Staying on the Track is not really a challenge on easy tracks, but they are a great place to start learning about Positional Awareness, the art of knowing where you are in relation to the Track and you’re Terrain, by observing your surroundings.
The easiest way I have found to achieve this is by always imagining yourself hiking at the centre of a “halve a sphere” which extends in a 3-4 Meter radius around and over your position regardless of where you are.(*1) Consciously using this method every time you hike helps to hone your observation skills until the become automatic, and so you will notice pretty quickly when you have walked off the route, or where it is mostly likely to be when it gets faint and overgrown.
Another major advantage of this Sphere of Observation, is that you will start really noticing the scenery and animal life around you, something that amazingly so many hikers miss with their head down goal focused approach.(*2)
Sources of Information
- Track markers
- Track width and surface
- Foot prints
- Terrain points you are passing
- Park signs
- “Track Sense”
You will soon find there are many different kinds of markers on tracks, some are marking the track and a whole lot are marking other things. When you first step on to a track, the most important move is to make yourself familiar with the shape, and colour of the markers that indicate your track.(sometimes this is detailed on park information boards, or its first one you see on the track)
New Zealand Department of Conservation and Regional Council tracks generally use;
Orange coloured Triangles nailed to trees in the bush and at river crossings. (This type of marker is now the most common.)
Orange coloured Poles or Metal stakes with a colour or reflective marking in grasslands, sand dunes or Alpine areas.
- Coloured Metal Tags (Red or white, often reflective) nailed to trees. (This are more often the older kind and tend now to only be found on old, little used challenging routes.)
As you walk the track, every time you come up to a Track Marker, look forward to locate the next one before you leave the one in front of you. This is particularly important when you are on a moderate to challenging hiking track where it may be overgrown and hard to pick out the next marker.
On overgrown tracks it’s also important to always glance back and check that you can see the track marker you have just past, in case you need to back track.
Not Track Markers
- Triangles of a range of colours including Blue, Purple, Pink, Yellow nailed to trees usually at 90 degrees to the track, when you have been following another colour of track marker.
- Material tape of varying high visibility colours like Pink, Yellow, blue, tied to branches off the track edge.
- Multi coloured boards, or plastic markers that are different from those you have been following.
These markers are used by the Park Managers, Predator Control teams and other activities in the area and should not be followed for your own safety.
Track Width and Surface
Easy tracks and popular walks like the Great walks are often have wide and easy to follow with no difficulty.
Moderate to challenging hiking tracks however can be just wide enough to walk on with a range of surfaces under foot including mud pools, rock scrambles and swampy areas, or just suddenly end in an apparent wall of bush or fallen tree.
The important thing on these tracks is to always stop and reassess your route/ check for track markers, when the track surface, width and vegetation end abruptly.
This is a simple one, if you see footprints on the trail, pay attention to the tread patterns and direction (the heel tends to be deeper than the toe on harder ground) and keep and eye out for them as you continue along the track, stop and reassess you’re route if you stop seeing evidence of other people on the track. (ie: think, did the other people turn back, change direction, or have you lost the track.)
Features you are Passing
This is also about keeping a “running commentary” in your head of features on the terrain you have past, in case you loose the track and need to back track, for example;
A tree larger then the rest, has and unusual feature, or has fallen in one direction to the track.
A stream or river below the track, or parallel that you have or haven’t crossed.(how many times?)
A high cliff, wall or hill above the track as you walked parallel to it.
A big pile of stones or and open grassy area..
If you find you need to track back, then remember which side these features were on and reverse your route.
Once you learn to read a Topographical Map, it gets easier as you can also compare the terrain and features to your map as you walk, particularly on a challenging track.
On easy and most moderate hiking tracks, you can reasonable expect to find
directional signs, at key points like intersections. It is worth noting that while the distances are usually accurate, the times can be quite general an inaccurate. ( the estimate i know is 2.5km/hr over hilly terrain, and 5km/hr over flat,)
This is essentially the “instinctive art” of knowing where the track is, and tends to come with observation your surroundings and putting together subtle signs like;
- The earth compacted or even “polished” by feet
- Rocky sections carved in to steps, worn away and polished by feet, or many hands
- Wear on the tree or roots that every one natural grabs climbing or passing a difficult spot
- A beaten track through vegetation that is easily pushed aside, or is lighter than the surroundings. (animal trails can look the same but the bush grows over much lower than you, and is hard to push through)
- The lay of the land you are walking in, generally the track takes the path of least resistance in most cases, (with the exception of stairs and hills)
- Signs of footprints avoiding muddy spots- classically walking around rather than through.(try not to – it widens the trail, and takes your footprints out of sight.)
Other Helpful Hints
- Remove any distractions of the modern world, put your smart device on flight mode and into your pack – concentrating on the music or the screen will narrow your observations and severely restrict your positional awareness(saving the battery for and emergency is also wise)
- Make sure you send always send someone reliable your Hiking Intentions, that tells them exactly where you intend to go and stick to that route.
(*1) I have never forgotten my Fathers observations, during his time in a Paramilitary Police force with regard to how little the untrained eye will see while walking outdoors. Having tested his observations I have to agree, most hikers while actively walking, have a field of vision ranging from the ground to no higher than eye level and extending no further than approx 500mm to their left or right – consistently missing detail out side these zones.
(*2) I am often amazed how much wildlife, interesting plants or features that i see on hiking tracks, that others i talk to – including those who were walking with me.. have never seen/ or did not see…. when we talk later…. what are they looking at?