Natural navigation

Natural navigation

Natural navigation  by Kyt Lyn Walken


“... not the map that should make sense of the land, but the land that will make a map for us....”  ― Tristan Gooley, "The Lost Art of Reading Nature's Signs: Use Outdoor Clues to Find Your Way, Predict the Weather, Locate Water, Track Animals-and Other Forgotten Skills"

Often underrated, easily forgotten, poorly covered in some books and manuals, navigation skills have been the core of exploration for ages, assuming the role of one of the essential abilities to gain and master.  Scouting uncharted places, in fact, required a high level of expertise, along with commitment, dedication and bravery.

Navigation mastery actually triggered the elaboration of maps and the evolution of devices to make navigation accessible to anyone. Technology development did the rest.

Nonetheless, running out of batteries or finding yourself stranded somewhere and with no connection is far from being a remote possibility.

That being said, it's easy to improve your navigation skills in a urban scenario as well as off-grid.

Mountain and trail hiking

Navigation in an urban context versus in the wilderness

“I was one of the many millions to misunderstand what is wild. I have read authors’ definitions of “wild” as any place you can walk for a week without meeting a road or fence. But I think that is a narrow view, a consumer view, a transactional perspective that expects a landscape to give us the sense of wilderness in return for our travel. It is one I subscribed to for many years, which is partly why I found myself in those places, but now I see it as lazy. A sense of wild is engendered by awareness, a sense of connection with and deep understanding of any landscape. The pavement of any city side street wriggles with enough life to terrify and delight us if we choose to immerse ourselves in it”
― Tristan Gooley, "The Nature Instinct: Relearning Our Lost Intuition for the Inner Workings of the Natural World"

Thinking to get lost inside a metropolitan area seems odd, especially considering the abundance of resources (road signs, public maps, et cetera) as well as the possibility to rely on people's kindness to help us find our destination.

Even so, extended suburban areas can be tricky enough to navigate in.
By definition, in fact, those zones are often less populated and sometimes poor in terms of proper signs.

With the aggravation of scarce – or even non-existent wifi connection we could easily get trapped in a dedalus of dirt roads, and off track from our real destination.

While having an updated paper map of the area we are in is always the wisest option to go, who does that?

But for the wise and alert, while driving we can get details of the entire place we are in.  Observation can allow us to collect data on several important details connected to safety. Just to mention the most obvious:

1. distance to our destination
2. the type of road we are in
3. the district we are crossing (buildings, population, ..)
4. weather conditions
5. probability to find a place where to spend the night in complete safety

Either in a vehicle or by foot we actually navigate by creating a mental database which allows us to fix some reference points in order not to get lost.

If this process seems pretty regular inside a city, we can apply the same to when we are off-grid.

How to improve your navigation skills

“Randomness is not a great survival strategy, so it is rare in nature.”
― Tristan Gooley, "The Lost Art of Reading Nature's Signs: Use Outdoor Clues to Find Your Way, Predict the Weather, Locate Water, Track Animals-and Other Forgotten Skills"

Navigation skills can be effectively gained and mastered with different methods, like:

– studying some good books and field guides
– watching valuable videos on YouTube
– using map and compass
– putting in constant practice what you learned

Like for other primitive Arts, navigation requires patience, focus, determination, perseverance and a practical use.  

This is the only way to become good at it.

Besides what's mentioned above, there is actually another ancient Art which can come in handy to achieve your goals with great effectiveness and functionality.
This Art – and often calles also "Science" – is Tracking.

Tracking can be defined as the ability of locating, reading, interpreting and following animals and/or men by the tracks they have left.

Even if primordial times, this Art has been successfully handed down to nowadays. It crossed centuries of explorations and technological development without losing neither modifying its principles and power too.

From hunting big and small game to defensive purposes, Tracking has always come into play with extreme effectiveness, especially in survival scenarios.

riverside hike
Reading the environment

As stressed before, reading the environment which surrounds us is making intel.

Scouting an area can provide us the elements related to

• signs of urbanization
• presence of roads
• presence of vehicles
• flora and fauna
• detection of any sound that we can immediately recoognise as man-made
• any trace, on the ground, of recent – or old- passage of people and/or animals

We scout employing our eyes, ears, nose and hands.

Every detail counts, when it comes the necessity to understand our location.

Additionally, all the information determines our safety if we find ourselves stranded.

The necessity of setting some reference points can be easily supplied by the earth herself.

Reading the terrain

Observation gives us all the topics necessary to reconstruct what happened in a specific time/space frame. This is the purpose of Tracking.

Tracking is totally like solving a puzzle.

You start from collecting the pieces, then matching them together in order to have the whole picture in your mind.

Tracking can be easy to do on some ideal terrains (so defined "track traps" inside the Tracking terminology,) like muddy, sandy soils, or snow.

On the other hand, reading the earth can be utterly difficulty on tough surfaces like dead leaves or a pine needles bed, craggy and rocky soils or bush hogged prairies.

The core of Tracking is being able:

1. to methodically observe what surrounds you
2. to start looking for the tracks of interest
3. to interpret them in an accurate way, not jumping to conclusions
4. to finally follow them

Only by carrying and testing your Tracking skills in different environments and with various weather – seasonal conditions will you be able to achieve success.

Combining Tracking skills with Survival

"Tracking reveals the story of what has happened in our environment. It is up to us whether we consider that valuable or not. I certainly do. There is a difference between something that is valuable and something that is essential. Oxygen is essential, but tracking is valuable. One keeps us alive, the other enriches that life. A bacteria is alive, but humans are capable of the sort of awareness that leads to a much richer life. If we choose it. Those who have no interest in the stories we can read in nature have a poorer life."
– Tristan Gooley, interviewed by Kyt Lyn Walken (September, 2020)

Imagine being stranded and having to spend the night out.

If so, you can look for an ideal area where to settle your shelter.
By applying Tracking Skills you can look for a safe place

– far from any wasp nests or widow maker
– at proper distance from any animal passage (by doing so, avoid to take advantage of any den, even if it looks like old or abandoned!)

You can also track fresh ungulates tracks to locate the proximity of a river where you can collect water to filter and purify.

Tracking animals will make you gain the expertise where to set traps.

How to backtrack yourself if stranded
tracking back tracking
".... if you are lost, then noticing the route taken by animals can reveal the location of water, woodland, hills, towns and much more. Humans leave erosion patterns at junctions that point towards civilisation. As a general rule, individual animals and people can do strange things, but group behaviour will always reveal a truth about the area....
– Tristan Gooley, interviewed by Kyt Lyn Walken (September, 2020)

If you find yourself on a real soft and properly humid terrain, you can backtrack yourself by checking the design of the soles of your shoes (Trackers define it as "pattern").

You must be very accurate in doing that!  In fact, a misinterpretation could easily lead you into following the tracks of those who passed before you.

Even with a change of the type of ground, you should be good in detecting your own tracks.


"... The decisions people and animals make can be seen in their signs, this reveals a lot about our surroundings and can help us with navigation decisions ..."
– Tristan Gooley, interviewed by Kyt Lyn Walken (September, 2020)

There are some really good manuals which can open your horizons at mastering navigation skills.

My personal selection goes to:

The Natural Navigator – Tristan Gooley (2010)
Map Reading and Land Navigation: FM 3-25.26 - Department of Army (2011)
Land Navigation Handbook: The Sierra Club Guide to Map, Compass and GPS (Sierra Club Outdoor Adventure Guide) – W. S. Kals (2005)
Advanced Bushcraft: An Expert Field Guide to the Art of Wilderness Survival – Dave Canterbury (2020)

Developing navigation skills, combined with scouting and tracking is a guarantee of success.


About the author: Kyt Lyn Walken

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