7 Habits of Highly Effective Navigators

article022Navigation is the discipline that gives adventure racing its character and differentiates this sport from off-road multisport events. It’s a fact that map interpretation and route choice make-or-break your race.

Navigation basics – before the race starts – include accurate plotting, clear location markings and careful route consideration. You should also know how to use a compass. Once the gun goes, keep these habits in mind.

Habit #1: Don’t follow. The route you take is the one you have chosen
Many times racers have said to me, “We were going really well until we hooked up with another team and they took us on the wrong route.”
Every step you take should be chosen by you. Navigational decisions are made with the information at hand at a specific time. You may alter your initial decisions along the way but ultimately anything you decide is your responsibility. If you’re going to make an error, it should be your mistake. Avoid racing side-by-side another team because their decisions will affect yours.

Habit #2: Know where you are
If you know where you are (A) and you know where you’re going (B) then you can determine a route from A to B.
This sounds silly but it happens… often. There will be occasions when you don’t quite know where you are; you may be following a path “hoping” that it will take you where you want to go. The bottom line is that if you don’t quite know where you are you have no way of plotting a direct line to your destination because you have no starting point. Always keep your thumb on your map to indicate your current location and move it along as you progress. Keep a close tab on distances and determine regular waypoints (bridge, elevation, road junction) and make sure you hit these waypoints. If you don’t, stop, orientate your map with your compass and reassess your situation.

Habit #3: Direction first. It doesn’t matter how fast you’re travelling if you’re going in the wrong direction
You know the adage “A stitch in time saves nine”. It is well worth taking a few minutes to orientate your map, scrutinise your surroundings, match features to your map and reassess your options. If a team comes rushing past you, do not be tempted to follow (Habit #1) and do not assume that they know what they are doing. Remember this too at the start of a race when the field bolts from the starting gates.
Distractions aside, when you set off from any point you should be certain that the direction you have chosen is the most correct one. Learn to use your compass properly and always keep your map orientated. It is far easier to correct an error if you quickly realise when you are going in a direction you don’t want to take.

Habit #4: Communicate
Sharing is caring; your team-mates will gain confidence in your abilities
There is nothing worse than blindly following your navigator like Mary’s little lamb. Navigators expect their teammates to faithfully follow their decisions; teammates expect their navigators to flawlessly guide them through the racecourse. Navigation is one area that can cause tempers to fly.
Navigators, your lambs will gain faith in your abilities if you keep them informed of their options (shorter but steeper route over a hill vs. longer, flatter route around the hill) and mini-goals met (distances covered, waypoint – like a bridge or road junction – located). They will also thrive on being involved with elements that contribute to successful and accurate navigation. Ask one to call out odometer distances, ask another to count paces and ask another to look out for path junctions. This will help you and will keep your flock informed, involved and content.

Habit #5: Turn back to your last point of certainty
If you don’t know exactly where you are, retreat.
Two things are not very nice:
a) not knowing where to are and;
b) turning back to retrace your steps.
The latter is definitely the lesser evil and is an advised option. Don’t hope that the bad option you’ve taken will work out. It won’t. Do not be afraid to turn back to your last point of certainty – the last point at which you were 100% confident of your location. Go back and try again. The trick, with experience, is realising quickly when you’ve made an error. It reduces the amount you need to retreat.

Habit #6: Take (calculated) risks
Navigation is cunning and strategy: outwit and outsmart
ONLY when you are confident in your abilities should you start making calculated navigational risks. These risks involve decisions based on advanced map interpretation, the making of assumptions about terrain and good off-road traversing skills. When teams of similar physical ability are pitted against each other, navigation is the first place-second place decider.
For those not chasing a podium finish, calculated decisions that pay-off make for the most incredibly satisfying experience. But there is also the chance that your choice won’t workout and that the decision could cost you time. This is the risk. What ever your situation, keep your teammates involved, let them know their options and only take risks with their consent.

Habit #7: Learn from your mistakes
You will make ‘em; learn from them.
Mistakes are part of the navigation package and it is the only way you learn what decisions work and which do not.
It’s like putting your hand on a stove’s hot plate. Mistakes are beneficial, but only if you learn from them.
If it is any consolation, the World’s top navigators also make errors. But they have learned to minimise the resulting damage. In situations where they lose five minutes, inexperienced navigators would lose six hours. That’s a considerable difference that can only be reduced by regular practise and a lot of race experience.

Navigation is, for me, the most rewarding aspect of adventure racing and the kick from making a good strategic decision that pays off is always my race highlight.

Author: Lisa de Speville | Published in Go Multi Magazine (two parts),  Dec 2007 & Feb 2008