Navigation – The Key to the Wilderness

The following post was written by Woodlore Aspirant Instructor Rob Bashford:

The Art of Navigation

I have often heard Ray refer to the compass as the ‘key to the wilderness’. By this I believe he means it unlocks the full potential of the outdoors, enabling you to travel confidently in wild places. Navigation is undoubtedly one of those foundation skills, along with the likes of first aid, around which all other bushcraft skills should be built. The ability to navigate proficiently is an absolutely key skill if you plan to venture into the outdoors and its importance rises in direct proportion to the remoteness of the environment. It is very often the case that emergencies in the outdoors are the end result of an earlier navigational error.

The problem is that in today’s world of GPS and mapping software, now conveniently incorporated into smart phones, it is all too easy to think that the map and compass have become outdated. Nothing could be further from the truth. As in other areas of bushcraft, the best tools are those that are simple and robust, meaning they can be relied upon in tough environments. Those that utilise electronics and batteries do not generally fall into this category. That is not to say there is no place for this technology but it should never be the sole means of navigation. There is no substitute for the humble map and compass.

The ability to navigate with confidence is a wonderfully liberating skill, enabling you to venture further off the beaten track and really immerse yourself in wild places. The real beauty of this skill is that it is entirely transferrable to different environments. Yes, the maps may look a little different in foreign countries and there are some important variables to be aware of, but ultimately the skill of using a map and compass remains the same wherever you are in the world.

Rob Bashford navigating in the hills of Scotland

Rob Bashford navigating in the hills of Scotland

In its simplest form, navigation means knowing how far you have travelled from a known point and in what direction, a process known officially as ‘dead reckoning’. In reality there is a bit more to it than this and like many of the skills in bushcraft, observation is paramount. Learning to read the subtleties of the terrain allows you to venture into seemingly featureless landscapes, where there are no signs or paths to guide you. It also builds an inner confidence and that frees you to visit those less frequented places.

Although there is certainly scope for teaching yourself the basics of navigation, as when learning most new skills, a little instruction goes a long way. Woodlore has been running wilderness navigation courses for some years now and we have distilled Ray’s many years of wilderness navigation experience into a readily digestible format. These courses are unique, in that we teach you techniques you can use anywhere in the world, with a strong emphasis on woodland navigation. This environment mirrors the rigours of navigating in reduced visibility and is perfect preparation for the night navigation elements of the course. It is safe to say that when you can find your way confidently through dense forest at night, with only a map and compass to guide you, you can navigate just about anywhere.

– Rob Bashford

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