Improve Your Sense Of Direction

Scientists now believe that the navigationally challenged can retrain their brains.

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

Interested in improving your navigation skills? Join Backpacker’s Backcountry Navigation online course today.

A few years ago, three backpackers left Idylwild, California, a small community in the San Jacinto Mountains, intending to hike 17 miles to Indian Canyons near Palm Springs. Forty-eight hours later, the trio still had not reached its destination. “When they came to the Pacific Crest Trail,” said one of the rescuers who eventually found the errant backpackers, “they went south when they should have gone north. They were just lost.”

Why is it that some of us know instinctively where to go and others wander around without a clue? Some researchers believe the answer lies deep within the brain, embodied by an actual “sense” of direction that can be resurrected and trained. For instance, in 1981, R. Robin Baker, Ph.D., a biologist at the University of Manchester, England, reported that blindfolded subjects, when transported to a distant site, could indicate the direction home. Based on his studies, Baker theorized that humans possess a magnetic navigation system that works similarly to the way some birds and fish use Earth’s magnetic fields to find their way during migration, a feat known as magnetoreception (see Animalia, August 1996, for more on this topic).

Although other biologists have been unable to duplicate Baker’s results, it’s undeniable that some people have extraordinary abilities to find their way. Ben Finney, Ph.D., professor of anthropology at the University of Hawaii, has studied noninstrument navigation by Polynesians. He says these highly skilled route-finders may turn to their magnetoreception abilities for orientation when cues like the sun and stars are unavailable.

“We are likely born with this innate sense, and then either develop it as we age or lose it from lack of use,” adds Dr. Baker. Or could it be that crack navigators like the Polynesians have honed the ability to detect fine distinctions in the environment that the rest of us overlook due to daily overdoses of visual, tactile, and auditory “noise”?

“In animals,” says Cornell biologist Kraig Adler, Ph.D., “much of the [directional] mechanism is inherited, but a lot is learned.” He suspects that in humans, orientation is largely an acquired ability, based on a person’s early experience. “Students raised in the country generally have a better orientation sense than those raised in cities, where they never see the sun on the horizon. In a city, the sun isn’t as important; people just know it gets light.”

To improve your sense of direction, you need to get out and test it from time to time. According to Dr. Adler, humans generally use one of two basic methods to find their way: a route-based system, where an individual relies on a series of turns and perhaps landmarks, or a map-based system, where the person imagines looking down on the route from above. Each has its advantages, and knowing which you tend to use will help you learn what you need to pay attention to. For instance, can you envision the route perfectly once you’ve seen it on a topo, or can you recall every switchback and odd-looking boulder you’ve passed on the trail? Being aware of these styles can help

you reinforce natural strengths or work on your weaknesses. Maybe it’ll even help you understand why your spouse continues to get lost despite your impeccable directions!

The bottom line is that no matter how prone you are to getting lost, you don’t have to go through life with a GPS unit in one hand and a topo map in the other. The following strategies can help you refine your ability to find your way.

At Home

  • Study the topo maps to get the “lay of the land,” advises Cornell University biologist Charles Walcott, Ph.D. Concentrate on imagining what the valleys, streams, and mountains will look like in relation to one another, and store these images in your memory.
  • Allow plenty of rest time before and during your trip. Studies show the brain is more adept at receiving and storing spatial relationships when well rested.
  • Practice learning where north, south, east, and west are in relation to your surroundings.
  • Learn constellations, particularly the North Star, so you can locate true north no matter where you are. It won’t necessarily help you hone an internal sense of direction, but it may help you keep your bearings.

On The Trail

  • Resist the urge to charge down the path. Pause, and orient yourself by noting the general compass direction you’ll be heading. Check to make sure it matches what you see on the map.
  • Physically point back toward the trailhead once you reach a campsite. Research has shown that people are more likely to guess correctly and remember directions if they physically point in the correct direction. Practice “learning” directions by pointing and guessing, then confirming or correcting with a compass and map.
  • Recite aloud the prominent landscape features that you pass on your travels, especially when you’re off-trail or in an area where markings are few. For example: “Lake on the left, hill on the right, walking through aspen grove.” Studies have shown that verbally expressing this information helps store it in your memory more effectively than simply reading and observing.
  • Put on a blindfold in camp, and have someone lead you in a random direction and accompany you as you try to find your way back unblindfolded. Dr. Adler says this helps you use your other senses-smell and hearing, in particular-to memorize the route. “While blindfolded, use everything you have. You can even keep track of where you’re going by memorizing your muscular movements. The sensory receptors in your leg muscles would tell your brain which direction you’re turning.”
  • Stay focused on the terrain; don’t let conversations or daydreaming distract you.
  • Take a mental snapshot every 10 minutes as you hike, Dr. Adler suggests. To find your way back, simply reverse the images.