Be like a dog & navigate using ALL your senses

Most people would say that sight is the only sense needed when navigating. Whilst it is the most useful one, the other four can come into their own in certain situations.


For most of the time, sight is our most valuable sense when navigating using a map and compass. Whether we are following a bearing, comparing the details on the map to what we can see on the ground or estimating distance, we’d be forgiven for thinking we would be lost without it. Bizarrely, however, both novices and experienced navigators sometimes forget to look up. We may criticise GPS users for having their heads buried in their phones, but map & compass users may suffer from the same heads-down affliction. Having established from the map, for example, that in 300m you will be entering a wood, you measure the distance using the Romer and take a bearing…. whereas all you really needed to do was look up!

As for dogs, in human terms they are near-sighted. Objects at a distance appear blurred to them. However they are much more sensitive to movement than us and have better night vision too. We can compensate for our poor night vision by using a head torch. Dogs have better peripheral vision than us – so we need to look around more than they do. Our colour perception is also better than theirs; they see the world in shades of yellow, blue and grey.


We don’t need to touch a tree to confirm we are in a wood. But touch comes into its own on a slope. We certainly have an acute sense of going up or down. We can easily feel if we are going down or up a slope, contouring around a slope or going diagonally up or down it. Our sense of touch can tell us we have covered the closely spaced contours and have reached the place on the map where the contours flatten out. This is especially true when we are navigating in poor light conditions, where darkness or mist might obscure otherwise obvious slopes.


Some people walk listening to music or podcasts, which puts a barrier between them and the natural world. But besides listening to the birds, insects and the wind in the trees, what you can hear can help you out of a tricky situation. This is especially the case in woods. Long-established woods invariably have more paths on the ground than are marked on the map. Those paths which are marked on the map have a habit of not behaving quite as you expect. A straight line between points is invariably not straight, having become twisted by time and nature. So the things we can hear can help. Roads are useful here, or rather the sound of cars on them. Equally a fast-flowing river may be heard before it is seen. If a noise is getting louder, you must be getting closer to the source of it. The sound of livestock may indicate that the seemingly dense and endless wood you are in is, in fact, not far from farmland. Finally, the buzz or overhead power cables will give you your exact location if you know you are on a path, but not sure exactly where.


Smell – are you serious?! Yes, I am. Dogs use it all the time, but whilst we are not blessed with their powerful olfactory nerves, there are a couple of situations where it can help. As with hearing, smell might come to your rescue in woodland. Horses or livestock in a field may not produce a noticeable odour, but stables will. Some can be smelled from well over 100m. And farms have distinctive smells such as silage and manure heaps.

The overriding point here is that you need to be alert to all the signals that the landscape is sending your senses. They can all be used to help fix your place in the landscape. 

And not forgetting… Taste

The taste of beer, coffee, tea and / or cake invariably tells you that you have reached the end of the walk.