Navigation in easy conditions

In open country when the weather is clear, navigation is generally done by direct map reading and identifying landmarks rather than by constant compass bearings. Good navigators refer to their compasses only occasionally under such conditions.

As navigator you must be able to form, from the map, a mental picture of the country to be traversed, before you actually cover it on the ground. This is rather like a musician examining printed music—a skilled musician will know what the music will sound like without having to play it. Similarly, a good navigator will know what the country will be like from examining the map carefully.

As a prerequisite you must therefore know what common natural features look like as patterns of contour lines. Common features include knolls, saddles, implied knolls or necks, gullies, cliffs, plateaux, ridges, spurs, stepped spurs, creek junctions and so on. Identify as many features as you can. As you proceed, the country should unfold more or less as you have visualised it. It is normal to keep the map handy and check progress or refresh your memory every 10 or 15 minutes. This helps to correct errors before they become large and start compounding. If a change of direction is intended at a particular point, for example, a track junction, note how that feature is situated, such as in a deep saddle or on a slope facing gently down in a particular direction. If the first track junction encountered is not in this situation then the map should be checked closely. The track junction is probably not the desired one, but may be a new one or a minor one ignored by the map makers, with the correct junction further on.

An additional check in hilly country is to always note from the map whether you should be ascending or descending. When descending a spur or when following a creek upstream, take care to observe all junctions. To assist in identifying the location of a branch spur, practice estimating the amount of height you have lost. Some navigators carry an altimeter for this purpose. Navigationally it is much easier to ascend a spur, or to follow a creek downstream, as the correct way at each junction is obvious.

In parts of hills or mountains where prominent features are few, it is useful to think in terms of watersheds or drainage basins, which are separated from one another by ridges or major spurs. If your route crosses several watersheds, you should always be aware which one you are in and the general direction the creeks should be running.

Should the country being traversed not match the mental impression formed from the map, then stop and carefully check the map and the route taken. First, align the map with north, so that it is the same way around as the country you are in. Look at the terrain, try to imagine what a map of it would look like and then attempt to find a matching piece of map. It may help to consider whether you have under- or overestimated your speed, strayed off your intended course or possibly overshot your objective.

If you cannot locate yourself on the map, take back bearings from definite features around you, conduct a resection, or retrace your steps until you can definitely locate yourself again. You could decide to walk for a definite time in a definite direction in an attempt to strike a recognisable feature - but only do this if there is a high likelihood of finding a definite feature within a relatively short distance.

It is useful to call a rest break to give you some time to examine all information from the map and the surrounding features without arousing too much interest from the rest of the group. Try to resolve the situation as quickly as possible, before ‘geographical embarrassment’ turns into ‘lost’. Procedures to use when lost are discussed in Chapter 38.

Develop the habit of looking back and memorising landmarks as seen from the opposite direction. For example, when ascending a peak and intending to return by the same route, take particular note of any critical points where it would be possible to go astray on the descent. Even if you do not intend to retrace your steps, this may be forced upon you by a variety of unforeseen circumstances, e.g. lost persons, lost equipment, lost route, change of weather or injury.