navigating with the map? If yes, stay with it. If you think that the terrain is too easy and that map reading is taking toi much time, you may try to go running and looking for signposts with only occasional checks with map. If you are not confident, consider using a compass and/or GPS.
This self-assessment of all relevant factors, such as your own skills, mood and condition, level of fatigue, difficulty of the landscape, weather and the feedback and feelings you are receiving from your navigation is the most difficult part and here we are making a full circle to the answers in the beginning of this article: Experience. It depends…
You can of course make it even simplier and use just one tool all the time. This comes with the danger that in some situation you may be prone to mistakes [if the conditions are harder than you thought, you are getting more tired] or you may be losing too much time [when using a GPS on a well-signposted and very distinct track]. One of the best practices is try to integrate some benefits of one tool into another. If you are using map for most of the time, but you know some places and you know that the map is not really accurate, or you what to look for [cairns, monuments, extra crossing], mark it into map. Use big letters or symbols so you can read it even in bad conditions.
Once this switching of different tools for navigation is mastered, you do not ask yourself question, but seamlessly switch one tool for another. Before that, deliberately ask yourself, if you are feeling okay and confident with your own navigation.
One more hint for the end: Looking into the map, compass and/or GPS is an activity that is repeated hundreds of times during a race. So keeping it efficient can save hours. If you are relying heavily on GPS and you have to reach for into the top pocket of your backpack, this can ruin your race. Simply think where you put your gear and have it at convenient places.
To sum it up, we have a series:
GPS – Compass – Map – Signposts – Landscape features
Pick one of them and use it for navigation. If you are doing good, stay with it and consider switching it with another tool/technique one step to the right. If the navigation is too difficult in given conditions, move one step to the left. Make this assessment repeatedly and try to dynamically switch means of navigation with varying terrain. Repeat this procedure until you are doing it seamlessly.
So what the next tip shall be? Gear, food, sleep strategy.. any suggestions?