Navigation Lessons

See also the Clinic page for more tips on orienteering and general navigation.

Navigation Lesson #1: Navigation is King
No other skill is as important in adventure racing as navigation. You may blow by other teams in your canoe or on your bike, but lose all of your advantage with just one misread of the map. In fact, a navigation error is often two or three times more costly than time lost in one of the other disciplines due to slower speed. If will be the team’s lead navigator or the teammate responsible for keeping a close eye on navigation, you should focus a significant amount of your training on navigation. It’s easy to go for a run or bike ride, but you’ll benefit most from practicing navigation (we’ll give you some ways you can do this and get a good aerobic workout at the same time).

Let’s start with the basics. Lesson #2 and beyond will dive into the strategies. Obviously, making sure you are error-free in establishing a bearing with a compass is critical. Review our Navigation 101 presentation (under Learn More on the race site) or attend one of our clinics (look under events at if you need help in that area. But matching the terrain around you to your map as you follow that bearing (or simply following the land features) is equally important. The goal is to be able to build a “mental map” with your topographic map so that anytime you are outdoors and look down at the 2D map, you can quickly create a 3D map in your head. When you lift your head, the real world is a pretty good match to your mental map, complete with accurate contoured land, vegetation and elevation.

Download the free Terrain Navigator Pro app or a similar navigation app for your phone (search in iTunes or online) and practice this off trail in a public area near you such as Cannonsburg State Game Area, Seidman Park or Hoffmaster State Park (if you live in West Michigan). Even city parks and other smaller areas can help you better match the 2D to the 3D. As you get better, you can practice off-trail running at the same time so you are getting multiple types of training done simultaneously.

Look down at your phone, scan the contours and other details, form a picture in your head of what reality should look like and then lift your head to see how you did. After doing this a few times, just walk along and notice how each detail on your topo map is reflected in reality. You’ll learn to quickly recognize spurs, reentrants and ridges and even subtle changes in elevation. As you get better, you can practice off-trail running at the same time so you are getting multiple types of practice in.

You can also use this app to create “streamer” courses for your teammates or a friend. Tie some bright tape on defined features (hilltops, gullies, spurs, depressions, etc.), mark them on your phone, print out the topographic map for the public land you are on, and give the map to your teammates to try to find. You can also test yourself by printing a topo map, marking some checkpoints and heading off to find them. Once you arrive, check your app to confirm you are at the right place.

Navigation Lesson #2: Going Off Bearing?!
The first rule of navigation is to always know where you are on the map. You can’t get to where you want to go if you don’t know where you are. Until you develop the skill and confidence to move along without your compass bearing, it’s important to get that bearing right. Ideally, share the bearing degree with an additional teammate who can follow along with their compass, particularly when the distances between the two control markers (checkpoints) is long and errors are multiplied, or conditions are such that it’s easy to get off bearing such as marshland or thickets that require you to go around them.

As many of you have learning from basic compass education, you can increase your speed while using a compass by pointing it (using the direction of travel arrow on the baseplate) toward a tree or other object as far in the distance as possible and moving quickly toward that object. Don’t bother to look at your compass again until you get to that object then repeat the process with your compass. Trying to constantly keep your magnetic needle in the orienteering arrow (red in the shed) will result in a less accurate bearing and a greater chance of injury.

At times you may need to move off from your bearing and then return back to it. You’ll need to visualize the bearing line as it cuts across an impassable obstacle so you can return to that line once you go around the obstacle. For example, at a lake or swamp, point the compass at a feature on the other side and then make sure you wrap around the water feature until you return to that spot where you are back on bearing. Or, at a large hill that will sap your team’s energy to climb, you may decide to wrap around the hill and do your best to stay on bearing on the other side. It’s often best to stay at or near the elevation you are at – this is called “contouring” because you are following the contour lines.

At the far end of the lake or hill, you may decide to scrap your bearing and just rely on reading the topo map until you reach the checkpoint (CP) depending on how defined the features are. For teams inexperienced with navigation, you may decide to just climb the hill (but swimming the lake or swamp is rarely advisable!) to stay on bearing, taking the slow, sure route instead of the fast but somewhat unknown way. In time, it’s important to develop the confidence and skill to mostly eliminate this slower method.

Here’s an example, but instead of a hill we have a massive valley between two CPs (at the Sleeping Bear Dunes Edition in 2016). If you look purely at distance as the crow flies, you would take the red route. If you looked at distance, factoring in the down and up distance, you would still take the red route. But if you factor in the slower speed and major energy depletion (and risk of injury) of dropping way down to the bottom of the valley and climbing back up the other side, you would “contour” – clearly take the blue route even though you will have to do the route without the straight bearing you are most comfortable with and at a longer distance.

You can see that travel along the top of the ridge is much flatter. Even though you’re not on a bearing, it’s really easy to follow the ridge along and the turn toward the south as the ridge bends into a spur that points you right down to the checkpoint. And you’ll encounter less vegetation (less water on ridges to grow plants), and less deadfall – trees that die will have fallen down off the ridge… blocking the way of the teams that have made the poorer route choice!

Navigation Lesson #3: Collecting Features
As you begin moving along your planned route to the CP, employ navigation strategy #1: Collect Features. The navigator should be constantly visualizing features in their mind and telling their teammate(s) what they should encounter up ahead. “There should be a reentrant (gully) coming up on my right, and then there will be a marshy area off to my left.” If you are the navigator for the team, rely on your teammate(s) to scan for features that should be on the map (and the CP of course). As you approach the feature described, one of you should call it out to confirm that real life matches what the navigator predicted; you are “collecting” features on the map as you go along. This gives confidence to the navigator… and to the team. If reality doesn’t match what the navigator sees on the map, don’t go too far forward. Determine if you went off bearing for some reason or if you are not following a bearing, look back and decide if you went the wrong way. We’ll talk more about another navigation strategy, relocation, in a future lesson.

As you collect features, you should also keep track of how much distance and time are going by. Before the race, it’s a good idea to write on your map the distances between checkpoints. You should also have a good idea of how long it takes to go that distance depending on the difficulty of the terrain and vegetation, elevation gain or loss or barriers that force you to travel off from the direct bearing or route. Have a teammate (or two if you are racing as a four-person team) in charge of distance and time, determining how long you’ve gone since the last CP with their watch or keeping track of their steps or paces (every other step). This is especially important during night racing where it’s very difficult to collect features along the way.

Features you should collect along the way are distinctly shaped land just as reentrants, spurs, ridges and hills, trail and creek intersections, significant changes in elevation, obvious changes in vegetation type between open land and forest (and more specific types on orienteering maps such as thickets and varying thicknesses of vegetation), but also more subtle variances such as mild changes in land elevation reflected by one or two contour lines in front or off to the side.

How can you tell when contour lines are showing an increase in elevation or a decrease? You won’t always be able to tell, but water always flows downward so you can determine that land is dropping down (e.g. a ridge that could be going up or down) by whether there’s a water feature nearby. If so, likely the land is draining down into it. If there’s no water feature, you may have to simply experience it in real-life and then make sure that the elevation change matches what’s on the map in height and steepness.

Can’t get enough of this stuff? For the most comprehensive instruction on navigation, order Mark Lattanzi’s book Squiggly Lines which just came out a few weeks ago. $25.

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.

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 #6: Aiming Off

Aiming off is another navigation strategy you can employ. It’s pretty simple. 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 where the checkpoint is supposed to be 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.
Teams in the Silver Lake Edition in 2015 experienced this going from checkpoint 14 to 12. Take a bearing to hit the creek south of 12 and then run the creek north to the CP. If you aim right at 12, end up to the north and then guess wrong and keep going north, you’ll eventually realize your mistake and waste lots of time turning around and heading south.

Navigation Lesson #7: Catching Features/Backstops

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. Look at the terrain behind B. You’re moving from open (white) land back to forest and the contours indicate a dropping off of ridges behind B as well. As soon as you approach either feature, consider working back a short distance.

Navigation Lesson #8: 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.

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.

More Tips

  • Train and Test Your Gear & Nutrition. This race is as “relaxed” or strenuous as you want to make it, just like the Winter Edition. On race day, there’s no shame in hiking to checkpoints (lots of racers do) rather than running or deciding to call it a day and come in a little early – so there’s no need to engage in a demanding, long-term training regimen (although here are 12-week and 16-week plans worth checking out if you need the structure). Just get there hiking or running when you can and squeeze in some biking as the weather warms up if you can’t bike or do elliptical indoors during the winter; training outdoors is the ideal. Most of your miles should be at conversation pace; throw in some strong efforts here and there to get the heart rate up. Hill repeats and high-intensity intervals are great; just don’t overdo them until you have built up a base. You can find good, basic guidance on training from our trail running race sponsor/coaches here. When you are working out outdoors, consider keeping a gear & nutrition diary so you know what works best for various weather conditions and what hydration and food works best for you.
  • Plan with the end in mind. Create a route that ends with CPs and challenges clustered fairly close to the finish. Because challenges take more time, you can skip one more easily at the end. Just grab the CP and skip the challenge if you are running out of time. Some teams ended with the Silhouette Count, knowing it could be a long one (if you didn’t read the artist’s statement card revealing the answer).
  • Review your route and decisions. Talk with your teammate(s) about what you did well and didn’t do well. Write down and review learnings. How did your pre-race planning go? Did you have the right gear, food, hydration? Did you communicate well with each other? What checkpoints did you struggle with? Can you determine why? How can you get faster on foot, bike and boat?
  • Constant communication regarding the race instructions, maps and challenges. Always keep scanning these documents to make sure CPs are not missed, instructions are not ignored.
  • Bike vs. run order. If you think you might be able to get all or most of the checkpoints, consider selecting the most distant section to do first. Many top teams got the bike out of the way first because the run section is close to the finish where you can better maximize your CPs and only need a few minutes to sprint to the finish. Also the wind picked up a lot later in the race (check the forecast which called for this) so the bike became more difficult. Obviously, the drawback is dealing with heavy ArtPrize crowds later in the day so discuss how difficult this might be. Try it one way and then try the other way in the next race.
  • Attend a clinic. If you haven’t been to one of our clinics, that’s another way to get better. We hold a free clinic one or two weeks before every race. Not from the area? Follow along with the online version of the clinic. Check in with MI Adventure Club in the Brighton area. They put on clinics now and then.
  • Search online for tips. The best for navigation tips may be MI Adventure Club’s videos analyzing route selection from Michigan Adventure Races and other Michigan navigation events. Mark Lattanzi’s website is a good one too.
  • Practice navigation. Here are the permanent orienteering courses in Michigan. Or, create your own “streamer” course using a free app on your smartphone such as Terrain Navigator Pro (search in apps on your phone). Tie a small length of streamer tape to defined points on public land and have your teammates try to find them.
  • Try a low-key event/race. There’s no better practice than putting your non-race practice into practice at a race. In Michigan, head to Lost Arrow Sports and Southern Michigan Orienteering Club for navigation-based events.
  • Make your bike faster. You don’t have to buy a high-end cross/gravel bike to get faster. Start with faster, lower tread tires when you do not need the bigger knobs (no technical singletrack, no heavy mud or sand). Here are many more ways.
  • Buy a map board for your bike handlebars so the map is right in front of you. Here’s a link to my favorite map holder but search online for best pricing and other options. Or make your own. Here’s a photo of one that I would be willing to sell for $20. Used once. Not as good as the other, but $40+ less. Post to the Facebook page if interested. These are especially important for longer and overnight races which we’ll begin to offer next year hopefully so get yours now and practice! 🙂
  • Create tow systems for your bike, on foot and boat. Recommended on more remote roads rather than ArtPrize bike legs due to heavier traffic. Have the strongest teammate carry more weight (others should still carry hand-held hydration). Search online for ways. Here’s the tow system my wife and I use (she still works hard while the tow is on, but every little bit helps).
  • Plan with the beginning in mind (races with challenges). Which challenge will get the largest crowd at the start? Can we efficiently skip that one and do it at the end of our route? Even more important, is it a challenge with a limited number of stations that could cause lines? Some teams skip challenges at the start and hit them at less busy times as they finished their leg/race since the challenges are on the way back.
  • You can’t get to where you want to go if you don’t know where you are. No other skill is more important in adventure racing as navigation. You may blow by other teams in your canoe or on your bike, but lose all of your advantage with just one misread of the map. In fact, a navigation error is often two or three times more costly than a slow leg in one of the other disciplines. And the most important rule in navigation and orienteering (navigation on a “micro” level with a compass and map) is to always know your current position on the map. If you are the navigator for the team, rely on your teammate(s) to scan for the control marker (flag). You should be matching up terrain all around you to topographic features on the map.
  • Strengthen your mind muscles. The longer an adventure race, the more important mental fortitude becomes. When you’ve been lost in the woods for an hour or more in the middle of the night in a heavy rain, it’s easy to throw in the towel. But once you get through an experience like this, your confidence and pain threshold increases and each race gets easier to handle. You start to relish the pain and your ability to overcome it.You can improve mental toughness without having to get a lot of races under your belt. One way is to periodically train at a high intensity. Not only will this strengthen you physically, but it will also improve your confidence and help you learn to “push through the pain” as athletes often say. Another method is to develop a mantra – a saying you can repeat over and over, such as “I got this” or “I love hills.” Convince yourself that you DO love hills – for the challenge they give, for the fun descent on the other side, for the way they will separate you from the pack if you climb them faster. Some athletes also incorporate visualization techniques to improve mental – as well as overall – performance.
  • How can I make my mountain bike faster? Read my post for 6 ways including changing to a low-knob racing tire and adding a tow system when one teammate is much faster than the other.
  • Paddling technique. While “real-world” paddle training is difficult to do for many if you don’t own a canoe or kayak (especially when everything is iced over!), you can work on your core strength in various ways and review paddling videos to improve your technique. Paddlers who paddle with their core and entire torso working in tandem with their arms rather than all in their arms have much better speed and endurance. An “army” stroke quickly leads to fatigue. Keep your arms and your paddle out in front of you more and let the core “engine” fire the “piston” arms. Check out this video that I often go back to for tips.