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December 2 2020

Navigating 2020 and beyond
by Nigel Williams

As we come to the end of what has been a difficult year for us all with so many challenges and restrictions on our lives and outdoor opportunities, I thought a roundup of bits and pieces from this last year and a look ahead to 2021 might be appropriate.

The book "Wayfinding" by Michael Bond sparked much thought about how we learn to navigate and wayfind. As a toddler, frequently the first experience of being lost is in a supermarket or shop. Our spatial awareness has not yet developed to enable us to even point in the direction of the car park. Yet, over time, in the outdoors, we can develop our cognitive map to help us operate in the hills in winter, supressing the fear of being lost as we develop confidence in both remote terrain and our ability to use the tools of navigation. A prime example of this development is evident in the central London cabbies who spend 4 years learning "The Knowledge", 60,000 streets and over 100,000 point of interest. They never use a GPS but develop an unusually large hippocampus, the part of the brain that manages our map memory and cognitive navigation capabilities. Neuroscientists are planning further studies of cabbies neurological powers over the next few years.

Some recent experiments indicate that the earliest humans may at one time have been able to detect magnetic fields that gave them a sense of direction similar to some animals and birds today. It may be a lost capability. Do some people still have it though - for example water diviners?

There is now a considerable amount of research to suggest that men and women are equally capable of navigating. They just do it differently. In one experiment, navigating a route using a 3D map, women completely outshone men, whereas the men outshone the women with the 2D traditional map (invented by men of course). It seems women use landmarks and visual clues, noticing their surroundings more than men. Men tend to be more aware of distance and direction information. Actually the reality is that most of us use a mixture of both but may have a bias one way or the other. The future may see a much wider range of mapping being available to suit different people and purposes.

I covered GPS in a recent blog, but as we reach the final Brexit outcome the UK has already left the European Space Agency, responsible for the European GPS satellite system Galileo. We still have recreational access to it on our devices but access to the high end military capabilities may be limited in future. The government now plans to develop a next generation UK GPS system of satellites. A few other nations have a GPS satellite system limited to their country only. Our reliance on these systems is fundamental to our everyday lives and their vulnerability is becoming a serious issue. Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) capability that used to refer to nuclear weapons is now emerging as a space strategy, hence the rapid development of space defence units in the major countries of the world.

On a more cheerful note, I'm sure most people are familiar with the term "desire line" when referring to footpaths that cut out a zigzag, particularly going downhill for example.
Well, Tristan Gooley, the guru of natural navigation has just come up with the term "Smile Path": a well worn curved path around obstacles like fallen trees, large puddles, etc.

Here's hoping we can all get back to navigating around the hills in 2021.

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December 1 2020

Tips on navigating in a winter white out
by Nigel Williams

With paths and streams often covered with snow at this time of year contours are king when navigating in winter. Think of them as the third dimension which we feel rather than see. We feel the angle and steepness as we cross the ground (and contours) through our legs.

A compass direction operates in two dimensions on a flat surface, only 2/3 of the information we need to navigate effectively in whiteout.

A winter whiteout is when, in poor weather, the sky and ground become one so there is no horizon line and it is impossible to make out the lay of the land just in front of you. It can be very intimidating, especially around ridges, steep avalanche prone slopes and cornices (lips of compacted snow that overhang cliffs and outcrops). Without anything to aim a compass bearing at one can drift significantly off course and the eyes and mind play tricks, especially if a strong wind is blowing snow diagonally across our route or into our face. Forget the old idea of throwing snow balls in front of you to aim on - it doesn't work.

Careful route planning is essential. Try to design a route using objectives that are changes in contour information which can provide physical feedback. For example, a straight line bearing takes us diagonally downwards across a slope for 600m to reach flat ground. Using pacing and feeling the change in the contour spacing enables us to be reasonably accurate about our position. Further confirmation can be obtained by asking companions to walk away in different directions to the limit of visibility and observe if they appear to be level, above or below. This idea can also help gauge the slope aspect (direction the slope is facing).

If there is more than one navigator and compass in a group, walking accurately on a bearing can be managed by working as a team. Once the objective, bearing, distance and expected feel of the ground is agreed, a confident navigator goes out in front about 5 - 10 metres ahead, doing their best to follow the bearing on their compass. The next person behind follows with the same bearing on their compass and steers the front person - "left a bit", "on", "right a bit", "on", often shouting in the wind. With the rest of the team close behind the second person everyone is moving.

The lead person follows the instructions drifting back onto the bearing. The lead person ideally is also counting the paces although others could do this, (the person shouting the instructions can't count paces as well).

If there is only one compass or confident navigator then it can be done by sending an individual to the limit of visibility then directing them left or right onto the bearing, then the group walks to them and the process is repeated. This is a depressingly slow and cold process.

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November 2020

Cognitive navigation and GPS
by Nigel Williams

Before maps existed, the human brain developed the ability to observe landmarks, and use spatial awareness to create a mental map of the countryside around them. The hippocampus is the part of the brain that stores the mental map. Today we help that with navigation tools such as a map and compass. However, a map of the countryside would be a meaningless document if we had never seen or been in the countryside. We develop spatial awareness through experience of the environment/terrain that we recreate or explore in, knowing roughly where we are in relation to various landmarks and the positional relationship between them. (It is a good argument for the value of outdoor education and also why we cannot really learn to navigate/wayfind online).

London cabbies usually spend around 4 years memorising the A-Z map of central London, they call it "Knowledge". They can go between any two places in any direction and are able to work out alternatives if there are delays. They don't use GPS. MRI scans of their brains as they learn the Knowledge shows that they develop a larger than usual hippocampus.

Research into the cognitive impact of using a GPS for navigation goes back to the early 2000s. One experiment asked two sets of people to navigate a route through a built-up area. One set were equipped with maps and compasses the other following the route on a GPS. On arrival at the destination point the navigation tools were removed and they were asked to back track the route from memory. The map and compass users managed the task quickly with few mistakes. The GPS users had difficulty in achieving the task.

Following the dot or arrow on the screen meant that they had barely observed any landmarks around them nor were they particularly conscious of key decision-making points along the route.

Further studies have demonstrated that habitual use of the GPS fails to develop navigation decision making skills but more fundamentally, it fails to develop our cognitive navigation skills in the hippocampus. Furthermore, it appears that the part of the brain required to interact with the GPS, the caudate nucleus (the same part of the brain that works when interacting with video games), silences the hippocampus. It is easy to see which way society seems to be heading.

As we get older the hippocampus deteriorates as we become more sedentary. Scientists are unravelling this decline clearly observed in Alzheimer's sufferers. However, there is good evidence that we need to stimulate the hippocampus to help protect it.

There is a choice as to how we interact with our GPS/phone on the hill. There is a continuum - at one end we can follow the dot and let the GPS control us. At the other end we can exercise our spatial awareness, observation and decision-making skills with a map and just use the GPS to confirm a decision after it has been made, in that scenario we control the GPS.

In between those two ends are a range of levels of integration using navigation tools combined with our spatial awareness and decision making skills. Examples might be using a screen map without the GPS function or navigating from a paper map and taking regular position checks from the GPS.

The aim ought to be to integrate the tools in order to benefit both navigation efficiency and spatial knowledge acquisition.

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September 2020

by Nigel Williams

MapRun is a recent mobile phone app which enables anyone with appropriate online mapping to create a virtual orienteering or navigation course which can be uploaded and then accessed by others. They are generally in urban areas using orienteering maps of the streets and parks etc. It might be described as a cross between geocaching and Strava. In fact you can download your times onto Strava as well as in the MapRun app. However there is no need to run and it is an excellent way to explore a new town with the kids.

Over 30 countries are using it. Orienteering clubs across the UK are mapping and putting courses online on a weekly basis. There are over 130 across Scotland. Check your local orienteering club website. See www.scottish-orienteering.org for more information and to download the maps.

A map with all the checkpoints can be downloaded onto the phone to work with the GPS function. It is recommended to download and print a paper copy to use. There are on screen instructions and optional settings to choose whether you want the GPS showing your position as you follow the route or not.

When it comes to navigation generally there seems to be either a paper or GPS mentality. We hear of an increase in mountain rescues where the only navigation tool has been the phone. Of course those same people may have needed help if they had relied solely on a paper map and compass, but possibly they would not have gone out in the first place if they had no skills or confidence with map and compass. Map Run offers the option of learning to use both together which is how most outdoor professionals now operate, partly because it allows them more head space for interaction and managing safety of clients knowing the GPS as a backup, will pin point them in seconds.

In the last blog I briefly talked about the need to develop the brain's navigation processes and that navigation requires decision making and confidence. It also requires observation skills.

Most people will have used Satnav in the car to find their way to an unfamiliar place and then felt unable to retrace the route without Satnav. This is because the brain has not been able to create a mental map from observing and recording multiple land marks and the sequence of direction changes etc. Driving safely is also a distraction and an indication that navigation tends to need our full attention.

Experiments have been done with people on foot following GPS mapping and tracking on an unfamiliar back street urban route. Unexpectedly at the end they have the GPS and mapping disabled and have to retrace their steps from memory. Same thing is done with other individuals who used a paper map. They proved to be more successful in retracing their route because they had to constantly relate the map and ground, observing landmarks and their relationship to each other, which built up a mental map.

This demonstrates that total reliance on the GPS is less effective at activating and developing the neurological navigation processes. Secondly, that online learning to navigate (which has been talked about in the outdoor sector quite a bit during the lockdown) has only limited use and that we need to engage with the outdoor environment and terrain in order to develop the neurological navigation processes and confidence.

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July 2020

Navigation research
by Nigel Williams

The more I research navigation the more I realise how much there is out there to discover. Lockdown has provided a great opportunity to read and research the subject. The 2020 book "Wayfinding" by Michael Bond provided a wonderful synopsis of where research is heading today some of it linked to Alzheimer's research where sufferers so often ask the question "Where am I?". There are literally hundreds of research papers over many decades. Each one developing ideas from previous insights. Geographers, Cartographers, Psychologists to Neurologists all have papers on the subject. Virtually all mention that navigation involves a wide range of complex skills and that confidence plays a role in our ability. A wise old navigator once said "navigation is 25% map reading, 25% compass work and 50% confidence in the other two". It is much more nuanced than that but it conveys the importance of confidence because it is entwined with decision making, that also opens up a world of heuristic biases.

The researchers often come at it from very different viewpoints, from how many symbols can the brain interpret and manage at one time to what are the key cognitive strategies used to navigate, to which areas of the brain influence navigation and decision making and the thorny issue of whether men or women are better navigators.

I'm pleased to say that from what I have observed over the years and read recently there is no definitive answer to that one. However, there may be some evidence that if there is a difference it may be more linked to early years spatial awareness development opportunities, exposure to the outdoor environment and adventure, and maps at a young age. Social factors may play a part in all that.

So much of navigation is about the cognitive strategies we use, map setting, map memory and map to ground/ground to map interpretation and self-location are key. The first requiring the spatial ability to rotate a map in our head. (Conflicting information on a map between symbols and writing can challenge this, is it easier to navigate with heads up on written words or symbols?). The latter requiring the comprehension of a bird's eye view, and experience of the environment one is travelling in and the observation of what we might expect to see on the map or ground.

Cartographic symbology plays a part and what draws many people to enjoy using Harvey maps. Navigation is also fundamentally decision making and confidence, these are traits that can be developed, nurtured and taught. It all seems to me that there is a significant disconnect between this and how many of us have supposedly been taught to navigate - being able to produce a grid reference. Navigation requires practical outdoor experience to develop the appropriate cognitive strategies and environmental observation skills.

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