How to navigate by nature

Turn off your GPS to enjoy a real adventure, says natural navigation expert Tristan Gooley.
Stars glowing from the sky.
MeiliSnow Mountain © Nutthavood Punpeng
By Tristan Gooley

Do we really need natural navigation now that even our phones have maps and a GPS? You might also ask, is there any point in good cooking, now that we have fast food? Natural navigation — the art of finding our way using the sun, moon, stars, weather, plants and animals — is not always necessary if all you want to do is get from A to B.

But it is absolutely vital if you want to have the most interesting journey. Natural navigation is to GPS what Mozart is to Simon Cowell. It’s raclette to Big Mac. In the Libyan Sahara I learned from the Tuareg nomads how to find my way using the shape of sand dunes. And in the heart of Borneo I was taught by the Dayak how to find my way using streams. These tips will help you navigate closer to home:

libya sand dune author explores
Footprints ober the sandtunes © Tristan Gooley / naturalnavigator.com

Wind

The wind leaves great footprints everywhere on Earth. From the middle of the Atlantic, where the ocean swell can be read, to the way the tops of trees are bent by prevailing winds, the wind is there to help navigators. Just make sure you stay tuned to the direction the winds have been blowing from and you will find compasses all around you.

In the Libyan Sahara I learned from the Tuareg nomads how to find my way using the shape of sand dunes.

After winter snow, look for consistent vertical white strips on trees, where the wind has plastered one side only — it will be consistent over wide areas. Also look for the build-up of snow on either side of any obstacles that slow the wind. There will be firm deposits on the windward side and longer, softer tails on the downwind side. This technique works with sand too.

puddles on southern side of track looking east
Observing where puddles form can indicate north. © Tristan Gooley / naturalnavigator.com

Sun

Understanding exactly what direction the sun will be all day takes a bit of training and practice, but everyone in Europe and the US should be aware that it is due south when it is highest in the sky, at midday. This is why you will find more puddles on the shaded southern side of most west-east tracks than the northern side, where the sun reaches more easily in the middle of the day.

Snow strips
Trees offer numerous ways to navigate © Tristan Gooley / naturalnavigator.com

Trees

I have a collection of 12 scientific ways we can use the trees to navigate and that is before we even get on to the lichens, algae and mosses growing on them. Every serious outdoors person should at the very least learn how to roughly map the terrain in front of them using trees.

They reveal the nature of the ground ahead and also changes in altitude. In temperate regions, beeches mean dry land, whereas willows and alders can reveal the line of an invisible river in the distance. Each individual species gets shorter with altitude and then yields to a hardier species, all the way up the tree line.

contrail trends northwest to southeast uk
Contrails form northwest to southeast in NW Europe © Tristan Gooley / naturalnavigator.com

Clouds

Every cloud can be used to navigate with practice. But one of the quickest techniques to try is to look for trends in contrails. When the atmospheric conditions are right, high aircraft leave long white trails of condensed water vapour. There will be consistent trends in these lines, as there are dependable patterns in the places aircraft fly. Once you know the trend in your area, these contrails act like huge compasses in the sky. In northwest Europe they tend to form lines from northwest to southeast.

Cities

TV satellite dishes are very helpful in cities, as they have consistent trends, well worth spotting. But my favourite technique in towns is more of an art form. By studying the habits of that ubiquitous animal, the human being, we can navigate easily. If you are totally lost in a big city, go against the flow of people in the morning or with the flow of people in the afternoon and you will find a station.

Tristan Gooley is the author of The Natural Navigator. For more information on natural navigation see www.naturalnavigator.com or follow @naturalnav on Twitter.

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