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Navigation Lessons 6 & 7: Aiming Off & Handrails

Navigation Lesson #6

Aiming off is another navigation strategy you can employ. Aiming off means deliberately aiming to one side of a feature on or near to confidently predict which side it will appear on. For example, if you aim right at a bend on a stream, but don’t see it when you hit the stream, you won’t know whether to go upstream or downstream to look for it. You are hedging your bets by purposely being inaccurate to eliminate one side of the checkpoint.

Navigation Lesson #7

Catching Features or Backstops is another navigation strategy. Before the race or as you are moving toward a checkpoint, identify obvious features a short distance beyond the checkpoint that, when you arrive at them, tell you you’ve gone too far. They are “catching” you before you travel well beyond the checkpoint. Trails, roads, fences, streams, ditches, ridge lines, power lines, fields and other obvious changes in vegetation all make for good backstops.

In this example, Bullhead Lake acts as a huge back stop. Once you see it, you know you are on the right ridge above it. Follow along the ridge and once the lake ends, you are at your attack point. Take a bearing and you now have a very short and easy bushwhack to CP B.

Navigation Lesson #5: Handrails

The use of handrails is another navigation strategy that allows teams to move more quickly and with greater accuracy and confidence toward a checkpoint or transition area. Handrails are features that you can follow easily (like a handrail on a staircase). Examples include shorelines, trails, roads, fences, streams, ditches, ridge lines, power lines, edges of fields, and other long, narrow features just as easily. It takes much less concentration to follow a handrail than a compass bearing and is usually more accurate. For a team with one navigator who is tasked with navigating for 12 or 24 hours or more, this mental break could be crucial in eliminating navigation mistakes later in the race. Here’s an example from our 12-hour 2016 Epic/Ludington Edition. Teams simply followed the high ground above Hamlin Lake, but not too closely. Just keep the lake on the right and find the fastest, mostly straight route. As is the case where fishing and hunting are popular, teams found a two track that followed this path and could move at a much faster pace as a result, almost as fast as the road to the northwest but at a much shorter distance.

Keep in mind that some handrails should be followed, but not too closely. And at times, following a handrail can backfire on you. Handrail terrain that is often difficult to move through includes creeks where the vegetation is thicker (and winding creeks result in more distance covered than necessary) and reentrants (gullies) which have “fall lines,” the low spot, which trees often fall toward and make travel very slow. Low areas around wetlands also can bog down teams, literally. You can still use these features as handrails, just stay far enough away from them to avoid their barriers but close enough so you keep them in your sight. A good example of when a handrail can actual slow you down was CP 36 at Luton Park during our Rockford Edition in 2013. The CP was located on a creek and many teams employed the handrail strategy to find it. But the creek wound back and forth (not noticeable on the map) and was full of thick vegetation and downed trees. Instead, a few teams decided to take a bearing from a bend in the trail that was closer and had faster moving terrain, giving them a significant time advantage on the other teams (ideally teams would then “aim off” the CP a bit to the south side of the CP so they would only need to work north and west to find it, still using the creek as a handrail as they approached the vicinity. We’ll cover the aiming off strategy more in another lesson.)

Moving on top of ridge lines or “spines” may offer the fastest travel (besides trails) because there is less vegetation higher up often due to the rain draining off the land, trees tend to fall down the ridge and the higher elevation offers good views of where you are going and what’s around you. To reach ridges, your best strategy if there’s one in the vicinity, is to climb up it via a spur which is more gradual than the ridge and tends to have less vegetation and deadfall.

From our Bullhead Lake/Yankee Springs example referenced in an earlier lesson, you could use the lake as an attack point, but rather than go down to the lake, you would stay on the ridge above it (which you know will flow down to the lake since it’s a drainage), using it as a handrail to get you closer to CP B  and at a high speed (which you know will flow down to the lake). Travel will be much faster up high on the ridge where vegetation is light.

Navigation Lesson #4: Attack Points

Another navigation strategy is selecting attack points. These are fairly obvious features/locations that you can travel to quickly and without a careful following of your compass bearing. This is the best strategy if the checkpoint isn’t on or near a large, distinct, easily identifiable feature. When you reach the attack point, you then establish an exact bearing and follow that into the checkpoint at a slower pace. Your accuracy in following the bearing decreases as the distance you travel increases so it’s better to seek out really large features you can travel too early on in your journey toward a CP rather than an exact bearing. If necessary, break a long leg up into several shorter sections between identifiable features, even if it means following a zig-zag course. You will cover a greater distance, but your travel will be faster and more accurate. This is extra important in overnight navigation.

The most common example of an attack point is a feature on or near a trail. This may be a “kink”, bend, intersection, a creek or gully crossing the trail, an obvious elevation change along the trail, or change in terrain type (e.g., moving from open ground to forest). You can move quickly along a trail, even if it’s more distance to the CP, and then at an obvious point along the trail, you take the bearing and venture off-trail toward the CP. For example, CP 31 at Seidman Park in our 2014 Epic Edition offers several potential attack points depending on whether you are coming from the south or the north.  The trail bends provide the most obvious attack points but you could also drop down in the reentrant/gully (orange) or valley (green). Other common attack points are water features such as lakes and swamps, hilltops, ridges, depressions, and man-made features (power lines, bends in roads, buildings).

Here’s an example of a lake that is a clear attack point along the way. You could try to maintain a direct route along your bearing from CP A to B but over this distance it will be difficult, especially if the bushwhacking is thick. Instead, head for Bullhead Lake with a quick bearing but no need to follow it exactly. You can move at as quick a pace as you can because there’s no fear of missing the lake. Once you see the lake below (you know from a past lesson that water features are almost always below the land surrounding them because of drainage), you can follow along the entire edge of the lake at a high speed before taking a bearing on the southwest side where you are much closer to CP B. From there, you’re pace should slow as you follow the bearing closely. You are so close to CP B that the accuracy of your bearing will be much greater.

The ideal way to set up an attack point is to begin with the checkpoint (control), find nearby attack points, select the best attack point, and then pick the best route to that attack point. This is called the C-A-R method which stands for Control-Attack Point-Route, developed by Winifred Scott (in Squiggly Lines by Mark Lattanzi).  For long treks, you might do this several times where the “checkpoints” are really the series of attackpoints you are stringing together to get to the final checkpoint. For example, the southwest corner of Bullhead Lake above is the final attackpoint, the midsection of the lake is a prior attackpoint. If CP A were off the map to the north, the bend in the road just east of A could be an initial attackpoint. You are thus linking these three attackpoints together, working backwards from B. As you take on longer and longer adventure races, this skill becomes imperative. In the Wilderness Traverse in Canada, we would link 6-8 hours worth of attack points together through the wilderness before we finally reached the actual control or transition area.

Make Your Mountain Bike Faster

1. MOST BENEFICIAL: Switch tires to a semi-slick tread pattern (less pronounced knobs), depending on your experience and the difficulty and slickness of the trails you will be on. Ask your local bike shop what they recommend (West Michigan Bike & Fitness is great if one is near you)

2. Inflate tires to the maximum pressure allowed (easy)

3. Lock out your front shock if you have that feature (easy)

4. Get clip in pedals and shoes (good tip for any bike)

5. Move your seat forward and flip your handlebar stem upside down (get help doing this if needed) for a more aerodynamic posture. (probably not worth it)

6. Set up a bike tow system if one of you needs some help at times. This can be a HUGE time-saver if one of you bonks. It also can be dangerous to be tied together. Requires practice and caution, including “un-tying” on the fly which can result in the leash getting caught in the spokes of the “lead dog.”

Bike tow system

The #2 way (behind navigation) my wife and I have increased our speed during adventure races over the past few years has been to set up a tow system on our bikes. We use it on races with significant road and two-track biking. My wife still bikes hard, but I’m able to give her a much needed pull up hills and some help on the flat surfaces too. Search online for different options. We went with a heavy duty retractable dog leash. No joke! If you go this route, the most important thing to remember is that when the trailing biker unhooks, they must be very close before letting go of the rope so the carabiner doesn’t get caught in the back wheel! And don’t use it on singletrack trails or anything where control is tenuous.

Zip tie the leash to the seatpost, tie a carabiner to the end roughly 12 feet of rope (consider replacing the cord with climbing rope) and hook it to a bungee cord that’s attached to the stempost of the trailing bike.

photo 1  photo 3 photo 4

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