Sunday, January 09, 2011
A friend of mine once said that when she goes out hiking in the forest, it all looks like a "wall of green". But as a trail runner, if you know the types of local vegetation, it can help you orient yourself on the trail. Why is this important? It might not be on a well-trodden path like the Ridgeline, but a week ago I was running on an unfamiliar trail system further from home. With only a glance at the map at the trailhead and very little in the way of trail signage, I could navigate my way through the looping trails and end up back at my car an hour or so later. Why? A couple of skills that help make you a good trail navigator.
1. Which way is north? One of the things I pay attention to is what grows where. Where I live, a forest that looks like this is almost certain to be on the north of a hill. The sides with southern exposure get too much sun and heat for ferns and moss to grow like this. You're more likely to see oaks and pines on the southern slopes, and that's also where the poison oak mostly grows (an important fact if you're as sensitive to it as I am.) Even on an overcast day like today, you can also see the direction that the sky is lightest, and here near the 45th parallel, that means you're looking south.
2. What's it look like on the way back? I like to build a good mental map in my head of where I've been on the trail so far, and this map requires me to orient to the points of the compass. I know which direction I've started out and when the trail bends, the map in my head bends accordingly. When hiking with the kids, I try to get them used to this sort of mental navigation, as well as turning and looking behind us so that we can see how things look coming from the other direction. On a hike last week, we came to a small tractor that was being used for trail maintenance. It happened to sit at an unmarked crossroads where five trails met. I asked the kids to turn and look back and tell me how they would tell which trail we had come in on - which one led back the way we came? "It's the trail that's right behind the tractor" they said. But I pointed out that the tractor could be moved. Oh yeah. "It's the one with bark chips from a freshly cut log, and a sharp bend to the east in about a hundred yards." That's much better. Sure enough, an hour later when we got back to the crossroads the tractor was no longer there. We were glad we were observant enough to know which trail to take.
3. How far have I come? Becoming a good estimator of time and distance is extremely helpful in any kind of trail or off-trail navigation. It's another area I practice all the time, and get my kids to practice too. Every time we go to the grocery store, I ask them to estimate the total price of everything in our cart. We all take turns and see who gets the closest. If I get the question "how long 'til we get there?" in the car, I tell them the miles and our current speed and ask them to give me a ballpark estimate for an answer. I'll ask them how big, small, or far away something is, or how much it weighs. I have to say, I kind of pride myself on my estimating skills. I can usually estimate how long or far I've been running within a tenth of a mile or so. Sometimes I take a guess and then look at my watch to confirm. The more you practice estimating and checking your estimates, the better you get.
Sometimes I wonder if the availability of relatively cheap GPS technology will leave us with a generation of poor navigators. Think of the WWII navigators who were trained to use a sextant and navigate by the stars! That's only a couple of generations ago. I've got nothing against a GPS (and I'd eventually like to get one, especially for the elevation logging capability), but it can't replace knowledge and common sense. With a combination of these skills, you can assess fairly accurately where you are in the world, whether navigating the streets of an unfamiliar city, or the trails of a forest. You never know when that might come in handy.