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The Natural Navigator With No Need For A Compass

Plants, trees and even puddles are just some of the ways ‘The Natural Navigator’ Tristan Gooley is able to find his way using nothing but his surroundings

Tristan Gooley is the only living person to have both flown solo and sailed single-handed across the Atlantic Ocean – feats worthy of a lifetime of recognition for any respected adventurer. Yet it is a mark of the man that Gooley is rarely spoken of in relation to his ocean-crossing achievements. Instead, it is his expertise in the field of natural navigation that has earned him most renown.

An award-winning author, Gooley has written about thousands of natural navigation techniques ranging from the study of water, to finding your way using nothing but cobwebs and satellite dishes. His ability to study the environment for natural, and indeed manmade, clues allows him to create a visual map of his surroundings and, armed with such natural knowledge, he has led large-scale expeditions all over the world. However, he says natural navigation is not about being able to cover large distances, or navigate hostile environments; it’s about connecting with what’s around you to find your destination via a journey rich in experience.

1,000-mile expeditions weren’t any more satisfying than crossing one mile of English woodlands using trees, flowers and stars as my compass

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Q: What is natural navigation and when did you first become interested in it?
A: ‘Natural navigation is the beautiful art of finding our way in nature, by using plants, trees, animals, and even buildings and people. I first became interested in it because I had a love of journeys, and then I realised I had a love of shaping journeys. I wasn't so much a destination person; I enjoyed the journey itself. By that point I had completed some pretty big expeditions, but I worked out the scale of the journey wasn't actually the thing that determined how interesting it was. I did some pretty extreme navigational challenges, but I realised they were no more fun than much smaller ones. The 1,000-mile expeditions weren’t proving any more satisfying than trying to cross one mile of English woodlands using the trees, flowers and stars as my compass.’

Q: Does natural navigation require a vast, in-depth knowledge of nature?
A: ‘You can have a lot of fun with the basics in a few minutes: just simple things like knowing the sun is due south at the middle of the day, so if you're having lunch and you see the sun come out, make that connection that you're looking very roughly south. I've written books with literally hundreds of those sort of techniques. So noticing, for example, something as simple as the fact willow trees always grow near water. When you start pairing those two together, you see a willow tree and you think, there's water. You can start building a map in your head, which is quite nice and simple, and then the next, more advanced thing, is noticing that all these things are connected – that is the moment you realise absolutely everything in nature is part of one big map and compass.’

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Q: What are some examples of how nature can guide us?
A: ‘I teach and write about 19 techniques for using trees to find direction. A really fun one is that the leaves on the south side of a tree are smaller than the leaves on the north side, because they're sun leaves. With animals, all animals have patterns of behaviour and it’s possible to find water by studying bird behaviour. Also, if you see a cobweb pretty much anywhere – particularly if there's more than one – that is the sign of a sheltered spot. We get most of our wind from the south west, so you get more cobwebs on the north-east side of trees, or gates, or anything like that. There are quite literally thousands of these techniques. An interesting urban one is that TV satellite dishes tend to point pretty close to south east, and there are about 20 ways of using a church to find direction.’

Q: Have you ever used natural navigation to get yourself out of a dangerous situation?
A: ‘I use natural navigation most of the time to stop things getting dangerous. There is a saying among navigators that the world spends the whole time discussing survival techniques, but if you get the navigation right those skills aren’t such an issue, and there is a lot of truth in that, in the sense that I'm using these things to stop it becoming an emergency situation. I recently led an expedition from the north coast to the south coast of Crete, which is 26 miles through some fairly big mountains and that's a good example of where if I had made bad mistakes then it would have got pretty serious. When I was younger I was a lot more reckless: at 19 I got properly lost for three days without food, but that was before I really knew anything.’

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Q: In How To Read Water you explain how to navigate using puddles – how?
A: ‘A lot of clues in nature come from reading the footprints that the sun and the wind leave, and there are a few ways you can use puddles to gain an insight into what's going on. We find more puddles on the south side of tracks, because the sun is doing most of its drying in the middle of the day when it's due south. If you look at a track that runs east to west there is likely to be a thin area to the southern edge of the track where a tiny bit of shade is normally covered by undergrowth, and that's where most puddles are formed.’

Q: You’ve lived with and studied various remote tribes around the world – what are some of the standout navigational lessons you learned from them?
A: ‘The Penan Diak tribe in Borneo are the absolute gurus of natural navigation, because they are the ones who have been most recently nomadic. Their ability to read the shape of land is truly extraordinary. Their whole view of navigation is entirely different to ours; it is all to do with the shape and gradient of the land. They have no interest in north, south, east, or west, but they can understand what is going on all around them just by looking at the shape of the land and the way the water flows.’

‘Whereas we might say, head north, they would say head downstream. Just from the gradient of where they're walking, they can say, “OK I recognise this type of gradient means this type of valley and the only valley of this type in the area is Valley A – that means I need to head with the flow of the stream for a few hours then head uphill.” Because it's jungle, there are very few other methods that would work.’

Q: Why is natural navigation an important skill to learn?
A: ‘For me it's about the joy and richness it brings once you've tried it. If you try just walking for 10 minutes using a bit of natural navigation you will definitely have a more richer and interesting experience. It's like anything in life: once we learn the trick about having a richer experience, we almost feel sad for the time before that, because it was a poor experience by comparison.’

Find out more about Tristan Gooley and his work on natural navigation at Naturalnavigator.com. Follow him @NaturalNav

Words: Isaac Williams

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