The lost art of navigation
There is no doubt that modern technologies make life (and travel!) easier. Adventure riding has been transformed since the dawn of the Internet and satellite navigation: finding your way around the world is now practically effortless. Invest in the newest GPS unit, set your route, and go. But is navigation really that simple?
Roger McKinlay, a satellite specialist and the Immediate Past President of the Royal Institute of Navigation in London, argues that humans will always be smarter than machines and relying solely on your GPS isn’t the best policy when traveling.
Tristan Gooley, Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, explorer, and natural navigation author, says natural navigation – orienting yourself using the sun, stars, plants, animals, and water – is something that can enrich a journey in new and exciting ways.
Bill Eakins, a veteran adventure rider and a scout and communications specialist for Butler Maps, claims that using your own sense of direction and clues from your environment brings back a sense of discovery, while Matthew Brummet, an avid motorcyclist and wilderness survival guide, notes that the most common reason people get lost is that they simply aren’t paying attention to their surroundings.
So what’s your best bet when it comes to planning your journey, navigating the world, and getting your bearings when lost?
A Route is Just an Opinion
“Bikers probably have a much healthier attitude to technology than drivers. A driver who punches in a destination on his SatNav device and blindly follows it wants to get from A to B, but has no interest in what happens in between. I suspect most motorcyclists take a bit more interest in the routes and the nature of the roads: why let a machine decide how you’re going to get to your destination? We might look back on our current age as one in which we were rather confused about what we should do ourselves and what we should leave to the machines”, – says McKinlay.
According to the navigation maestro, although satellites are constantly improving, humans will always be better than computers – even with the rise of artificial intelligence (AI).
“A GPS unit – a receiver for working out where you are based on signals received from satellites – is really impressive technology, but it’s not fool proof. High buildings can block and reflect signals which confuses receivers. GPS does not work well in cities. The signals are weak and can be swamped by interference. The maps built in to the devices are only as accurate as the people who made them! And they can be out of date. Finally, the routing advice – how to get from A to B – is just one opinion of the best route, and the driver or rider may know better”, – notes McKinlay.
“If we want driverless cars, we are going to have to develop much better navigation systems. The systems for navigating driverless vehicles will have to be very reliable, accurate, robust and rarely deceive. GPS as it is just isn’t good enough, so in the future, we won’t just rely on one technology. We’re likely to be using hybrids – satellites and sensors. As for AI, there will be a market for that. However, we know when it comes to navigation – rather than just steering round obstacles – humans seem to have impressive abilities. So, my view is that it will remain the domain of people using smart tools – including AI – and not machines doing it all. The more we find for machines to do, the more clearly we will identify the unique contribution human thinking can make”.
McKinlay claims that getting truly lost will become more and more impossible in the next decade or so: GPS units are constantly improving, maps are getting better all the time and imagery from space is helping specialists map remote areas.
“But it’s back to the fundamental issue of GPS making us lazy. Looking at a map is part of rehearsing your route and making sensible plans. When people get lost it is often not the fault of a map or GPS. The fault happened weeks earlier when they failed to plan what they were trying to do. Read any story about a GPS disaster (wrong destination, driving in to rivers, etc.): these are symptoms not just of over-reliance on the technology but of a lack of planning and thinking ahead. Doing some basic navigation will help you see things you would have missed otherwise. And it’s not about ditching the new technology. It’s about using it as just one of many tools rather than something “magic” you cannot do without”, – says McKinlay.
The Poetry of Natural Navigation
Tristan Gooley has led expeditions in five continents, climbed mountains in Europe, Africa and Asia, sailed small boats across oceans and piloted small aircraft to Africa and the Arctic. He has walked with and studied the methods of the Tuareg, Bedouin and Dayak in some of the remotest regions on Earth – and he’s convinced that natural navigation is worth re-discovering.
“I think in a way, GPS navigation is a little like fast food. Sure, you get your calorie needs met, and it’s quick and easy. But fine dining on exquisite food is a very different experience altogether. Is it necessary? No, of course not. But neither is music, for example: you can go from dawn to dusk without music, without art. Natural navigation to a journey is what poetry is to daily life: not necessary to survival, but vital to enrich the experience”, – says Gooley.
For him, everything in his surroundings is a clue. “Simply paying attention to what’s around you can give you so much information about where you are and where you need to go. The sun is always due South in the Northern hemisphere. Notice the direction of the winds: wind leaves permanent markings on trees and buildings. Have you noticed the vegetation change? There’s probably a river ahead. Observe cultural behavior: in any big city, you can easily find the center by following the flows of people in the morning, or going in the opposite direction in the evening rush hour when everyone’s headed home. Notice if someone hesitates at an intersection: they probably aren’t local, so asking for directions won’t help. Observe the condition of the road, especially if it’s gravel: at an intersection, the road which was used the most, which has the most tire marks on it, will probably lead you back to civilization. Pay attention to animal behavior: you don’t need to be a Pacific islander following herds of dolphins to get home, or a Dayak finding his way in the jungle by observing a hornet’s nest. Once in Greece, we couldn’t find the beach we were heading back to – there were five perfectly identical beaches in the area, and we were confused. What helped us was observing a pack of cats which were sitting around a garbage container – we’d noticed them before, and found our beach by remembering the cats”.
Is sense of direction an innate gift? According to Gooley, it’s debatable – but so are the methods of navigation. “Some people navigate intuitively: they will always find their way, but they will be unable to explain how they got there. The Dayak, for example, have a very unique understanding of the shape of the Earth: for them, everything is not South/North or left/right – it’s upstream or downstream and uphill or downhill. The Touareg have an incredible familiarity with their localities: they can tell two identical dunes apart, but they would be lost in Manhattan where for them, all the buildings would probably look the same. So it’s more about what you learn growing up than some innate gift. When we are young, our brain decides what to prioritize. A little Cretan boy who spent his childhood herding sheep in the mountains with his dad will have a better talent for navigation than a city kid who was driven everywhere. But it doesn’t mean that you can’t learn to navigate, it simply takes time and practice. As a motorcyclist, when you hear a bike go by you probably know whether it’s accelerating or decelerating, what make and model it is, without even seeing it. Well, for me, it’s the same with navigation. It’s about actively using this skill and fine-tuning it as you go along”.
Getting Lost Can Be Healthy
Bill Eakins is constantly out riding, scouting new routes, roads, and tracks. Bill uses the rule of three when it comes to navigation: a GPS unit, a paper map, and a compass.
But even the map maker himself sometimes gets lost. “Frankly, I sometimes take the wrong turn on purpose: when you get lost, you always learn something. Even if a road turns out to be a dead end, it’s something new that I didn’t know before. I think the early explorers had it right: they got lost a lot! But look how much they gained. To me, exploring uncharted territory brings back the sense of discovery and pure wonder. Even if it’s a different track around a familiar mountain, or a different angle to see some long-forgotten valley, it’s something that I’ve discovered, it’s a route that I have created rather than merely followed directions to a destination”, – says Bill.
For Matt Brummet, it’s all about learning to read mother nature. “What will help you develop your navigation skills is learning about the natural world and your surroundings without the use of maps and electronics. Spending time studying and observing the natural world will reveal more than you think. At the very least, learn the most basic of navigation, the cardinal directions (north, east, south, west) and how to find them using natural means, the sun, moon, stars, life zones, plants, shadows, etc. Learning how to read maps, especially topographic maps, is a huge plus: being able to read topographic maps will show you the landscape in 3D. Reading topographic maps and developing route profiles for each day of travel are essential. A route profile is a way to plot out the day by reading the map and pointing out certain landmarks to look for such as trail junctions, creek crossings, geologic features, elevation gain/loss, mile markers, and so on. Finally, talking and listening to locals is always a great resource”, – says Matt.
But what if you’re lost?
“The main reasons people get lost are lack of paying attention, poor planning and mistakes they don’t correct. If you got lost, don’t panic. Well, you can panic but please don’t make any decisions while you’re in panic mode! After you have de-escalated from your mental freak-out, make a logical plan. Make sure you’re in a location that is safe from things such as flash flooding, avalanches, rock slides, dead trees, etc. Your priority is your safety. To orient myself in the wilderness, I pay close attention to the signs that nature gives me for general direction of travel. Line of sight, getting a vantage point to see farther and an overall view of the surroundings are vital along with finding the cardinal directions and keeping track of them throughout your travel. For this I use the sun, moon, stars, shadow stick, plants and ecosystem. Looking at certain plants, their ecosystem and life zones will all reveal information about general direction allowing me orientation. As an example, I’m in a high mountain valley, the sun is not showing and it’s hard to know direction. On one side of the valley slope are Aspen trees across the stream on the other slope are Spruce/Fir trees. Knowing that Spruce/Fir trees grow at a higher elevation than Aspen trees lets me know the slope with the Aspen trees is warmer then the Spruce/Fir slope. My conclusion is the Aspen tree slope receives more sun (south-ish facing) then the Spruce/Fir slope that grows at a higher elevation, which is colder, less sun (north-ish facing)”, – advises Matt.
All four navigation experts agree: a GPS unit is a wonderful piece of technology, and navigating using paper maps – or no maps at all – isn’t a more ‘kosher’ way to travel. But having a basic navigation skill set, an ability to use natural navigation tools, and simply observing and paying attention to your surroundings can make the difference between a tourist holiday and an adventurous journey – or, in the more remote corners of the Earth, between and adventure ride and an adventure going wrong.
So go, experiment, and get lost: discover the world on your own terms!
Source: Advtracks 10 December 2017
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