Characteristics of an expert navigator: Introduction

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Observation Peak Pass in Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park, looking eastward toward the Middle Fork and Black Divide

Learning how to navigate was one of the most important and liberating skills that I have developed as a backpacker. On my earliest trips, when my navigation skills were at best rudimentary, I was unable to safely or confidently leave the security of obvious footpaths, foolproof blazes, and accurate signage. I also struggled to reliably find great campsites and precisely plan my water consumption.

Remarkably, I was still able to complete the entire Appalachian Trail and Colorado Trail, and with some additional skills the Sea-to-Sea Route and Great Western Loop. Unfortunately, by the end of this streak I was bored with trails, yearning for real adventure, and frankly lucky that my navigational incompetence had not cost me more than some backtracking, lumpy sleeping spots, and a greater appreciation for water.

In the subsequent years I learned to efficiently hike anywhere I wanted, even on routes that have never before seen a trail crew, guidebook author, cairn-building backpacker, or even another person. In fact, now I normally prefer that they haven’t, as these types of trips feel turbo-charged — more aesthetic, more mentally engaging, and more physically challenging. The Sierra High Route, Hayduke Trail, and of course the Alaska-Yukon Expedition seemed much more like an adventure to me than anything I’d done prior.

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Pleasant trail-hiking in Olympic National Park

The five characteristics of an expert navigator

Regardless of whether you are planning a basic trip on a popular thoroughfare, or an advanced route through wild territory, you’ll be able to successfully complete your journey with greater safety and confidence if you know how to navigate, at least proficiently if not expertly. (You will also need to know other skills, but those are beyond the scope of this series.)

What makes an expert navigator? In teaching myself and hundreds of others, I’ve identified five characteristics, listed below, and I’m going to expand on each one in a blog series over the coming weeks.

  1. Part I — Equipped with proper tools, e.g. topographic maps, magnetic compass, watch with altimeter;
  2. Part II — Proficiency in the understanding and uses of navigational tools, e.g. knowing how to read a map, and use a compass and altimeter;
  3. Attentive, e.g. noting of time, hiking speed, passing of obvious geographic landmarks;
  4. Anticipating, i.e. predicting what will happen ahead and when; and,
  5. Experienced, i.e. massive library of observations about geology, botany, wildlife behavior, hydrology, etc. that can be extrapolated to new routes and areas.

8 Responses to Characteristics of an expert navigator: Introduction

  1. PNW November 5, 2013 at 3:33 pm #

    Looking forward to seeing what you have to say for this series. Would love to read a book from you on applied skills not gear. Was surprised that the book you have published so far was all about gear since the things that really sets you apart are skills and how to apply them.

  2. Tommy Warren November 5, 2013 at 5:22 pm #

    I second what PNW said. I read the gear guide (and found it very useful); and while it does contain more than just gear information and some skills transfer, I would love to see you write a book specifically catered to backpacking skills. Especially for those of use who can’t afford to shell out the $$ for one of the guided trips. I think you would sell more of those than even the gear guide. I would definitely buy it.

  3. Brian Green November 5, 2013 at 6:27 pm #

    Damn those trick anti-spam math questions… I’m looking forward to this series too. While I am somewhat interested in your gear choices and rationale behind your selections, I think your experience and accumulated skills will be of much greater interest and value. Gear comes and goes, but the core skills are always with you.

  4. Gavin November 6, 2013 at 10:32 am #

    Looking forward to the coming posts!

  5. Missy November 7, 2013 at 8:35 pm #

    I’m extremely excited to read this series. I loved your first book, and require it for my students in my Intro to Camping course, and I would absolutely love to read a skills book as well!

  6. John J November 7, 2013 at 8:40 pm #

    Jumping on the ‘skills book’ bandwagon. Would be a great companion to your Gear Guide, and even more useful. Need desparately to upgrade my navigating skills and am looking forward to your future posts. Thanks!

  7. Tristan December 6, 2013 at 1:42 pm #

    Hi Andrew,

    I like your opening, “Learning how to navigate was one of the most important and liberating skills that I have developed…”

    In talks and courses I often say to people that navigation is the skill that allows you to shape your own journeys. If you are not a navigator, then you are a passenger. There’s nothing wrong with being a passenger, but it is a bit less interesting.

    Happy navigating,

    Tristan

  8. Monte June 25, 2014 at 12:21 pm #

    I have watched most all your online talks. They have been great about gear. I’ve always wanted to talk to you about skills. How do you deal with all the different situations. I’ve by a book about your skills!

    Thanks for the navigating article.

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