Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Casual navigation based on landmarks

The vast majority of navigation is not done with bearings and compass sighting, most is done through casual
navigation using only the features on the map and relating them to the features in front of your eyes. This is exactly what you do every time that you use a city map, a map in a park or even a mall map! Most of the time you are just looking around you and figuring out where you are and where you are going. The exact same technique applies to navigating terrain. The only difference is that the features you are looking for are less obvious than road signs.

Thumbing along

Thumbing along means that you should always know specifically were you are on the map and follow along physically on the map as you move. You should move your thumb along the map on your line of travel as you move along the route.

The benefit of thumbing along is that it forces you to pay attention to where you are on the map and what is coming up around you. The closer attention you pay to your map the easier your navigation will be.

Every time that you put your map down it takes time to find your location. Keeping your thumb on your location will lessen that effort.

Turn by turn

If you are thumbing along, turn by turn tracking will happen inherently.  Know what turns are coming before you get to them. Arriving at the turn should simply be a verification of what you already knew was coming.

Where turn by turn navigation gets more difficult is when trails or roads have changed and the map isn't accurate. In these cases you should stop at the first indication of a problem and verify that you are where you think you are.  For example, a new road has appeared in front of you that wasn't on the map. Is it a new road or are you not actually where you thought you were.

Rising or falling

As you are moving along your route you should be tracking whether you are rising or falling and how steep the terrain is. Does this align with the contours that you are seeing on the map. Contour lines are not absolutely accurate but they are a good indication of the shape of the terrain. If you have been climbing a hill for 10 minutes and you were expecting to be on a flat...there might be a problem with your position.

Strong features

Watch the terrain for features that are strong indicators of position. Some good examples include:
  • Stream/river crossings
  • Bodies of water
  • Rock outcrops
  • Unique tree formations
  • Fence lines
  • Power lines
  • Hills/mountains

Long distances

If you are covering long distances with "easy" navigation it is obviously not practical to thumb along the whole time. Plan your route and plan for features that you can use as checkpoints along the way to confirm you are on the right route. The longer you go without verifying your position the more likely it is that you will be making a large mistake. Every racer has experienced running past an important landmark and having to backtrack. That will happen but can be minimized through proper planning of catching features along your way.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Buying a compass

Your compass is one of your most important pieces of gear for orienteering or adventu
re racing. Having a compass that is functional and easy to use is important. If your compass doesn't have these qualities you will use it less often during the race...and you will be lost more often.

Compasses come in many shapes, sizes and costs. There are some very good cheap compasses and there are not-so-great expensive ones.

My favorite compass has been the Suunto M-3DL. I had one of these for several years until I lost it on the way to a race 2 years ago. It was a sad day. The replacement compass I bought, in desperation on the way to the race, was the Brunton Classic. There's nothing like a bad compass to demonstrate how important it is to have a good one!

Features to look for in a compass

When buying a compass for racing there are some attributes that you will want high on your priority list:
Suunto M-3DL - Good value compass
  • Long base plate - A longer base plate is a feature that I like in a compass because it allows you to line up features further apart on the map accurately when taking a bearing off of the map. If you have a too short base plate you will end up either estimating the extended straight line on the map or carry another straight edge with you to extend the line.
  • Dampening fluid - The dampening fluid in a compass keeps the needle from jiggling around while you move. You want a compass with dampening, but not excessive amounts that make the compass slow to respond when turning. Try out the compass, walk around with it, turn and twist it ,and make sure that the needle responds in a way that is comfortable for you to follow. 
  • Adjustable declination - Many cheaper compasses and some more expensive ones don't provide declination setting. As previously discussed, accounting for declination is important! Some will provide a declination reference on the face, this isn't sufficient because it is error prone and difficult to do quickly. Choose a compass with either a tool adjusted declination or non-tool adjusted. The tool adjusted ones are a little better at holding their setting but either will be fine. 
  • Comfortable in your hand - You want to carry your compass most of the time. Make sure that it is comfortable to hold or has a strap that can keep it in easy reach. My preference is to shorten the strap to a bracelet length so it is dangling near my hand all of the time. I find having it hang around my neck means that it is in the way more often, especially when biking. 
  • Scales on edge - Having a scale on the side of your compass can be handy so that you don't always need to reference the scale index on the map itself when measuring distances. However, with many of today's maps being done with custom scales this feature is getting less useful. 
  • Orienting lines on the dial - It is very convenient having orienting lines on the dial itself. Many compasses will have orienting lines on the base plate but having them on the dial will make your life much easier when you are taking a bearing off of a map. 

What about a mirror?

Why isn't a mirror on my list of important features? Well, it isn't that important. It is true that you can achieve slightly more accurate bearings using a compass with a mirror, however, I don't think it is worth the bother. The mirrored compasses are:

  • Bulkier
  • More prone to breakage (hinges and mirrors)
  • More difficult to use on the move (running, biking, paddling, etc)
  • More expensive
In practice, the accuracy that you will get from a mirrored compass will be reduced to negligible by the fact that you will be traveling over heavy terrain with a limited forward sight line.

So, a mirrored compass is fine, if that's what you have or like, I just don't see the value. Mariners have used non-mirrored compasses for centuries pretty successfully!

What to avoid in a compass

brunton classic compass
Brunton Classic - Low quality compass
Beyond the lack of having the features above, there are a few things you should avoid in a compass. 
  • Surface printed lettering - Unless the lettering is embedded in the material of the compass or sunken, it will rub off. My Brunton is absolutely unreadable after 2 years of use because of the lettering
  • Weird colors - I've found that weird coloring on a compass can make map features disappear in bad lighting. Not a good thing.
  • Gimmicky racing compasses - There are a multitude of gimmicky racing compasses out there. Some don't have any numbering, some strap to your hand or thumb. These might be useful if you are a sprint orienteering racer, otherwise, you probably don't need one of these. It will be woefully inadequate if you need to actually take an accurate bearing.
    Gimmicky race compass
  • Weird shaped compasses - You will see a lot of ergonomic compasses and other strange shapes. Avoid these if you plan on taking a bearing from your map, unless you want to carry a separate protractor for bearing work. 
  • Ultra small - Ultra small is good thing unless it affects functionality. Ultra small compasses are difficult for accurate bearing taking.  


Compass choice is subjective. When you are buying your next compass:
  1. Think hard about what you will use the compass for
  2. Don't get too excited about the latest gimmick. 
  3. Go down to your local adventure store and try a few out.
  4. Buy based on value, not cost.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Taking and following a bearing on a map

Animated GIF of taking and following a bearing
Animated GIF of taking and following a bearing
A key technique in orienteering is the ability to take a bearing off of a map and follow it. You want to do this when you know specifically where you are and specifically where you want to go and you want to follow a straight line to get there. Sometimes you might just want to get a general indication if the trail that you are following is heading in the right direction.

Here are the steps:

  1. Know where you are on the map and where you want to go on the map.
  2. Place the edge of your compass between the start location and the end location.
  3. Turn the face of the compass so that the north mark on the face is aligned with north on the map. The grid lines are useful for this alignment.
  4. Hold your compass flat in front of you and turn your body until the red end of the needle and the red arrow on your compass face are lined up.
  5. Follow the direction. 
The best way to follow a bearing accurately is to look for an object in the distance that is in the right direction and travel towards that object. Do not walk and watch your compass the whole time or you will introduce errors in your direction. Walking to a distant object also allows you to traverse poor terrain more easily because you can go around obstacles instead of through them. 

Do not trust yourself to walk in a particular direction without a reference point in the distance, it isn't possible.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Features on a topo map - Declination


Declination is the difference between the direction of the earths north-south pole axis and the magnetic reading of a compass. The reading of a compass will vary from location to location around the world because of differences in the magnetic field of the earth.

Since the magnetic field moves within the earth, the declination will also change over time for a given area. Any time you are in a new area, check your declination and adjust for it.

Note: Declination is the same concept as variation in marine navigation terminology.

Declination is important when you are navigating by map because most maps are drawn referencing physical north instead of magnetic north. If you try to navigate from a map using the physical north reference you will be off by the amount of deviation. A 10 or 20 degree error in navigation has huge consequences.

declination example

The example above shows the problem with declination. You are at the center of this compass and you are trying to walk to the edge of the lake (#1). The distance is approximately 1.5km. If you ignore the declination and travel the same distance you will miss the lake by approximately 1/2 km and you will never intersect with it.

Declination will normally be shown on the map with the following symbol, or something similar:

This symbol shows:

  • GN - Grid north - The orientation of the grid on the map
  • TN - True north - Physical north-south access
  • MN - Magnetic north - the direction the compass points to as north
MN usually gives the number of degrees difference. Sometimes another number is also given, which is the change in declination over time. The example above shows the declination as just over 18 degrees west from the grid. If no date or annual change is indicated you can assume that the declination shown is current. Sometimes the map will have a publish date and the amount of change per year. In the example above the change is 1.4' decrease per year. 

Compass declination settingHow do you correct for declination? 

Compass adjustment

Most good compasses will have an adjustment for setting declination. Usually this setting will be a scale on either side of the North heading with a number of degrees change. It can usually be adjusted either by sliding the base plate of the compass rose in the direction required or, in better compasses, with a small screw in the back of the compass rose that you can turn to move the setting.

The easiest way to verify the setting is by aligning your compass with the declination diagram on the map to ensure that you have adjusted it in the right direction.


If your compass does not have a declination setting you can manually calculate your bearings, as long as you are careful and don't forget to do the math.

Declination can be calculated as follows:

  • If the declination is EAST, subtract that number from your bearing
  • If the declination is WEST, add that number to your bearing

The mnemonic you can use to remember is:
East is least (subtract), West is best (add)


One important concept that isn't often discussed in orienteering as often as marine navigation is deviation. Deviation is the concept that magnetic materials will modify the direction that your compass points. In marine navigation this is a real problem because things like boats have a lot of metal that can cause deviation errors. 

In land navigation the important thing to remember is that it is not uncommon to have metal with you in the woods. Good examples are knives and watches. Either of these can significantly impact the accuracy of your compass. Rather than try to adjust for the deviation, remove all sources of magnetism from yourself before using your compass. 

NOTE: Many new backpacks have neat magnetic water tube holders. These are a huge source of deviation and should not be used if you are navigating by compass. 

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Safety bearings

Safety bearings are a common feature in short distance orienteering and adventure races. The idea of a safety bearing is that it can be used when you are lost. It will enable you to find your way back to civilization or some feature that will make it easy to find yourself. For example, it may bring you to major roads, nearby housing developments, etc.
Safety bearing

The safety bearing will usually be given as a simple cardinal direction (north, south, east, west) so that it can be followed by someone with little or no experience or someone who is disoriented.

In the example above, the safety bearing would be WEST. If you travel west from any point on the course you will end up on St. Mary's Street. It is assumed that, once you've made your way to this major road, you can be more easily found or can find your way back to the start/finish line.

One important consideration for a safety bearing is that it will probably not be a comfortable trip following the bearing. You will probably be bushwhacking. However, if you persist, it will get you back to a safe point.

If you meet an obstacle that shouldn't be traversed, or particularly difficult terrain, you can (and should) go around the feature and then continue on the safety bearing. You wouldn't want to go through a major body of water obviously!

I will post another article on how to follow a bearing.

If you are AT ALL UNSURE of your ability to successfully follow the safety bearing, the best policy, when lost, is to stay where you are until you are found.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Features on a topo map - Contour lines

Contour lines, projection and satellite image
Contour lines, projection and satellite image

Contour lines are one of the most useful features on a topo map. They are also the feature that can be most intimidating to the beginner. Contour lines are essentially the 2D representation of the 3D landscape.

The above image shows three different representations of Mount Gordon (in Mount Carleton). The top right is the topo map, the top right is a projected view of the contours of a topo map and the bottom is the satellite image. Being good at reading contour lines is being able to read the lines and interpret them into a mental image of the actual terrain.

Contour lines can be thought of as slices through the terrain at specific intervals. Think of the stacked layers of a cake and, with each layer being the same height but different shapes.  Each contour line is essentially a layer stacked on the layer below.

The following rules will help you interpret these lines:

  • Contour lines never intersect or cross, they are always nested. 
  • All topo lines on a map are equal height difference. This height is called the "interval". In Canada the interval is often 10m. The map will usually describe the interval in the title block. 
  • Contour lines that are closer together mean steeper terrain than those that are further away. 
  • Some features that happen in between the interval height might not show up on the map. (ex. small cliffs or gulleys less than 10m in height)
  • If you follow the wide part of a V shape from a lower contour level to a higher contour level, the feature is probably a valley
  • If you follow the small end of a V shape from a lower contour level to a higher contour level, the feature is probably a ridge
  • A singe contour loop with no other contours inside is probably the top of a hill or mountain. (there are exceptions)

Contour map features
Contour map features
The image to the right shows some basic features to help with this process. Here is a description of these features:

A) This large area with few contours would be a very flat section of land

B) Closely stacked contours means that this is a steep slope rising approximately 80m over a short distance.

C) The looped contour to the left of the label (at 140m) is the top of this hill.

D) The V shaped contours shows a valley with a stream running through it. We can see 70m of rise on the map, starting at the river below.

Mount Sagamook - Great contours!
Mount Sagamook - Great contours!
 Using the contour lines you can keep track of where you are on the map. Are you rising, falling, at the top of a hill, at the bottom of a valley, etc...

Often, control points will be located at interesting geographic features that are highlighted by contours. The tops of hills are a common place for a CP.

A good understanding of contours will also help you travel the most efficient route. Often there will be options available with varying terrain difficulty. It might be better to go around a mountain than across one.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Features on a topo map - Scales and distances

topo map scale
Topo map scale block
One of the most difficult things to do, when navigating by map, is judging distances.

All topo maps, and most orienteering maps, will have a scale block. The scale block shows you the relationship of the map distances to actual distances.

Depending on the origin of the map, many topo maps will have a standard scale. (1:25000, 1:10000, etc). However, increasingly, course designers are using custom scales so that they can fit their map to a certain printing size.
Compass scale tool
Compass scale tool

Many compasses have built in scale measurements on their edges. If you have one of these compasses, and it matches the scale in use on the map, this is the easiest way to measure distances.

Simply use the appropriate scale on the side of the compass (check this twice to avoid mistakes!), lay the compass on the map and directly measure the distance.

Another feature of topo maps is often a grid pattern (marked in blue on the map to the right. These grids can also be used to estimate distances since they are uniform sized. Often the grid will be either 1km or 10km along each edge. Simple count the grid squares to know approximately how far you are from your destination.

Topo map grid
Topo map grid

A problem, of course, with either of these measuring methods is that you are almost never traveling in a straight line along a map (unless you are following something like a power line or a nice straight logging road). In most cases, the easiest way to measure a distance on a winding trail is to use a piece of string to trace the path you intend to follow and then measure that string along your scale to find the distance.

Knowing your distance is one thing, actually predicting how far you have walked or, worse, snowshoed or bushwhacked is much harder. Much of the time this will come down to experience and estimation. Keep a keen eye on your map and the features that you are passing as you walk, thumb along on the map (details to follow in another post) and do your best to understand how quickly you are moving over the terrain. If you are the type of runner or walker who normally tracks distances over time you will find this easier. For the rest of us, this will be a constant challenge that only experience will help.

As you get closer to your destination (within a couple hundred meters), switch to counting steps. This is a pretty accurate way to travel a known distance. This will be helpful in situations such as "75m north of trail junction".

Also, remember that, in my experience, people tend to over estimate the distance they have traveled walking, snowshoeing or especially bushwhacking.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Features on a topo map - Data Date

Before planning your route, and certainly before trying to navigate your route, it is important to have an understanding of the features of a topo map. These maps are chalked full of detail and orienteering is one of the few opportunities to use every aspect of the map. If you aren't "seeing" the these features, you are making your navigation harder that it needs to be. The following few posts will be dedicated to specific aspects of topo maps that are important.

Add caption

Data Date

An important thing to know about maps, and Canadian topo maps specifically, is that they are not updated regularly. In fact, in many cases, they are woefully out of date. 

The date of the map will usually be found in the bottom left corner of the map.  A single map may also have data from several different years...or decades. If your map doesn't have a data date, ask the race director. 

From a practical standpoint, you can image how much an area can change over a long period of time. The things to keep in mind for old topo maps are: 
  • Major roads are more likely to still exist
  • Small roads and trails may or may not still exist
  • New roads and trails may have been created
  • Any man-made structure may or may not exist. This includes power lines, buildings, fences, etc. 
  • Natural features such as rivers, streams and elevations probably haven't changed
  • Beaver ponds may not exist or new ones may have appeared
Race directors take a special, sick, pleasure in using these "features" to cause havoc in your route. What looks like a very direct, easy trail between two CPs could actually be an overgrown swamp. Trust me, you do not want to carry your bike through an overgrown swamp. 

Forestry operations specifically will cause a great deal of differences between the topo you have and the reality in front of you. Large sections of trail may be gone or changed. 

In some cases, the race director will take pity on the racers and will draw in corrections on the map. The map on the right is an example of a section of map that was particularly out of date. We added in the blue trails to show where the real trails were located. Many (most) of the dotted trails were inaccurate on the topo. 

Generally speaking, if a race director has added a trail to a map, it is for a good reason. You should give it careful consideration. 

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

9-Toes - Your race handout

Course handouts are provided at registration on the day of the event. It is recommended that you register at least an hour before the start so that you have enough time to complete the registration and plan your route.

Each team will receive a kit containing the following items:

Individual waivers

Each team member will be required to complete a waiver form. This form is a requirement of our insurance company and must be completed unless the racer is a youth in Scouts or Guides.

Race guide and rules

The race guide and rules handout provides details of:

Safety bearings

A safety bearing is a compass heading that can be used, from any point in the course, to provide a guaranteed route back to civilization if you get lost. It is important to realize that this may not be an easy or comfortable route since it will probably involve bushwhacking. However, it is a good method to find your way back to safety if you otherwise can't find yourself on the map.

What to do if you get lost

The safety bearing is an option for getting yourself un-lost. However, in most cases, it is advisable ,instead, to simply stay where you are until found. Blow your whistle periodically to aid being found. The total area of the course is not large and you will be found reasonably quickly. Call the emergency number if you have a cell phone and signal.

Instructions for the maps

Details will be provided, if required to clarify aspects of the maps or how the maps should be referenced.

Race start and end details

The details of the start and end times for the race as well as the penalties for being late. You will be penalized heavily for being late.

Control point instructions

The booklet will provide detailed instructions on what the control points will look like, how they can be confirmed and what to do if one is missing. 

Scoring details

The course will include variable points for CPs. Your team's strategy should take into account the point values so that you can maximize your score. However, be forewarned, higher points mean more difficult navigation or terrain!

Course rules

The rules for the race are pretty straight forward. The most important ones are:

  • Stay within 100m of your team
  • No littering
  • Respect the land
  • No motorized transportation
  • No GPS (except for emergency use)

Score sheet

Each team will receive a single score sheet. Do not lose your score sheet or you will not receive any points for controls visited.


Your team will receive a single set of maps. The maps will include topographic (topo) maps as well as park maps. Topo maps include physical and geographic features of the area and will be in proper scale. Park maps may not be to scale but often provide insight into specific park features that might be useful for navigation. 

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

9-Toes - Race Format

At 5 hours, the 9-Toe Winter Adventure Race is considered a "sprint" length event (any race under 6 hours is a sprint). For those familiar with orienteering races, the navigation style for the race is a Rogaine.

In rogaine races teams compete in an open course with no defined route. Teams choose the best route, best checkpoint (CP) order, and which checkpoints to find. There is no requirement to find all checkpoints and it is very likely that no teams will complete the entire course.

Racers will compete in teams of, ideally, 2 to 4 individuals.


Racers will gather up to 2 hours before the race to register, sign waivers and receive:
  • Map(s)
  • Instructions
  • Score card
Once the teams have their maps they will find a comfortable spot to sit and plan their route. (more on route planning later)

The Race

The race will start as a mass start will all teams in all three categories starting at the same time. Teams will follow, as best as they can, their planned route from CP to CP using only map and compass. 

Racers can take trails, roads or bushwhack to get to their CPs, unless an area has been defined as off limits.

Most CPs will be off of the trail and in the woods, use your map and the clues to find the CP. Usually they are near some sort of feature that will help with the locating. Common features include:
  • Trail junctions
  • Large trees
  • Bodies of water
  • Streams
  • Rock formations
  • Tree formations 
  • Clearings in the trees

The CPs are marked by a cone with ribbon and reflectors. Each cone has a number that confirms that you are at the right CP. Each CP will also have a ribbon with a word marked on it. That word is the "code" that you must record. Write the code word on the score sheet. Don't lose your score sheet or you will not receive any points.

Make sure that you leave enough time at the end of the race to finish on time. Teams will lose the value of one CP for each minute late. 

Post race

The race directors will tally the points. Drink a cup of hot chocolate, eat a burger, watch the other teams finish and enjoy the stories!