Category Archives: navigation

natural navigation – part 3: plants

In the third part of our natural navigation series we look at how the plant kingdom can help inform our direction or location. If used in conjunction with other natural navigation techniques it can make direction, location and route-finding both extremely effective and also extremely rewarding. Using all these techniques rely on and help develop good observation and awareness skills. This in turn really helps unlock a more fundamental connection with and appreciation for nature.

Plants, habitat, soil and climate

Plants obviously are pretty static (!) so they have an tendency to congregate in greater numbers in preferred environments. This means that if they are shade loving, acid-soil loving, frost-hardy plants then they will grow in certain places and in certain ‘aspects’ whereas other plants might not prosper. It is therefore useful to know before you travel to an area if there there are any macro trends to the habitats, soils and climates. For instance, it is worth taking note, not only of the height of the treeline on the north side of the mountain compared to the south, but also if the species of tree is predominantly different. The side of the mountain that is exposed more to extremes of climate will tend to have a lower tree-line and maybe also a more hardy type of tree. This might help with your orientation and direction-setting / keeping even in poor visibility. Knowing what plants are rare or are specific to certain geographic areas may also help – Alexanders, the edible umbellifer, has a tendency to grow in greater profusion near the sea. This does not mean in sight of it but in proximity to it – which might still be several miles away. However this can only be used as a rough guide as there are always exceptions. Some parts of a country might have more common plants and trees than other parts where they are rare. So a quick look at plant distribution maps to identify ‘marker’ species might also be a useful addition prior to departure.

Plants and moisture

Most plants need moisture. Some more than others – lack of moisture can be due to lack of rain-fall, lack of run-off, well-draining soil types, heat/sun and the dessicating qualities of the wind. This is particularly relevant when making assumptions about moisture loving plants such as moss. Moss likes moisture and even the south side of the tree or a wall might have conditions which promote its growth even if it contrary to the myth of moss growing on the north side of a tree (away from the sun) in the northern hemisphere. Micro or local conditions are very prone to dissproving this rule. So please beware.

Plants and wind

Plants can be good indicators of prevailing wind conditions as they are shaped by them over time.

Trees are a good example of this –  we have all see those exposed wind-blown trees whose branches have been bent by years of the relentless prevailing breeze. Know the direction of this wind and you have natural direction finders.


exposed tree shaped by years of prevailing winds from right to left or in this case from south-west to north-east

Wind also affects smaller plants – some will seek shelter in the lee of rocks or obstacles to stay out of the wind. Even grasses will leave the mark of being exposed to the prevailing wind  – even if the wind is blowing in a different direction. The wind-blown grasses of the moor on exposed slopes (ie: not channelled by the contours of the land) will be flattened away from the prevailing wind.


blades of grass aligned and facing in the direction of the prevailing wind.

Wind loosened grass collects on the windward spikes of gorse bushes – just look for the general ‘face’ of bushes in an area with the heaviest ‘snagging’. Around the edge of rocks the slipstream of the prevailing wind may shape the grass too.


moor-grass collecting on the side of the gorse bush facing the prevailing wind

Plants and sun

The sun can also affect plants many plants follow the track of the sun, although I am yet to find one who’s blooms face where the sun even on a cloudy day. However, some plants align themselves in relation to the sun in other ways – the prickly lettuce or compass plant aligns it leaves vertically and point in a north-south direction on hot-sunny days in an attempt to keep cool in the midday sun. Taking the average alignment of a couple of these plants and their leaves in an exposed spot (it: not affected by building or trees) will give you a fairly good estimate of which way north and south is.


leaves are aligned in the vertical plane and facing north-south to reduced exposure to the heat of the midday sun (due south)

The shape of some trees can be markedly shaped by the sun. If you walk around a tree which stands on open ground and is not affected by neighourbouring trees, building or landforms you should be able to pick out differences between the north side and the south side. Bear in mind that some species of tree are very susceptible to showing this and some are not, just as some species are very susceptible to wind shaping which might confuse your ‘reading of the tree’.

The south side or sunny side of the tree (in the northern hemisphere – the opposite in the southern hemisphere) will have branches that reach out more ‘horizontally’ towards the sun.  On the north side of the tree the branches will have a tendency to reach upwards more vertically towards the light and to angle the leaves in a way to gain maximum benefit from the sun on the opposite side of the tree. As you can see from the picture below this can dramatically alter the shapee of the tree…thereby giving you an indicator of the direction of south. This exagerated growth on one side of the tree can be seen on many other plants and shrubs but is more visible on trees.

south side has more leaf growth and branches are reaching out more horizontally

south side has more leaf growth and branches are reaching out more horizontally

natural navigation – part 2: the bigger picture

This article is part of a multi-part series on Natural Navigation. Part 1 is here

Reading the ‘lay of the land’ is a fundamental part of natural navigation. Observation and natural curiousity are key. As is an understanding of how water, sun and wind may shape the landscape in a particular way. In this article we will be looking at the ‘macro’ features in the landscape and how the elements shape them in such a way as to give us clues to location and direction.

It will come as no surprise that there are huge variations in climate and terrain, each reflecting the different mix of factors that mould it. An exposed Arctic plateau will be affected in a different way by the wind and the sun than, let say, the lee-side of a steep hill in a South American rainforest. Similarly, a southerly-facing cliff-face in the European Alps will feel the extremes of freeze and thaw, something that will also affect stone in the rocky desert landscapes of parts of North Africa. One will create a sizeable scree at the foot of the face the other will shatter the rock into a rough, broken, martian-style landscape. Wind will be the dominant force that shapes huge areas of dunes around the world as it will also affect the windward bank of a slowly meandering river on a lowland floodplain in Central Asia since it may erode because of the prevailing wind, rain and the lapping of wind-driven water. Although, as we can see, these precise combinations are seemingly infinite, there are general patterns and combinations to look out for that may help guide you.

If we look at the hill and vale or the mountain and valley of temperate regions around the world we only have to glance at a map to see that the bumps and the dips – the hills and the valleys or rivers – often align along topographical trends. Whether this is ice-sheet retreat, tectonic forces or dominant climatic conditions – these affect landscapes on a grand scale leaving broadly similar features across its range. Scars from pre-history should not be overlooked either – like the drumlins left by retreating ice-sheets which can align in a consistent direction in such a way to give you pause for interpretation.  In the part of southern Devon that I live the  very general direction of river valleys are north- south as they head towards the coast – the axe, sid, otter, exe, teign, bovey, wray, dart, aune, plym and tamar valleys are all arranged in this way – it is most striking when seen from an aircraft. Around the world you can see the similar trends where mountains and valleys are arranged in roughly parallel series. So we often see that if the ranges of mountains and hills have a trend then so do their streams and rivers too. These features don’t have to be that obvious – even fairly flat lands often exhibit a slight wave-like undulation or a series of rises that betray a directional trend. It is therefore very important to study a map before you go. See if you can identify a broad regional trend, or points of major transition or difference between neighbouring areas, as this will help as a check on your general location and direction.

Taking a look at geological survey maps can also be useful preparation for departing on a journey as trends can be picked out from deeper under the surface you will journey across. For instance, even in Devon, with its complex geology, it can be generalised enough to help with location. In the east of the county the upper greensand and gault clay dominate. This is fringed, in places, along its south coast with rarer outcrops of chalk. Immediately to the west of this is a narrow north/south band of sandstone and pebble beds then further west again comes a broad, roughly north-south band of mudstone. Slap bang in the middle of the county we have a huge roundish fist of granite (Dartmoor) which is topped and tailed by huge swathes of sandstone and slates to the north and south, flanked by dollops of slate and cherts to the east and west and slivers of limestone to the south east. And whilst this is broadly generalised, knowing if you are on granite and then finding yourself on chert silicates or a limestone outcrop will help indicate both which direction you might be heading but also where you might be. Similarly it is useful to know what soil types typify a region as this can be different from its geology. In Devon prominent soil types include: the wet acid soils of the Culm Measures and Blackdown Hills; the peat soils of Dartmoor; the slightly acid loams and clays of East and Mid Devon; and the free-draining, slightly acid loamy soils of the South Hams and parts of North Devon. Whilst you might not go to the trouble of taking a PH kit to test the soils acidity/alkalinity (!) knowing what plants are sensitive to this (and therefore only grow in places that have a specific soil type) may prove to be very helpful. For instance, the acidic, peaty soils of Dartmoor have a different roll call of plants than the more alkali limestone of the Mendip hills and its calcareous grasslands to the north.

As part of your pre-planning for your journey it is worth checking your map to see if there are any major features, such as large bodies of water. With these you don’t even need to be able to directly see these as they can reflect a ‘shadow’, at some distance, in the clouds above them. If you have a mixed or fairly heterogeneous landscape (ie: not endless boreal forest, desert or jungle) then you have a better chance spotting major ‘tick’ or catch features such as blocks of woodland, scarps, bluffs, distinct isolated features such as single hills, river bends or transitions between hill and plain terrain.. For example, I know that there are only five larger bodies of water on Dartmoor and four significant blocks of woodland (plantation) on the Moor. I know that the high moor is to the north and the low moor is to the south. I know all the heavily wooded oak valleys with rivers in them are around the edge of the moor. I can see the sea (English Channel) reflected to the south and also to the north/west (Atlantic) in the clouds above them. By using these bigger features in the landscape I can triangulate where I might be or certainly the direction I am heading.

When looking at rivers and streams, on a map or directly, it is useful to look towards the edges of the river systems to get a sense of the catchment areas beneath the ridges that create their watersheds. Rivers will often be following very different direction trends across watersheds and it is worth bearing in mind where you might make an error by following a stream in a direction in the mistaken belief that it belongs to the same system when it is actually in another catchment basin and may be heading an altogether opposite flow. Noting this caution it is also worth remembering that, as a general rule, following a river downstream will most probably, albeit eventually, lead to habitation. These are often sited at river crossings, confluences and where rivers exit into big lakes or seas.

For those who have tried following a river will have experienced how tricky it can be to closely follow its banks unless there is a clear path along them. Tributaries often join rivers making for swampy, waterlogged and sometimes slow going terrain to cross with many possible diversions and obstacles. It is often more prudent to aim for the ridges that border these rivers – and one may find that, on one side of them, animal trails or even human paths running parallel with this higher ground. Trails may also have off-shoots that have been made by animals, not only dropping down to the river to drink but also at natural crossing points – so these are useful indicators to look out for. Similarly, aiming for obvious obstacles, bottlenecks or ‘channelling’ features in the landscape will increase your chances of picking up paths or trails.

The effects of sun and wind have a more distinct role in navigating in desert and polar regions – although water or moisture may still play a part  in  both these landscapes it might be other forces that play a more immediate or dominant role.  Dunes will often be oriented in a familiar direction depending on type: crescent (barkham) dunes have their convex backs to the wind, their horns trailing away; transverse (seif) dunes can form like waves in a sea facing perpendicular to the prevailing wind; and longitudinal dunes are typical of a prevailing but converging wind which creates ridgelines in line with its direction. Knowing, in advance, where the prevailing wind in a region comes from will be a helpful piece when forming a picture of your location from the navigational jigsaw. Of course this is not restricted to present-day deserts, even in more temperate climates where, prehistorically there were deserts, but now due to climate change have been reclaimed with vegetation may still have their undulating echoes across the landscape. In polar regions the action of wind and sunlight will leave a distinct mark as the colder, lee side of ice (and rock) will be preserved and even have a build-up of snow and ice in its shadow whilst the side facing the warming sun and the biting wind will be weathered and corroded in a more dramatic way. This weathering is also apparent on mountains where the freeze-thaw cycles and the prevailing winds bring weather systems directly onto its face – this will result not only on higher levels of scree at their foot, but different heights of snow line and tree line between the windward and leeward sides of the mountain. The lee sides of hills are usually less weathered, smoother and less eroded. This distinct contrast in climate from one side of a mountain or range can lead to different trees and plants growing on one side of the mountain than the other too.

A good example of this is the Vosges Mountains in Northern France where, as a consequence of the Foehn effect, the difference between the eastern and western mean slopes is very marked. The prevailing winds come generally from the west and south-west, so on the eastern-side the Alsatian central plains receive much less water than the south-west front of the Vosges Mountains. The highlands of the arrondissement of Remiremont receive more than two metres of water yearly (rain and snow), whereas the land around Colmar, on the eastern side receives less than a quarter of that. The temperature also is much lower in the west front of the mountains than in the low plains behind the massif so one can see on the eastern slopes many commercial vineyards reaching to a height of 400 metres (1300 ft.); on the other side at this elevation it is a land of high pasture and forest.

So when you are next out for a short bimble or a longer odyssey take a moment to develop a sense of the shape of the landscape around you and underneath your feet – and how it has been affected by the elements around it. Take time to form a bigger picture – because it is within this canvas that you tread.

This article is part of a multi-part series on Natural Navigation. Part 1 is here

active dartmoor article – natural navigation


Here is my Natural Navigation article published in the excellent Active Dartmoor Magazine

Click on the images below for larger jpegs of each page to read or if this still isn’t that clear then click on this link for a PDF of the two pages here



This is a separate mini-feature that sits alongside the multi-part series on Natural Navigation that has been started here

discover dartmoor naturally


No wonder the Army do navigation training on Dartmoor. Its featureless, wind-scoured undulations can present a real challenge – especially in poor weather. Tales of lost people in the mires of the moor abound. Even sober souls speak of the more sinister edge of whimsy where travellers, being ‘piskie-led’, have had to turn their clothes inside out in order to break the hex and find their way off the moor.

Whilst Dartmoor presents drama in its landscape, it is of different kind than the obvious peaks and valleys of more vertiginous national parks: spinning around can reveal an identical landscape in all directions.   However if you look carefully there are numerous clues, even on this windswept plateau, to help point your way.


To successfully navigate using natural signposts it is important to understand Dartmoor from a wider perspective. It is a high fist of granite surrounded by lower ground. Water flows off it, from its centre to its edge. Ultimately, if you follow these, then you will find your way off the moor. It might take a while though! But nearly all water flows towards the sea. It is also useful to note that there are only five ‘big’ bodies of water on the moor – each of them a reservoir – Venford (s/e), Fernworthy (e), Burrator (s/w), Meldon (n), and Avon Dam (s). Following the outflow from these will ultimately lead you off the edge of the moor and to civilization.


There are only three very large blocks of woodland actually on the moor: Fernworthy, Bellever and Soussen’s Down. All three are mainly conifer plantation and planted in organised ranks. Fernworthy, with its high ridge facing out into the Moor, can be seen from many places as its dark, brooding mass sits heavily on the landscape. Happen across extensive woodland in a valley tells you that you are on the edge of the moor – as it is in the valleys that ring the moor that the old vestiges of ancient oak woodland still exist, they are also home to Dartmoor’s major rivers (Dart, Teign, Erme, Okement, Taw and Tavy). Follow them down-stream and there is a good chance you will find habitation. Follow them the other way will lead you further into the wilderness. If you come across a small woodland of very stunted, dwarf-like oak then there are only three on the moor: Black-a-Tor Copse (north), Wistman’s Wood (middle) and Pile Copse (south). Just through a basic understanding of the bigger features of the moor you can get an idea where you are at most times. It does not have to be just the radio-mast at Princetown that is your beacon of last resort.


However, it is not just the big landmarks and clues that can give you pointers to your position. Direction can be understood in the smaller details. Windswept trees are shaped by the south-westerly force of the prevailing wind over many years. Visible volumes of loose moorgrass blades snag on the windward side of gorse, also hint at the prevailing direction. Ponies and sheep scrape shallow shelters in the peaty soil, often away from this wind. Collections of droppings build up on the leeward side of tors over time. Look up into the upper reaches of the atmosphere and you might detect the more consistent high winds of the jetstream giving you a useful steer. And when you get to know the moor more intimately you will understand that parts of the moor have high concentration of grass, some heather, some bracken and only parts have of swathes of bilberry. Even the way trees grow can help: their southerly facing branches reaching out more horizontally towards the track of the sun whilst their northern side, improverished, can be less ‘full’ and the branches more vertical as they grow upwards in search of light. All are subtle clues but can be added into the mental map to be interpreted as you go.


Because the sun marches across the sky at 15 degrees per hour it means that if you know the time then you can figure out your direction and if you can figure out the direction then you can tell the time (also useful for when you need to anticipate sun-down). There are even ways of telling where the sun is through cloud.

Sun and wind can combine to influence the alignment of houses built on the moor: where windows and doors are faced at an angle away from the south west (wind/weather) and in a way that the windows get maximum benefit from the warmth of the sun into the room as it tracks a southerly course from east to west. Even the condition of old thatch on one side of the roof to another may, or may not, give a hint if they it were laid at the same time.


Cloudless skies at night and Dartmoor’s low light pollution can leave the starry heavens as your guide: Orion, the Plough or even Cassiopeia pointing the way to Polaris, the North Star. The pointed crescents of the moon, if you join them up can point to a southerly spot down on the horizon and at certain times of year the brightness of Venus or Jupiter can guide you safely on a consistent course. What light pollution there is marks out Plymouth to the south-west and Exeter to the east.

The moor is not a place just for map and compass, although you would be unwise to venture out without them. But taking a little time to observe the obvious and more subtle clues around you can enrich your experience of the moor, your navigation and your safety.*


*I have a personal tip which I call the ‘rule of threes’ – I tend to use this in many aspects of my wilderness guide work – plant ID, tracking, navigation, routes of rescue etc. Don’t just rely on one clue for direction, it might mislead. Try and find at least three indicators that corroborate each other. This will ensure that you reduce (but not remove) the risk of error from relying on just one sign.

natural navigation part 1 – not getting lost

Navigation is an essential part of survival of the fittest. Those who could successfully navigate – who did not get lost, who found their way home again – were the ones whose genes moved up the evolutionary chain.

Navigation, in its most raw sense, is a fundamental interaction with nature. Natural navigation enhances this connection by encouraging curiousity and observation, by demonstrating the interrelationship of things in the landscape (or the skyscape or seascape for that matter) and the story they tell of place. However, to unlock its meaning, and the path ahead or home, takes a degree of interpretation.

This is the first of several articles on the art, and science, of natural navigation. And because navigation is like nature awareness and tracking – where observation and deduction is key – this is where we will start.

taw marsh

One of the ‘top tips’ of navigation is not to get lost in the first place. This can be more difficult than it sounds! Starting off on a journey from a place when you have made an initial error in orienting yourself is all too easy to do and amazingly hard to correct. For instance, if you have ever been to a new place, such as a city, where you have, right at the off, got your Norths and Souths or your Easts and Wests mixed up then you’ll know what I am talking about. From then on, and even with subsequent visits to that same city, you will still struggle with orienting yourself correctly.

So why is this? When you go to a new place you, subconsciously and automatically, start to lay down a mental map of the place. This mental map is part of a primitive and natural survival process and creates new neural connections in your brain. The problem is that once these are made they become the fastest or preferred ‘route’ to navigating this place. Once ‘hard-wired in’ the map is pretty much there to stay. So, if you have got off the plane and initially got your directions mixed up, then your basic map will always have a habit of being wrongly aligned. Yes, you can correct it, but it needs conscious thought: an additional ‘bit of code’ in the brain to tell the brain to modify it the underlying error as it processes the map. And that’s the issue. This code is a ‘thinking code’, it belongs to your higher ‘cognitive’ function. Under stress the brain may simply ignore or ‘dump’ this code as it strives for the quickest and most efficient decision-making processes – which belong in the more primitive pathways of the brain. This results in making errors or becoming disoriented.

So a good tip is: before you go anywhere take time to look at your map. Look at where you want to go, make note of notable landmarks or ‘catch features’. And when you get there the first thing you should do is to take time to observe the lie of the land, these landmarks and ensure that you know exactly where you are and which direction you are facing. Getting this right, at the start, knowing where you are, is a cornerstone of effective navigation.


‘Staying found’ is key skill and at its ‘centre’ is an awareness (and observation) of the relationship between yourself, home, and where you have come from. There are a number of navigational ‘systems’ that can help with this. The first is what some call the ‘home centre’ system. This is a primitive form of navigation where you travel away from a ‘home’ point and always keep a tab on where you are in relation to home. Often by necessity this involves line of sight. This is how many primitive peoples would start to navigate. Slowly they would venture further in one direction from home and back again. Then venture from home in another direction and then back again. They would build up a picture of their territory in relation to their position with this centre-point, which was always home. Over time they would be able to venture further from home, knowing which direction it lay, therefore expanding their known world.

mist at houndtor

At the other end of the spectrum is the ‘self-centre’ system of navigation – often using a map and a compass – you always place yourself in the centre of this system and use these tools to discern the position of the things around you in relation to the spot you are currently standing on.  This is a highly effective method of location – however it does rely on the tools of map and/or compass – and spending too much time peering down at these, and relying on them, can tempt you to place yourself in the map and not in the landscape. Using this method we have a tendency to focus on where we are now and not necessarily on where we have come from or where this is in relation to home. It can have the consequence of divorcing you from your environment. Taken to extreme is GPS – that if we rely on it too much – can undermine your natural sense of direction as you surrender this faculty to the device. If it fails then you might not have been paying enought attention to where you have come from and find yourself lost. Very lost. No mental map has been created.


A better system of navigation combines these two systems. It is what some navigators have called the ‘local reference system’. This system uses local landmarks that you (as the traveller) have a relationship with – having travelled through, over or nearby. We use them not only as our ‘breadcrumbs’ as to where we have gone, we use them to understand where we are in relation to them and can use them to look ahead to where we might go. Navigating by prominent features  – rivers, hills, coastlines etc. does not mean we have to travel TO each one, we just have to be clear where it is in relation to us when we travel ie: keeping it on our left or right or that we will be passing between two prominent hills or heading to a bend or a confluence in a river. This system is very robust and effective if used well. It will not only give you a sense of the lay of the land around you, how you are oriented and placed within it but it will help keep your link with a return path if you need to retrace your steps. By using this system you construct a clear mental map of where you are in relation to these features and these feature in relation to where home is. Travelling by landmark is a key fundamental for the Aboriginal ‘Songlines’ that would describe routes over huge distances by the use of detailing the route though stories or ‘songs’. This created a mental map of the route by linking landmarks with metaphysical and physical description.


An important part of effective natural navigation (with the local reference system) is the ability to understand where you have been. When we travel we have a habit of spending most, if not all of our time, looking forward. No wonder when it becomes necessary to finding our way back, we do not recognise where we have been. Simply because we have not looked at it from this direction. Casting back is an essential part of travel. Taking time, occasionally in open terrain and regularly in enclosed terrain, such as forest, to look behind you will help you recognise the return path and how to find your last prominent feature – which might now be out of sight. Taking note of key micro-features – rocks, plants, trees from behind will help you lay ‘breadcrumbs’ to ensure you have a known route of retreat.


twinkle twinkle little ‘north’ star

Cold winter nights and clear skies can give you an amazing view of the celestial heavens. Especially when you are away from light pollution. Like we are on Dartmoor. This great dome-like firmament is quite breathtaking and instead of one or two of the brightest stars that make their way through the haze of streetlights there is a twinkling stadium of stars looking down on us.

With thoughts of stars over mangers guiding shepherds it might be understandable that we take the opportunity to look skyward at this time of year. The stars have been used by travellers for tens of thousands of years. And whilst the basics are not rocket-science, if you are just getting started out in celestial navigation here are four easy ways to find the North Star (Polaris) – the star by which we can use to set or keep our course – in any direction.


And not forgetting our friends in the Southern Hemisphere – here is a quick way of finding south!