Basic Bushcraft: Navigation

Basic Bushcraft: Navigation
In these days of GPS devices, mobile (cell) ‘phones and other high-tech navigation gear it would seem that getting lost is becoming a thing of the past. However, in my personal experience and that of the rescue services it is actually becoming easier. Time and again mountain rescue teams are being called out by lost/injured/lazy people saying “Our GPS says we are at Lat: XX.XX Long: YY.YY please come and get us. Compass bearing? Map? No we don’t have them, the GPS says where we are. What do you mean those co-ordinates put us five miles out in the English Channel? What can we see? Well we’re in the middle of a forest so …trees. Lots and lots of trees. What sort? Christmas ones I think- I’m not a biologist! Can you come and get us? There’s only one bar on our signal, and the ‘phone battery is about to run ou-”

The resulting search by volunteer rescue teams - there are few full-time professional ones – plus any help the armed forces can give, usually takes a lot of time and covers vast areas costing a lot in peoples time and money. It becomes even worse when the GPS is only slightly off and the people waiting to be rescued can only watch forlornly as an area several miles away is searched. Either way a good deal of time and money is wasted that could be saved if other methods of navigation in addition to, or instead of, electronic ones were used and the callers knew where they were.

The reason that this so often happens is because the signals used by GPS and satellite navigation are easily interfered with by both natural and man-made phenomena. This is particularly true in places with a high level of radio traffic such as Portsmouth Naval Base in the UK or the NSA centre in Maryland where vehicles relying on satellite navigation end up going ‘round in circles like moths bumping off a light. There are also signal ‘black spots’ as in the snippet of conversation I overheard the other day where one participant said “Well you may be able to get a mobile signal at the top of Everest, but in the Pool room at the back of (the local pub) you’d be better off with two tin cans and a bit of string”

Natural barriers also distort, block, or deflect the signals used for navigation and communication. When I went to the gathering at Wookey Hole in Somerset UK as one of the participants in the competition to select a new Witch for the tourist attraction there I was asked by BBC Radio Solent if I could act as a correspondent for them. The idea being that they would contact me by mobile ‘phone and I would give them an on the spot report. It was only when I checked my curiously quiet ‘phone that I realised that the reason for the silence was that there was no signal being picked up.

This happened to everyone’s mobile resulting in massive queues for the available landlines and even the news teams covering the event had their broadcast dishes crowded into middle of the car park. Talking with the local Pagans I found out that the signal problems were caused by high levels of iron ore in the local sandstone rock, added to by the earth energies centred on the caves. I eventually had to deliver my report from Glastonbury – nearly 20 miles away.

So you can see that by learning basic methods of navigation you can lessen the chance of getting lost and also be in tune with your surroundings. Basic compass use can be learned from a book, or better still from activities such as geocaching and orienteering that also incorporate how to read a map. Being capable of reading a map seems to be something of a dying art at the moment, particularly being able to understand the topographical type. This is the best type of map for Pagans as the layout brings the landscape to life, enabling you to spot potential power spots, ley lines, and good sites for rituals.

Even with a map it is important to know ways of orienting yourself. Knowing which way is North can help you become more comfortable when you find yourself in apparent wilderness. The mental confusion brought on by feeling you are lost can be even more deadly than actually being lost and simple things such as knowing the specific directions can help you stay calm, focused, and able to plan your next step.

There are many ways of finding direction, from magnetised items to natural phenomena such as moss growing on one side of large trees. The magnetised items are generally the most reliable method but may take some preparation beforehand. Pagans generally have a greater advantage as many magickal tools such as Athames are magnetised and, if suspended by a thread or hair at the centre of balance, will align with the Earths magnetic field and help indicate North and South in conjunction with other environmental clues.

Other than stroking an item with a magnet there are several ways to make or obtain magnetised articles from the environment. Any iron or steel subjected to extreme heat and then allowed to cool will become magnetic enough to indicate magnetic North and South according to local magnetic fields. Nails from wood used in fires, handmade blacksmith items such as horseshoe nails, and even metal cutlery heated in a powerful commercial dishwasher, all have this capability. Another old trick – sometimes used to magnetise Athames - is to place a knife point first at 60-70 degrees on a hard surface such as a rock and tap one end with another hard surface, usually another rock. After a few minutes the item will be magnetised as the atoms inside align with the earth’s magnetic field.

Natural things indicating direction, such as the moss on certain sides of trees, trees bent in the direction of seasonal winds, lines of sand dunes, vary according to where you are on the planet. For example; the moss growing on the North side of a tree trick only works in dry conditions, in damp ones the moss grows all over the tree not only the shadier cool side. Just about the only consistently effective technique I know for finding direction relies on a clear day, something that casts a shadow and something to mark where the shadow falls.

All you do then is place the item casting the shadow on a flat surface (or the ground), mark where the tip of the shadow falls, wait a while and mark where the tip of the shadow has moved to. Draw a straight line between the two points and you have a reasonable East-West line, another line drawn through it at 90 degrees will give you North and South. If you have a map to relate the directions to this may be all you need to get yourself out of trouble.

No one system of navigation is infallible but, through experimentation and experience in safe circumstances before you need it, as in the orienteering mentioned earlier. You can attune yourself practically and magickally to your surroundings to make your Pagan practice even more enjoyable.

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