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Natural Navigation

Navigating doesn't have to be all about maps and compasses!

What happens if you don't have a compass? Or, like Bear Grylls you keep waking up in random places not knowing where you are or which direction to head home (like most Friday nights!!). Well there are many clues that can be used to work out where we are. It just requires us to spend a little time learning how to identify features that we may normally not even notice, let alone know how to interpret. This could mean that you won't have to rely so much on the compass or GPS, as they are often a lot quicker, more reliable and at the very least provide you with something to entertain friends with during a rainy hike. It's a sad fact that most people have lost touch with their environment almost completely, skills which our ancestors regularly used in the app called "the world", but for us feels unfamiliar. Which is why when we are back in the outdoors, our lack of familiarity and essential skills quickly highlight our weaknesses.

First off, take a look at the picture of the tree on the right. What do you see? Part of being able to identify and interpret clues from our natural environment is the enhancement of our observational skills.

So what did you see? Well there is the tree of course, but did you observe the time of year? The time of day? What direction the photographer was facing? What the local weather normally is? I'll come back to the answers to those questions later on, but if this is all new to you then rest assured all that information is available to interpret from the photo.

Often when most people hear of natural navigation, the idea springs to mind of hunting around for the mossy sides of trees or slimy northern side of rocks. Well that's only one small aspect and fortunately for us there is much more to it than that. So what are the key clues to look for? Well here are just a few for you to learn:

TREE SHAPES: The shape of exposed isolated trees (not in a wood setting) give testament to their environmental factors. The amount and direction of sunlight, the quality of the soil, the prevailing winds, storm force winds, recent disturbance such as avalanche or rock fall, aspect and slope angle all have an effect on how a tree grows. The most obvious is the "tick shape - ✔", this is the combined shape made by visually connecting the branches from one side of the tree with the other. In the picture above the right hand side has steeper angled branches which are longer, and the left has shallower angled, shorter denser branches producing many more leaves to catch the sunshine. This will be the combination of how much sunshine is influencing the growth of the tree in this direction and the direction the prevailing winds blow. In the UK the prevailing winds are usually south-westerlies. In the northern hemisphere trees will have their most abundant growth towards the south and then their least amount of growth to the north. Don't caught out by trees affected by more localised conditions, like in the shadow of another tree, building, rocky outcrop etc, or whether wind direction is affected by the surrounding topography such as a gulley.

PLANTS: Many other plants other than trees will be affected by sunlight and also wind direction and orientate themselves accordingly. Obviously plants that like to retain moisture will locate themselves on the less sunny side of an aspect. Hence, moss is seen more often on northerly aspects, but bear in mind it is humidity that drives this so the direction rain is blown in is an important factor. Lichens and mosses can be great clues to direction, moss is normally more green in shaded areas and darker brown in sunnier spots. Some plants will track the sun throughout the day, literally pointing towards the sun, this is called heliotropism. Both leaves and flowers can exhibit this behaviour, but not all plants do. The ones to watch out for are daisies, marigolds, young sunflowers and poppies and of course the leaves of trees.

SHADOWS: The sun rises in the east and sets in the west, although these are not strictly accurate and vary throughout the year it is a good enough approximation to work out which way you are looking. So the sun at midday will be due south of your position in the northern hemisphere. It will also be at this time of day that the shadow cast by an object will be its shortest. So referring back to the picture above, you will notice that the shadows cast are pretty much directly under the wooden fence, so this must've been taken around midday. If you want to get more accurate on your direction and time of day from the sun then place a stick in the ground. Mark when the shadow is at its shortest, and also at the start and end of the day when it's at its longest. As a general rule the sun changes the direction of the shadow cast by 15 degrees per hour. From this you can mark out points of direction and time.

STARS: No natural navigational guide would be complete without some reference to the stars. Since working out your direction should not be limited to daytime only! Often people think this is far more complicated than it actually is. Stars are much more accurate in regards to working out direction than the sun or moon since they move uniformly from our earthly perspective. The star you want to find is the Pole Star (Polaris). If you were to stand at the north pole and look directly up it would be right there. As you move further south to the equator it appears lower in the sky but still directly over the north pole. So if you find the Pole Star then you can work out which way is north. The trick is to find it. It certainly is not the brightest star in the sky as some people wrongfully assume. There are 2 relatively easy ways. The first is to find The Big Dipper (Ursa Major) constellation or basically the one that looks like a giant frying pan. From the 2 stars that make the lip of the frying pan, trace along an imaginary line through these 2 stars for about 5x the distance between them, this should lead you directly to Polaris. The second, is slightly more difficult. You need to locate Cassiopeia which looks like a "W". Imagine rotating it anticlockwise by 90 degrees on the left hand V and doubling the total length of the constellation. This too should lead you to Polaris. With a little practise this becomes quite easy.

MOON: Easy one this, visualise a line being drawn which sits on top and joins the two horns of a crescent moon, the line will always point to roughly south in the northern hemisphere.

ANTHILLS: Not the first thing most people think of when wanting to work out which way is north! Ants though being cold blooded like all insects like a bit of warmth. 

So they build their nests orientated to the first rays of the sun in the east and also the hottest rays, the south, hence, ant hills generally are elongated south-east and built mainly on southern or eastern facing slopes.

ASPECT: We will often build our homes on southern aspects, just like the ant example. Aspect can have a significant impact on the temperature of the area, since northerly aspects are normally in shade they can be cooler and more moist. If this is observed in drier, sunnier climates plants grow more abundantly on northern aspects, but often in Europe the opposite is the case with farmers choosing the sunnier warmer southern aspects to grow crops. In hill and mountain ranges southern slope aspects are generally less steep and this is mainly due to periods of past glaciation where northern aspects were much more heavily glaciated leading to steeper mountain and hill sides.

Armed with some new tools, let's go back to the picture. With the clues available it's possible to estimate that the photographer was facing north-west, the time of year was autumn and that there hadn't been much in the way of strong winds recently given the amount of leaves on the ground evenly spread beneath the tree, the time of day was around midday given the shortness of the shadows and the houses in the far distance were built on a south-east facing slope to make the most of the morning sun.

So next time you are out on a trail run or indeed just in the countryside see whether you can spot any directional clues, but don't be surprised if not everyone is excited about your new discovery, but then again they would if they were lost! Next newsletter we will be back again looking at the compass and also getting to grips with GPS devices.