Jón Rúnar Guðjónsson, Riccardo Tamburini, Nathan Stuart, Stefan Orman
For some of us – especially those who grew up in the city – wandering deep into the forest may seem like a scary affair. Hunters, however, seem to feel at home wherever they go. You could place them well outside their hunting grounds, and they would still be able to get around easily and confidently. How do they manage to navigate so easily? Do they ever get lost? Who better to answer these questions if not our brand ambassadors. So, if you, too, wish to feel more confident when trekking in the woods, keep on reading to learn from the best – Jón Rúnar Guðjónsson (an Icelander based in Denmark and hunting in Sweden), Riccardo Tamburini from Italy, Stefan Orman from Sweden, and Nathan Stuart from Australia.
Nathan: The humble smartphone can be a very handy tool with the right apps installed. And, of course, thermal lets me see long distances in darkness. Much further than a torch can. But I always have a compass in my backpack.
Riccardo: It depends. Often I don’t need any device. But I always have my smartwatch with a compass and GPS on me. I switch between devices depending on whether I’m on land or offshore since the GSM signal doesn’t work everywhere.
Jón Rúnar: Today, like Nathan, I use my mobile phone a lot. It has become very efficient in normal navigation, and there is a fine cell signal throughout Europe, even in remote areas like Lapland. Besides my phone, I always have my smartwatch on me. It tells me the sunrise and sunset times and can give me directions through GPS. Where there is no mobile signal, or it’s not particularly good, I use the GPS as it is stronger. I used to have a compass with me all the time, but now the watch and mobile have replaced it.
Stefan: Always bring a compass and a map. And if you’re at a new hunting area, always do some daytime reconnaissance and, if needed, put out markers to help you find your way back. Tell your friends or family where you are going so that if you get hurt, they know where to find you or where to send an ambulance.
Jón Rúnar: I use the available natural surroundings a lot. If there is sun or moon to be seen, I use those to help me navigate. I haven’t learned to use the stars properly, but when they are visible, I recognize a few of them.
If a hard fog hits where you can see maybe 1-2 meters, and you are on a mountain, the GPS might not get a signal. In these cases, I follow water streams or animal tracks to get down from the mountain. Usually, the fog is not that thick when you get down, and you can find a signal or a road, maybe a bigger river to navigate by. A good tip is to always have a whistle with you. If you break a leg or get immobile, it’s easier to blow a whistle than to shout, and it can be heard from farther away.
Jón Rúnar: First of all, as Stefan already said, tell someone where you are going and when you think you will be back. Then remember to tell them you are back. If you change your plans, keep others informed, too. That makes searching so much easier. Also, make sure you always have energy-rich food available and access to water.
Riccardo: Prevention begins before you go out. Some people don’t think they need to plan the trip before leaving. However, it’s always imperative to mark the position of the car to have the chance to come back easily.
Stefan: I count my steps to know how far I’ve gone in the dark. I always have a compass and a map. I also bring lightsticks to mark places of importance, say, if I need to leave any equipment for a short while.
Nathan: Always orient yourself to the north when arriving at a new destination. Take mental notes of any skylines, features or major infrastructure. Memorize the direction to safety in case you become disorientated.
Today, we have very sophisticated GPS and electronic devices, but you have to learn the use of charts and compass, which are always more precise than electronics. It’s like having a calculator but still knowing how to multiply without one.
Nathan: I’ve never been lost, just very confused for about 8 hours (smiles). It was a pitch-black night in a flat, heavily timbered forest. We had been following a hunting dog that ran off for around 45 minutes. When we finally caught up to the dog, we were completely disorientated.
Frustratingly, we emerged on an old road the car was parked on when trying to retrace our steps. However, we mistook the road for another and turned left instead of right. All along, we had emerged within 400 m of the vehicle. However, we walked all night, 8 hours, in the wrong direction until a family member found us at dawn.
Riccardo: Yes, it happened many years ago. I was young, and I didn’t know how important it is to have a communication system, especially when you are in a remote area. We were on a boat many miles out. No signal and no chance to call with phones. We had a big problem with the boat because we hit an abandoned rope with both propellers, and that caused the engine axis to bend. Water started to come inside the engine room, and without a sat phone, we probably would have been forced to leave the boat because it would have sunk. We were lucky because the water was entering slowly, giving us the time to ask a friend who came to tow the boat to the port. Since that time, I have always used the inReach technology: you can send a message from everywhere in the world with a short note and your precise location.
Jón Rúnar: I get lost in the forest all the time, and I love it. When I trek in the forest at night or even during the day, everything sometimes looks the same. When getting deeply involved with animal tracks or looking at plants, birds or something else, I lose track of time and direction, and I love it. Sometimes it takes a few extra hours to find my path again, but I always do.
I don’t panic because, at an early age, I learned that panic doesn’t give any better sense of direction or a clearer mind. Other emotions give you benefits and different shots of hormones like adrenaline that can be helpful for gaining short-term energy, strength, focus or heat, but panic is just disorientation.
And I did once find myself in a rather stupid situation. I was going hunting ptarmigan close to a mountain in Iceland and told my family about it. This was way before cell phones. When I came to my location, there were hunters all over the area, so I decided to go further inland and ended up far away from where I should be, maybe 30-50 km from my destination. I was hunting alone, and it was winter, there was snow everywhere. There, I broke two principal rules of mountaineering: go where you say you’ll go, and don’t wander away alone. I was driving a good old Willys from 1947 with no heating and some problems in starting. But otherwise, it was a very good 4×4 offroader. I found an area that looked very good and decided to take a closer look, and there was an offroad track. I followed it and got a good number of kilometers away from the main road, and then I got stuck. Thus I found myself 30-50 kilometers away from where I should have been, in the middle of winter, in the middle of the country, with the darkness closed in and with a car that could not start if I turned it off.
As the darkness came, so did the cold temperatures. There was an extra fuel tank, so I filled the car while the engine was running. However, I couldn’t stay in it because Willys is a very small SUV and sleeping in it is close to impossible. I didn’t have light to dig myself out. I had seen this buried shelter in a slope nearby – it was made for the sheep gatherers in the old days, where I could get into my great -40 degrees sleeping bag. There I found out that the indicated degrees were for survival temperature – not for a comfortable one. I had some water to drink, but it kept on freezing when I took it out of the sleeping bag, so it was hard to stay hydrated. I later found out that it was -25 degrees that night. I wasn’t really lost, but I was stranded. I got through the night with no sleep, ate some good strong high-fat blood sausage in the morning, took those 2-3 hours of digging the car out and drove home feeling grateful that the weather was good that morning.
Luckily, the search for me hadn’t started, and people were not worried because I was in the mountains all the time during that period of my life. But I learned a lot from this. Having a good sleeping bag is essential when traveling in the mountains during winter. Everything can fail – cars, communications, GPS, the weather can turn on you. That’s why it’s so important that if you need help, people know where to look for you, and they only look for you if you have given them a timeframe. Now, if you are from central Europe and reading this, this story might not sound scary but bear in mind that in the middle of Iceland, in the middle of winter, there are no people, only a few crazy explorers, and they are usually some 30-40 kilometers apart from each other.
Riccardo: Of course! Today, we have very sophisticated GPS and electronic devices, but you have to learn the use of charts and compass, which are always more precise than electronics. It’s like having a calculator but still knowing how to multiply without one.
Jón Rúnar: I think teaching our children how to navigate nature is essential for them to understand it in the first place. This is not only where the sun sets and rises, or how to use the moon or stars, what is south, north, east or west. I think it is essential to teach children about navigating around the plants that stick, ticks that give diseases, what a mosquito’s life cycle is and how it stings. Humans tend to be a little scared of what we don’t know when in fact, getting an itch from sitting on the wrong plant or getting stuck by an insect usually isn’t dangerous. Navigating often means knowing how to look around you and notice the world around you. This allows you to become more at ease and understand yourself more. The learning curve is high, therefore, starting at a young age won’t do harm.
As a father or a parent, you teach your children what you know when the opportunity is there. However, I don’t force any knowledge or lifestyle I have on anyone, not even my own children. Luckily, they are curious and ask a lot. My girls are very normal children who know how to navigate, have had small cuts on their fingers and burned their skin on plants, been stuck by bugs and so on. At the same time, they have also learned which plants can help soothe the itch, how to start a fire and enjoy nature. I hope that what they have learned from me is something they will enjoy for the rest of their life.
Riccardo: There are big differences because the environment is different. When you are in a forest, you can easily understand where the north is by simply watching musk on tree trunks. When you are out in the sea or high in the mountains, it’s not so easy to identify the directions. Only at sunset or sunrise can everyone easily understand where the north is. You can stick a rod – like a ski pole, for example, into the ground to see its shadows and get a better understanding of the time.
Jón Rúnar: All navigation comes down to one simple trick: use the elements available.
When navigating the forest, use the plants to tell you what is south and what is north. The south is typically where plants are more burned, more mature, and become fruitful first. On the north side, the moss is typically higher on the trees.
For mountains, the north side has more snow, or the snow releases later, it is colder, and the south sides have different vegetation. Depending on the age of the mountain, there can be differences in how loose the rocks are on each side and how much water is retained in the soil. In spring, the snow can be more dangerous on the south sides because it can melt underneath and create a snow avalanche. Of course, you can almost always navigate with a compass and a map in all terrains, but learning more natural approaches to navigation can be useful, too.
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Jón Rúnar Guðjónsson
Humans tend to be a little scared of what we don't know when in fact, getting an itch from sitting on the wrong plant or getting stuck by an insect usually isn't dangerous. Navigating often means knowing how to look around you and notice the world around you. This allows you to become more at ease and understand yourself more.