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 Positional awareness is to always imagine yourself hiking at the centre of a “halve sphere” which extends in a 3-4 Meter radius around and over your position regardless of where you are.(*1)
Using this method every time you hike helps to hone your observation skills so you will automatically notice where a faint and overgrown track goes, or when you have walked off the track.
Another major advantage of this automatic Sphere of Observation, is 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 New Zealand hiking tracks, while some are marking the track, there are a whole lot 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, to maintain your positional awareness in case you need to back track.
Not Track Markers
Other purpose markers commonly found on New Zealand hiking tracks include;
- 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
Tracks like the very popular Great walks, and other high use tracks are most often wide and very well defined through the landscape.
Moderate to challenging hiking tracks however can be both just wide enough to walk on, or undefined in a wide open area or thick bush that needs to be pushed through. These tracks are not typically well maintained and can have a variety of surfaces under foot;
- Earth and Mud
- Gravel and bare rock
- River and stream beds
- Vegetation, moss
The most important part of maintaining positional awareness on this type of track is to pay close attention to abrupt changes in track surface, width, terrain and the surrounding vegetation. Regularly stop and check for track markers, moving slowly, and walk back before a change to make sure your on the track still.
Footprints on the track show others have come this way, they also show which way people were walking.(the heel tends to be deeper than the toe on harder ground) Pay attention to the tread patterns and keep and eye out for them as you continue along the track. If Foot prints suddenly disappear from the track, stop an reassess your route. (i.e: think, did the other people turn back, change direction, or have you lost the track.)
Intentionally leaving your own foot prints can be a helpful tool if you loose the track and need to back track. Your boot prints are also useful in an emergency, to assist searchers find you using the picture of your tread in your hiking intentions.
Features you are Passing
This is also about keeping a “running commentary” in your head of features on the terrain you have past 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. (a good rule of thumb 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?