Posted by Grant on 25. February 2010 20:51
I intended to start exploring the topic of AR training this month, and now it's already the 26th of Feb so it's time I get started! I will unveil a complete AR training plan (a 4 month plan to prepare for the 3-day Untamed New England Adventure race) in a few weeks -- that is being compiled by somebody who really knows training plans (in other words: not me).
In the meantime, I'm going to jump into the topic and offer up some of what I've learned over the years. Adventure racing is distinguished most by the navigation component, so let me start by looking at how somebody "learns" navigation for adventure racing.
I'm a big believer in using local orienteering meets to get comfortable with map and compass, and this is a great way to jumpstart your understanding. Find a local orienteering event and participate; if you don't know what "participation in an orienteering event" means, reach out to the organizers and explain that you need some guidance. They welcome beginners -- that's how the sport grows so they will be eager to help you get started. Here is a list of orienteering clubs in the US.
Orienteering meets are a fun and easy way to get some experience with navigation, but if there isn't an event convenient to you or if you're looking for independent practice I suggest you "roll your own" orienteering event.
By this, I mean you get a topographic map of a nearby area (1:24,000 scale seems to be standard for adventure racing, and this is an easy scale to find at your local outdoor shop or ordered online from a source like MyTopo.com). Incidentally, you can get a low-res electronic
topo map via the MyTopo.com custom map ordering system; it's free, you just have to walk through the checkout process and when you arrive at the
"Review Your Map" stage click the "View a preview of your printed map" link and you're on your way. Here is a sample 1:24,000 map centered on Dixville Notch, the host location for Untamed New England 2010.
So, one way or another you can obtain a topo map for a public space near you. Then, pick some prominent locations on the topo map (the top of a hill, the confluence of two rivers, a depression between two ridges) and circle them. To start, keep the points kind of close together so you're not setting out on an epic navigation outting your first time out!
These circles become your points to navigate to, and you've created your own navigation course.
A couple safety caveats are in order:
- Make sure the location you're going to allows walking around in the woods. Don't try the "roll your own" nav challenge in a nature preserve where off-trail travel isn't permitted!
- Notify family or a friend about your intentions and where you're going to go, even give them a sketch of your route. Call them when you're done so they know you're OK.
- Bring a GPS along. This can be useful to verify your location (when you reach one of your selected locations),or to bail you out in case you get lost.
This nav course can be lots of fun, and after you complete it once try visiting the locations in a different order. Pay attention to how the terrain around you is represented on the map; observe the contours and how they show up/down slopes, for example. You should also pay attention to how the terrain around you is not
represented on the map; most topo maps in the US are very dated, and it's common to find roads, dams, and other big changes not shown on the topographic maps in the USA. If you're in Switzerland, however, they meticulously update their maps as racers at Untamed Switzerland
can attest -- truly, Swiss topo maps are lightyears ahead of their American counterparts.
Adventure Racer reviews the 2009 Untamed New England Course
Adventure Racers reviews the 2009 Untamed Switzerland Course
With practice, both at official orienteering meets and independently with your own maps, you will become more observant and associate your surroundings to a mental map (and vice versa). This isn't the end of the road for adventure race navigation; in truth, this is just the beginning. I just wanted to cover the basics, but realize that with real adventure race navigation (where you are off-trail and in serious wilderness) you will also need skills such as:
- Pacing and estimation -- you want to have a good idea for how long it takes you to move over 1 km or 1 mile of terrain. Pace counting can be useful here, but usually just a solid sense for "we've been bushwhacking uphill for 20 minutes, so we've gone 500 meters" will suffice. This applies on a bike, on foot, while paddling, and in all variety of conditions and equipment loads. This can take a long time to develop, but the good news is you can "practice" it most any time you are training by just trying to observe your surroundings.
- There are orienteering specific terms like "aiming off" and "handrail" that provide a structured vocabulary to describe your navigation activities. Mastering these is a basic AR navigation skill. Look to this basic definition of terms at the Quantico Orienteering Club website.
- Route selection is critical in adventure racing, and when looking to get from point A to point B, a good orienteer can usually find several options. The key is knowing which route is the fastest, and this takes experience to get right. If you're just starting out, take the most simple approach and guarantee you find point B -- worry about finding point B 2 minutes faster after you've got a good foundation with map and compass.
You can also improve your navigation by looking at maps with old courses, and asking yourself how you would approach each leg. There are books with exercises such as this. To start out, however, you really need some simple hands-on experience so get out in the woods with a map and start building your navigation IQ!
One last item for beginers going to their first orienteering meets: don't be afraid to ask others about their routes after they're finished. This is a great tradition in orienteering, where competitors compare routes and debate the merits of one leg vs another. 5 minutes looking at a map with an experienced navigator can really improve your own technique, so don't be shy!