Planning ahead might not seem like too advanced of an advanced tip, but if you’ve mastered orienteering to the point where you’re not just struggling to make sense of the parts of your compass, figuring out how to turn it to get to where you want to go, or familiarizing yourself with the complexities of a topographic map, you’re ready to move beyond the moment.
(You do understand declination at this point, right? Good. Just checking.)
The best orienteers don’t look at their route as drawing a straight line between where they are and where they want to be. They look at the entire journey, then break it up into sections that allow them to play to their strengths and that make sense to the hike as a whole.
For instance, the most direct path from the base of a boulder to a ranger station might cut through the edge of a marsh land. Some hikers might be tempted to risk some damp socks—or worse—and make a beeline straight for their destination. But someone with more experience might notice that a dry creekbed meanders a ways in the wrong direction, but then intersects with a paved road that would get any travelers fairly close to the station, and totally avoids the mosquitoes and mud.
Though such a route may take hikers on a very roundabout path, it could ultimately be safer and faster. That’s a good thing for general travel and competitions alike.
The ability to spot a destination, then figure out the best—not necessarily easiest-looking—route is known as “thinking backwards.” Recognizing the best path via this advanced technique is often explained with a stoplight analogy:
- Green light. This means go, and at full speed. The terrain is clear; you have an obvious, easily spotted goal in mind; and there’s little to no risk of missing a key feature or some other important detail. This method is also known as rough orienteering, in that you have a general knowledge of the area—but that’s all you need. Because of this, you can strip down extraneous information and visualize only the most basic elements on a map.
- Yellow light. This is moving at a more cautious pace. Hikers will more frequently refer to their maps to be sure that they’re heading in the right direction and passing the proper features. The technique of control extension can work well here, since it involves finding a precise feature on a map, then expanding the target by incorporating other features around it. The goal may be a particular inlet, but aiming for the larger body of water first will practically guarantee success. Find the larger feature, then find the more precise point.
- Red light. This is moving a very slow pace or coming to a complete standstill. When in a race, stopping seems counterintuitive, but can be extremely valuable. This is a key choice when you need to determine a precise control point: for instance, a tree at the base of a hill with a particular inclination. You’ll need to use some fine compass and map work to pinpoint the proper goal, and you probably can’t do that on a run.
If you’re into advanced navigational methods, you’re probably also going want a compass that’s more than just a needle on a baseplate. Some compasses come with a mirrored lid that, when open, allow users to hold the tool in from of them and sight their target—even visually pinpoint it through a special notch—while also being able to see the dial at the same time. This simultaneous visualization allows for more confident, accurate targeting.
There are many other expert-level navigational methods out there, and there’s no time limit on learning. So grab a compass, print out a topographic map, and try out some techniques until you figure out which is best for you.