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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 #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.

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. 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 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 #1: Navigation is King

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 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. 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. More on practice tips on our blog at

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.



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.”

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