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Navigation Lesson #10: Night Orienteering

Night orienteering. Intimidating at first but once you get the hang of it, flowing through an orienteering course at night is thrilling. It’s where your team will be most challenged in a race and where it’s most critical you work together.

Go safe and simple. Sometimes in the daytime you can get away with running along on a rough compass bearing and figuring out where you are along the way. It’s not so easy at night. You have fewer features to use to help relocate along the way, since you can’t see too far away. Break the route into safe, simple sections and move from one large feature to another, especially obvious ones like hilltops and water features and those within the beam of your headlamp. Look for sections that have less obvious catching features (terrain that you can match to your map), and either do something easier, or be really careful there.

Rely (more) on your bearing. Stay on a straight bearing more often rather than take shortcuts around slower features like small hills and thicker vegetation. That doesn’t mean you have to take a straight bearing from your current CP all the way to the next CP. Again, break the leg up into parts. Take a bearing along one part of the route, then when you get to the end of that part and have to change direction (e.g., the end of a valley or meadow), take another bearing and so on. If possible, rely on nearby trails more so than bushwhacking. Bends in trails are more visible than contours in the woods and will act as good attack points. Tolerate extra distance on a trail or along a handrail (creek, ridge, powerline) in exchange for the certainty of your location.

When following a bearing, point your compass/direction of travel arrow toward a tree or object that is closer than you normally would during the day so you don’t lose sight of it. Repeat the process over and over. Have two teammates setting and following bearings with their compasses. Keep each other from drifting off the bearing. If you suddenly feel lost, slow down or stop to really think about it. Don’t lose contact with the map. Relocating is much harder at night than during the day.

Measure more. Before the race, determine how many paces (every other step) or steps you go through “normal” woods over a set distance such as 100 meters and how long this takes (walking, fast walking/jogging and running). This person (or two depending on size of team) on the team keeps count and time between CPs to help the team know when they should be approaching the place to change direction or the area of the CP. At night, add about 10% to your daytime pace count to get an accurate nighttime pace count. Remember that steps are shorter at night and you’ll have a tendency to stop short at night, thinking you’ve gone further than you have.

Use all your senses. In addition to the tips above, pay attention to your other senses. For example, you may hear frogs calling on a pond, cars on a nearby road or a stream rushing by. The breeze may feel stronger as you approach the top of a hill. It can be helpful to turn off your light at times and use your night vision to check out silhouettes of landforms.

Light up the night. The ideal adventure racing headlamp should be lightweight, very bright with a wide beam, durable and reliable, with run-times that last all night (and not cost a fortune, right?). It’s a pretty overwhelming purchase with all of the considerations. Do your online research but try on various models at your local outdoor gear store. Comfort matters. Ask experienced racers. Consider carrying an additional lightweight back-up light to use for map reading and in case of technical problems with your main light. And we haven’t even talked about bike lights. Some racers will use their headlamp but having a light on your handlebars and another on your helmet (wired to a battery pack in your hydration pack to keep weight off your head and for longer run time) is ideal if you have the budget. Rear flashing light too of course.

Navigation Lesson #9: Macro-Navigation Route Choice

Navigation Lesson #9: Macro-Navigation Route Choice

The last lesson was about micro-navigation, generally on-foot navigation between two checkpoints relatively close to each other. This lesson is on macro-navigation, or selecting routes over longer distances usually connecting a series of roads and trails via bike (but sometimes long trekking or paddling legs) rather than off-trail trekking. Some races don’t allow for a lot of strategic route selection but those races that do may offer opportunities for teams to gain significant time advantages over other teams.

With macro-navigation you are determining the best route based on a number of factors. Some teams will automatically look at distance as the number one consideration while veteran teams will include many more factors including road/terrain quality, elevation gain/loss, altitude, and ease of wayfinding – is one route obvious with fewer, clearer turns compared to another where roads and trails may be missing signage and clear intersections, e.g., two-tracks and hiking trails, requiring lots of stopping to navigate? At times, you’ll be faced with a decision to take a shortcut involving “bike-whacking” off trail. These are tempting but often are much slower, placing a heavy wear and tear on the bike and body. It’s at least four times faster to stay pedaling.

Also important with macro-navigation is measuring distances on the map ahead of time (a measuring wheel is a helpful device for this but the ruler on your compass works fine for straight roads) and then using your bike computer (ideally at least two teammates will track) to determine about when you should arrive at a turn or other map feature.

Here’s a good example of a macro-nav decision from our recent 12-hour race in Ludington (click to enlarge). Teams had two clear route options. The southern route was a little shorter (only 1,500 feet shorter when you factor in all the turns) but what factors besides distance should be considered? Road surface is the most obvious in this case (elevation is insignificant). In this case, the road type is hard to see on the original US Geological Society map because a 2016 road update layer has covered up much of the original type of road. If allowed, you should bring a road atlas or access a mapping app on your phone to determine if a road is paved, improved (often gravel road), or unimproved (often two-track). By using external maps, teams may be able to determine road type. If online tools are allowed, a satellite view can determine the extent of the tree canopy over the road which also indicates improved vs. unimproved road type. A clear view of the road means power lines are likely lining the road and thus the road is of better quality. Even without external maps, you can have pretty good certainty of road condition by straightness of the road alone. The northern route is a straight line which usually means gravel at worst and paved at best. The southern route winds through the woods in many directions, so likely it’s a two track of softer surface and the constant turns means a slower pace and more challenging pace line. Teams that took the northern route in this case gained a lot of time as a result of these factors.

Navigation Lesson #8: Micro-Navigation Route Choice

Navigation Lesson #8: Micro-Navigation Route Choice. Route choice is establishing a planned flow for the race at both a macro-navigation level (major movements between transition areas) and a micro-navigation level (moving between two checkpoints or tying together a series of checkpoints usually on foot). Route choice is done both in pre-race planning and adjusted on the fly during the race as the course unfolds before you and real-life observation, navigational errors, timing, etc. cause you to adjust your pre-race route choice.

For micro-navigation, factor in speed of travel, straightline bearing vs. terrain-guided travel, use of trails, thickness of vegetation, elevation, terrain definition, presence of other teams (they usually mess with your plan but can be extra sets of eyes), confidence, risk/reward.

A good example of micro-navigation route choice is the infamous CP 23 from the Sleeping Bear Edition last year. Fairly closed in by vegetation, the CP was made more difficult because it was the first one of the race for many and teams followed other teams rather than take a breath and develop their own plan. Group think is a killer in AR. Here are four micro-nav routes successful teams used to get to 23 from the TA.

Orange: For those of you new to AR, consider taking a straight bearing to 23. It will probably take longer since you aren’t using trails, but you should be able to easily find the top of the reentrant where 23 is located (reentrant is covered over a bit by the route lines I’ve drawn in but it was clear). From there, it’s a careful walk down the middle of the reentrant. If you have a teammate, spread out a little but focus on the lowest point of the reentrant where CPs are almost always placed unless the circle is clearly above the lowest contour line.

Green: You can run up the trail but as soon as it goes east, take a NW bearing to the top of the reentrant. Climb the spur. Drop down the reentrant like with Orange.

Blue: Continue through the broad valley, heading mostly north. As you approach the highest hill to your west, wrap around its northeast side, head west and then climb over the spur into the reentrant. “Aim off” to the south/left of the reentrant so that you only have to trek downhill/north to find it.

Red. Wrap all the way around the hill and spur, curling into the reentrant from the northeast. Make sure you curl in where the land is relatively flat so that you only have to trek uphill/south to find it.

There’s no one right away to find a CP but following other teams is usually a wrong way. Also, if you are spending more than 10% (30 minutes) of your time on a single optional CP, it’s probably time to move on. Cut bait and target another fish.

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Navigation Lessons #6 & #7: Aiming Off & Catching Features

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.

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