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ADV PreppingThe Art of Getting Lost: Boost Your Navigation Skills

The Art of Getting Lost: Boost Your Navigation Skills

If all else fails, a honed sense of direction is something you can always rely on.

Published on 09.12.2017

Bill Eakins, a veteran adventure rider and map co-creator for Butler Maps, admits he sometimes gets lost. “It happens both purposefully and by accident. Sometimes, I’ll start going down unknown roads just to see where they take me. Getting lost means you’ll discover something new,” says Bill.

But what if getting lost wasn’t on your agenda? GPS units and smartphones sometimes fail, and reading a map is not always helpful enough – especially if you’re somewhere remote, where the existence of roads is seasonal or where they are being built anew. While GPS devices and maps are fantastic tools, they are just that and thus can get damaged or lost, whereas an ability is something that you can always rely on. But navigation is a “use it or lose it” skill, and without a good sense of direction and orientation, an adventure ride can turn into a rescue mission.

Navigation Skills - Bill Eakins of Butler Maps
Butler Maps scouting maestro, Bill Eakins, says good navigation skills are an important compliment to GPS and paper maps.

So how can you improve your navigation skills, just in case your GPS fails and your map is too vague to help you find your way? We sat Bill down to extract some scouting, navigation and spatial awareness tips from the map maker himself.

Hone Your Skills


The best way to develop a great sense of direction and have amazing navigation skills, Bill notes, is simply practice. “These things aren’t necessarily innate, they can be learned. Every time you go for a ride, be mindful: what’s around you? What do you memorize the most? Bring a small compass along and learn to read it. If you break down and you know that a major road or town is South of you, you’ll be able to get there. Stop more. Notice signs and clues, memorize topography features. Look around. Take a few wrong roads so you learn where they lead, and remember them.

Navigation Skills - Bill Eakins of Butler Maps
Left or right? If you don’t have a great sense of direction, don’t despair: it’s a skill that can be learned.

Navigation involves intuition, sense of North and South, spatial awareness, sense of direction, recognizing landmarks and relying on your senses. What direction the Sun is? Which river is that? When you navigate using your own head and a paper map, you’re actively creating a route, not just following one, and it makes you more aware,” explains Bill. “The more you use your navigation skills, the better they get, much like a muscle becomes stronger when you exercise it.”

Get Your Bearings

Bill Eakins of Butler Maps talks Navigation Skills
When roads suddenly run off in different directions, take a moment to breathe and think for a moment: rushing ahead can cost you fuel and daylight.

According to Bill, rushing and getting upset are the most common mistakes riders make when they get lost. “First of all, stop, calm down, and look around. Panic won’t help: breathe and remember, you’re still on Earth, therefore, there are humans around somewhere. You’re not lost at sea. Calm down, and start looking what’s around you. Do a 360-degree survey. What do you recognize? Are there any clues? There’s almost always something that will give me an idea of where I need to go, but it’s very important to calmly observe your surroundings and then make a decision,” says Bill. “Don’t rush yourself. If you’re unsure, give yourself another ten seconds, or another minute, to really look around. Stopping and thinking rather than just blazing ahead and hoping it’ll work is always a much better policy.”

Have Three Ways to Navigate

The scouting maestro says there are never too many tools for navigation. “Ideally, I think it’s best to have three things: navigation skills, a paper map and a compass, and an electronic device (a phone or a GPS). That way, you’ve got three things to help you instead of just one. If your memory fails you, you can look the area up on your map, and if that doesn’t help, a GPS will get you back on a familiar road pretty quick. Phones are a great navigation device, too, I’d just keep it in mind that in very remote areas, there might be no service so unless you’re using offline maps, your phone may not be very useful,” points out Bill.

Bill Eakins of Butler Maps Navigation skills advice

Are paper maps more kosher than the latest GPS? “I wouldn’t say that. I do think, though, that a skill is more useful than a gadget because you can’t take talent away, whereas GPS units and phones do sometimes fail. However, if I’m headed out somewhere truly remote, especially a desert, I will definitely have a GPS with me. If you’re somewhere out in the sticks, let’s say, a remote forest, and there are no signs, a GPS device will be extremely helpful – you wouldn’t want to waste precious daylight and fuel to find your way, because a situation can become dangerous.”

Turn Around

“Some people might perceive backtracking as defeat, but in reality, this is one of the best navigation tools at your disposal. Unless you made way too many turns, backtracking is a great way to get back to something familiar. When you’re truly lost, going forward in hopes of finding something is usually not the smartest idea. Just go back to where you know your bearings, and start again. Roads can be a dead end, you can ride into darkness and then if you don’t have shelter, the situation can escalate. Backtracking is not a defeat – it’s usually a very smart decision. A combination of ego and small mistakes is what gets you into trouble, not going back. It’s ok not to fully comprehend where you are. If you accept that you’re not quite sure what’s going on, you’ll make smarter choices. You only have a limited amount of fuel and water, so you need to be extra cautious in remote areas,” says Bill.

Bill Eakins of Butler Maps Navigation skills advice


• The best way ‘not’ to get lost in the first place is planning ahead. If you’re following a GPS, set markers, calculate your distance, and you’ll have a return route. If you’re just riding, or using paper maps, stop at an intersection and physically do a 360-degree view of what’s there – don’t just look ahead. Look behind, because you might need to backtrack. Look to your left and right, because you might need a memorable marker to get home from a different direction. Try to remember something distinct like an oddly shaped tree, or an abandoned barn, that will stick in your memory.

• Give places made up names. Does that hill look a little like a sleeping man? Does that mountaintop look like a donkey’s back from a certain angle? Making up names and associating places with things might help to reinforce the memory of them. Use cues and clues. Everything is unique on the planet, so make sure you notice it and name it.

Bill Eakins of Butler Maps
An odd landmark is easier to memorize: pick something that stands out, and make a point to remember it.

• Talk to yourself. Literally! “Oh look, a brown house with a red roof. Look at that funny yard with those scraggy trees” – a helmet monologue might reinforce the memory of a particular place.

• Give yourself permission to get lost! You’re exploring. You’re going into the unknown. The rewards far outweigh the fear of “oh I don’t know what’s over there.” Take small steps, which will become bigger steps, longer trips, or maybe even a big overland journey.

• Asking for help is never a bad idea. Local knowledge is always going to be the best, so don’t be shy and just ask.

• Want to spice your favorite ride up? Do it backwards! It sounds too simple, but it makes a huge difference – and you’re practicing your navigation skills at the same time.

Photos by Paul Stewart

Author: Egle Gerulaityte

Riding around the world extra slowly and not taking it too seriously, Egle is always on the lookout for interesting stories. Editor of the Women ADV Riders magazine, she focuses on ordinary people doing extraordinary things and hopes to bring travel inspiration to all two-wheeled maniacs out there.

Author: Egle Gerulaityte

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