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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.

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