I assume paragliding pilots are familiar with GPS and able to read a map, so I won’t deal with those here. To me, vol bivouac is about (re-)connecting with mother nature. About finding your way, as well as yourself. A mutual understanding between you and nature. To be able to understand nature, you should start listening in the first place. That is why I will address natural navigation here, rather than instrumental navigation based on maps, compass and GPS. Naturally available clues can help you find your way, while enhancing your (vol bivouac) experience at the same time. They could also help you out when instrumental methods fail. A GPS might run out of battery power or satellites, your paper map might get blown away by the wind or soaked by the rain into an unreadable bundle of papier mâché, but you can count on mother nature to never stop working. Day and night the mountains, valleys, rivers, trees and animals are there. So are the sun, the moon and the stars. If you are not acquainted with them yet, then please allow me to introduce these friends to you. They will be among your best friends on the voyage.
Probably the most intuitive manner of finding your way is by using objects and characteristics that stand out from their surroundings: landmarks. Objects such as a rock, a solitary, fallen, hollow or otherwise special tree, a fire scar, a ruined house, a large (and loud!) guard dog, a water source, a small chapel, a signpost, a church or town in the distance, (the sound of) a waterfall, (the smell of) a dirty river, (the smell) of smoke, the coolness of nearby water, a cross (the Alps abound with them!), a field with three donkeys, a shed with an ancient tractor, a car wreckage overgrown with weeds, a bridge or a pile of wood, could all serve as good landmarks.
The best landmarks are objects that are easily and uniquely identifiable. The latter can be confusingly difficult if you do not pay attention to detail. But the more detail you need to identify a landmark, the more likely you are to make mistakes. Easily recognisable trees such as shown here, are the exception rather than the rule. Nature likes to be as normal as possible when there are no changes. In a normal situation the average species survive the best, not the freaks. But it is the freaks that make life interesting, that stand out. Within a specific environment, trees of the same species will have more similarities than differences, which limits their suitability as landmarks. It is the exceptions you need for navigation, not the common characteristics. For example, an oak tree is likely to resemble any other oak tree in the valley. A large solitary oak tree in a field might very well resemble a similar oak tree in another field a few kilometres away. If you are trying to find your way back by backtracking your landmarks, you might get even more confused than you already are when confusing these two trees. But of course you are an experienced navigator that has more brain power than a simple tree, so you won't get fooled by one. You have noted that your landmark tree stood in a field full of clover, while the field with the wrong tree has no clover at all and quite a few dandelions. Which rather surprisingly sounds like 'dent de lion' (lion's tooth) in French, but in France this plant is commonly known as 'pissenlit' ('bed pisser', it has purification characteristics). Could this have to do with the English actually liking a French name and adopting it, causing the French in horror to quickly change its name to 'bed pisser'? For the moment, we only know that our search for the right way does not pass trough the field with the dandelions and oak tree.
Navigating by using landmarks probably works so well because you have done this since early childhood. As a newborn, your senses are very limited and your world is small. As your senses and courage grows, you start exploring the world around you by going further and further away from the safety of your playpen. All the way to the front door, where the world suddenly seems to be endless and even a bit frightening. And a little later, all the way to the end of the street, where the world won't stop neither. Now that you are older, the game hasn't changed. Only the scale, as Columbus once found out. You still have this valuable capacity. And in addition to that, you now have the brains to understand it.
When arriving in a town you have never been to before, you automatically scan for marks that help you navigate through town. You remember that the bakery is two streets downhill from the church. The church steeple is visible from almost anywhere in town and its bell can be heard all over town. You also notice that there is a pizzeria with blue lights over the entrance door, in a street with a fountain on the corner. You will be able to find this fountain if you take the narrow alley next to the house with the green door that has a pot with pansies hanging next to it. This house happens to be in the street left from the bakery. Which is still two streets downhill from the church. This method may not be the most efficient way to navigate through town (there could be shorter ways to get to the pizzeria), but it will get you to where you want to be.
Landmarks that do not move and have a distinctive character that does not change too much over time (i.e. during your trip, your life), tend to be the most useful for navigation. Imagine someone would shuffle all the signposts in the region you are travelling through. That would be a bit confusing, wouldn't it? However, you should not neglect landmarks that are changing or temporary. Anything you can observe with your senses could turn out to be a good landmark, even if it lasts only a few hours or days. The smell from a (dirty) river or swamp carried by the wind, the sound of barking dogs, the tinkling of sheep bells, the smell of pollen or hay (those with hay fever have an advantage here), a cloud train in the sky, the feeling of dry or humid air, the sound of an echo bouncing of a cliff (works great in fog), the noise of a road in the distance, squeaking trees in a breeze, the contrails of planes in an airway, could all serve as excellent landmarks. There is plenty of them, if you just use your senses. As soon as you start to soak up the information that nature throws at you (even if you notice just a fraction of it), you will have made a considerable progress in your navigational skills. Let's have a look at some of the information that is available to you.
The most obvious way to navigate through the mountains is by using them as a navigational aid. They form excellent landmarks that are visible from far away, up to hundreds of kilometres in case of excellent visibility. On the horizon in the image below (taken above Allos, at about 4000 m altitude), you can see the mountain ranges of Écrins (50 km) on the left, Vanoise (130 km) and Mont Blanc (180 km) in the middle, and Cervino (210 km) on the right. Who needs a GPS to find the way on a brilliant day like this?
Although mountains roughly have a similar shape, dictated by natural forces such as erosion and gravity, each mountain (range) has a unique character. These characters stand out like giant signposts that are easy to read from far away. A mountain's shape changes when viewed from various viewpoints (be wary of the occasional exception though), allowing you to determine where your are relative to that mountain. For example, heading north to Chamonix from Chalvet is not really a navigational challenge if you have a high cloud base and good visibility. If you are lucky, the distinctive shape of Mont Blanc could be visible from Chalvet. That is a distance of over 200 km and a landmark that is likely to lasts the whole flying day (or longer if you are not in a hurry). By taking a few intermediate bearings, such as Dormillouse or La Meije, you will be able to keep a more or less a straight heading if Mont Blanc sinks below the summits in between. The way back south however, is more complicated from a navigational point of view. There is no giant landmark in the south, except for the Mediterranean Sea (which is not really useful, being the lowest point). Hopefully you have looked over your shoulder to memorized the north sides of the high mountains your were passing during your flight to the north.
Speaking of north sides, these are less exposed to freeze-thaw cycles than other sides. Frost weathering (cryofracturing for those who like to impress innocent bystanders), is one of the major sculptors of mountains and its works of art can help you determine direction. The image below shows a gully carved into the rocks by a stream, acting as a compass. The rocks on the right side of the stream are steeper, that means less eroded than those on the left. Since the rock is the same type (the colour difference is caused by the sun reflecting differently), this erosion difference is probably caused by the left side suffering more freeze-thaw cycles. This means the north lies to the left here, which is confirmed by the sun's shadows (the sun time is about 11h00). You could consider frost weathering as a sundial with memory. The effects of the sun are stored in the landscape over time, helping you navigate when the sun is not there (night, heavy rain, fog, et cetera). As always, do not rely on a single observation! Clicking on the image will reveal nearby summits that confirm the observation (the 'compass gullies' being down in the valley, on the left).
Although being the shortest, a straight line might not be the best. Not only because some routes are risky or (close to) impossible, but because of restricted zones. When heading north for example, this concerns the Vanoise nature reserve (no flights lower than 1000 m AGL) and Galibier (military exercises, when activated). Mountains are a valuable source for identifying special zones, without having to look on your map (or GPS) all the time. Memorizing these zones with the use of mountains (and valleys) as markers, allows me to look and plan far ahead while flying. For example, by mentally drawing a line from Bleine to Mont Vial, I know that I should not fly higher than FL65 south of this line (Nice ATM) and north of this line no more than FL115 (the regular altitude allowed in France). Arriving at Bleine with plenty of altitude from the west (usually via Teillon), it is time to descent or change my heading more north. Loosing altitude on purpose somehow feels a bit sad when you have plenty of it, but often results in far more interesting flying. I find difficult flights often more rewarding than distant flights. It is probably a defect, since most pilots seem to be occupied with the latter. Working my way out of the Clue d'Aiglun (after having been low enough to read the signs in the village) and still making it to Villars-sur-Var in time for the last train home, confirms the interesting part of having the discipline to adhere to airspace restrictions (staying below 1900 m AGL in this case). A flying friend has reached Nice by flying at more than 3000 m altitude. But those were the days few had heard of paragliders or seen one, nor had the few paragliding pilots that were there heard of airspace restrictions.
Mountains are the natural navigation beacons when travelling in the Alps, other landmarks however should not be neglected. They can be a valuable source of information when you have lost sight of the mountains. They can also be used to confirm your observations. Fog and low clouds for instance, can be a major spoiler for navigation by mountains alone. Having a few other types of landmarks available could save the day.
Valleys are the yin of the mountain yang. Both are two faces of the same thing. It is often hard to tell where the mountain stops and the valley starts. Especially when the valley is narrow. The bigger valleys have wide and flat surfaces, which make them resemble one another. This could make it hard to tell one valley from another, unless you are able to see the surrounding mountains or key features in the valley itself like villages, factories, bridges, lakes, et cetera.
The two main directions in a valley are up and down. Following the creek (or river) in a (big) valley downstream brings you to a larger valley, as well as more civilisation. Heading up the valley, signs of civilisation will become scarcer and eventually disappear as you hike your way up the mountain (pass) at the end of the valley.
Lakes allow you to accurately pinpoint your position with ease. Especially when flying over (partially) unknown or unfamiliar terrain. There are far less (big) lakes than mountains, meaning that they are easier to memorise and recognise than mountains. I mean, how big is the chance of mistaking Serre Ponçon with another lake? Even if you fail to recognize Dormillouse and its fort on your first Chalvet-Dormillouse out and return, you will certainly recognize the lake from the blue shape on the map. And if you don't, I advise you to seriously reconsider your cross-country ambitions. Having spent a few days hiking around the lake of Roselend, I instantly recognized it ten years later during a trip that had started nearly 200 km further south. This allowed me to locate the boundaries of the Contamines nature reserve, which has a restricted zone (no flying at less than 300 m AGL).
The characteristic paths rivers carve through the landscape makes them easy to identify from high above in an airplane, allowing you to identify your position. Lower down, at the more humble paragliding altitudes or when walking through a forest, their path is often less evident. Looking for characteristics such as colour or flow rate could be more helpful for navigating here.
Rivers can have different colours and corresponding names, such as Drac Noir and Drac Blanc, or Huang He (Yellow River), which is usually caused by the sediments they are carrying. The image shows two streams from neighbouring areas joining. The stream on the left has probably run trough terrain that erodes more easily than the terrain encountered by the stream on the right. When looking for a take-off on that grassy mountain slope you saw from the air before landing out, but now is completely hidden from view, this colour clue gives you valuable information on which direction to choose. Other clues that I tend to look for are not so much in the rivers itself, but the things that come along with it such as tributaries, (hydro-electrical) power plants, bridges, and islands.
When flying, remember that the valley wind usually runs up the valley, i.e. opposite to the flow of the river. If you see a dam with a lake behind it, chances are that the wind is blowing from the dam across the lake. The most interesting valleys and occasions however, are those which neglect this rule of thumb. Those with changing and conflicting wind directions, possibly creating convergence when winds meet in a cooperative fashion. Just be aware that this alliance can break or shift when the stronger wind (from an adjoining valley, a strong meteo wind), gets the upper hand and causes the regular valley breeze to retreat or even completely cancels it. The Issole valley near St. André and the ‘Grimselslange’ near Fiesch spring to mind here. Be aware of this kind phenomena and do not automatically assume that the wind is always moving up the valley. You might suddenly find yourself in (lee) trouble if you do. A change in the breeze in a valley full of trees, is likely to lead to tree hugging. That is why I like playing around with the Grimselslange, but not with the winds in the Issole valley unless I am very sure of what is happening.
Roads are similar to rivers, except that they transport cars rather than water. Unlike water, cars have engines to run uphill. Deriving wind direction from the direction taken by cars is therefore unlikely to yield reliable results. Since roads often look rather similar, I look for secondary signs such as towns, bridges, number of lanes, exits and crossings in order to navigate. For example, in La Javie the road crosses the Bléone river with a sharp ninety degrees bend. Having driven this road and crossed the bridge quite a few times, I instantly recognized the spot when flying over it for the first time. Being a bit low to feel really comfortable, my observation reassured me that I could easily hitch hike my way back to Digne and take some water from the source that is just 100 metres up the Bléone valley on the edge of the village. Fortunately, none of this happened until now.
Flora and fauna
The Alps have a great diversity of plant and animal life. Far more at least than the plains, where every inch has been optimised and where there is little to no room left for 'useless' plants. The plains I am driving through on my way to the mountains, feel like an endless parade of large, boring fields of efficiency. The chances of seeing a poppy in a corn field these days seem smaller than winning the lottery millions. Farmers in the mountains are starting to make the same mistake as those in the flatlands. For example, hay for the cows in winter is harvested in spring rather than summer, eventually followed by a second harvest in autumn. The result is that the plants in those fields have not really gotten the time to mature. To grow, blossom, and reproduce. This has a large impact on other plants and animals, especially insects such as bees. The cows themselves are also affected, since the early grass is good for milk (thus instant cash), but not for breeding. The cows need to be fed food supplements in order to create offspring. It seems a few people are making short-term money here, while we are all losing in the long run.
Flora is a major navigational aid. First of all as landmark, that means relative navigation that brings you from one spot to another as discussed at the beginning. The colourful autumn tree in the image for example, stands out from the rest and serves as a good landmark as long as it leaves have not fallen off. Second as identifier, that means absolute (but rather global) navigation that identifies your current location. Some animals and plants can be found just about anywhere in the Alps, some only locally. The southern Alps for example, are drier then the northern Alps. Thus creating a harsher environment than the more humid north. You are far more likely to see water hungry plants in the north than in the south. The reverse goes for plants that thrive without much water such as lavender. Trees in the south tend to be less tall and more crooked than in the north, often showing more dead branches. Cows (or their farmers?) like the northern Alps, sheep (or their shepherds?) the south. This cow/sheep distribution roughly indicates the border between the northern and the southern Alps. When I am flying north through the Alps, it is always a special moment to realise that I have entered cow country. Especially when I realise that I have landed on a mountain slope full of bulls, rather than cows. Been there, done that. Tiny but important details often get overlooked when high.
Often I use flora landmarks that are just tiny details and easily overlooked. The mushrooms in the image below are not that big but hard to miss, since they grow in the middle of the trail. When backtracking, these will be a helpful reminder that I am on the right track, as long as nobody picked or walked over them. The moss on the broken branch shown a little lower is even smaller than the mushrooms, but a valuable landmark nonetheless. Most of the trees and branches have moss growing on them here, so it seems risky to use it as guidance. However, there is only one broken branch hanging down next to the the trail. I haven't seen a similar spot during the four hour walk that day. Paying attention to detail pays off when navigating.
Altitude is a major manager for flora and fauna diversity, just as humidity and sun exposure. The higher you get, the tougher life becomes for flora, fauna, and humans. Trees that grow sixty metres tall in the valley, dwindle to dwarf like bushes near the tree line. The omnipresent lush grass that feeds the cattle on the lower slopes, shrinks to isolated pockets of short, tough, and prickly wires. Their tiny shoots furiously attacked by chamois or bouquetins. Some plants really seem to like harsh conditions, since they only grow at higher altitudes. But as you approach the glaciers, even those disappear. Life now seems to have shrunken to almost Martian proportions. Just lichens that cling to the abundant rocks and stones, or a little flower that against all odds grows on a glacier. The only life forms here near the summit of the mountain seem to be you and the crows that have been following you in order to pick out your eyes as soon as your fate has had enough of you. In other words, the sort and size of flora tell you at which place and altitude you are. Keep an eye open for it when navigating.
The same goes for animals. You won't find marmottes low down on the slope, and neither will you find many squirrels in the treeless fields where marmottes like to dig their homes. Deer prefer the forest and the nearby valley floor. Chamois prefer the rocks and fields above the tree line or the upper range of the forest. As with many observations in nature, these are not the laws of Medes and Persians. I have seen chamois near villages in the valley, an old grey marmotte that had retired close to a refuge on the border of a forest, deer that I mistook for chamois because they were much higher than usual, et cetera. Being an exceptional case myself, I fully understand those exceptions. But on average, you can roughly guess your location and altitude adequately by observing flora and fauna.
Animals like to have a place to sleep, feed and breed. These pastimes are greatly facilitated by keeping competitors out of their territory. This means that you are likely to encounter the same animals when regularly hiking the same route. Their presence can be used as guidance. One season I walked up to the Chalvet take-off about sixty times. The first walk was in early spring and the last walk when winter was just a few weeks away. This gave me an excellent opportunity to observe the changes in the flora over time. The animals did not change that much, except during the usual mating struggle. It is funny to notice that most animals are very shy and won't show themselves voluntary, but as soon as they feel like reproducing, you have no problem encountering them. It reminds me of how important it is for men to do all kinds of dangerous things such as paragliding, just to impress the opposite sex. We are not that different from animals. At the end of the flying season, I had become acquainted with the addresses of various animals living on Chalvet. For example, there lived a brown squirrel just above the col de Robines, a grey one 200 metres higher up, having a hare as a neighbour in between, a chamois at the top of the ravin de Cougnas (which probably got shot by hunters later that year, I have not seen it since), and one of those irritating cuckoos just after that. The wild boars lived just about anywhere. They roamed the whole mountain, creating craters just about everywhere, including the trails and the two launches. The latter habit somehow makes the taste of tête du sanglier, made from a local boar that failed to dodge a hunter's bullet, even more enjoyable than it already is. I assumed hares were living in the relatively flat area between the two summits, but never could get a good sighting of them. Until their footprints in the snow finally gave them away in autumn. Prints that confirmed the addresses of the other inhabitants as well. When I took a friend along who has an even keener interest in nature than me, for a walk up to take-off, he halted at every known address, and some more as well. His sniffing nose in the air and one of his front legs slightly raised and bend, directly pointing to the location of his prey. It seems my observation skills can still be improved upon. Fortunately for my ego, his piloting skills are not as good.
Humans have a profound impact on flora and fauna. They leave lots of traces, even in remote areas such as deserts and mountains. Scars might be a better word. When humans were a humble part of mountain life, narrow trails connected the villages and fields. Nobody but the foolish and daring dared to venture near the summits, renowned for the presence of evil spirits and other dangers. Or anywhere else so high that it served no purpose for living. Now that men has lost his fear of the mountains and conquered them, the respect and care seems to be gone ("We nailed the bastard!" sounds more like war than due respect to me, as does the flattening of a mountain top to cater for a ski lift). There are no Sherpas in the Alps, so men brought large machines to travel the mountain slopes and do the heavy work. Now big scars cross the mountains without respect for steepness or accessibility. Only occasionally human advance seems to integrate harmoniously with nature. For navigation and hiking however, this technological 'progress' has the advantage of creating lots of landmarks and paths to travel such as forest roads and those wide tracks made by (the machines of) lumberjacks. The sad part being that the original trail that gently curved along and over the mountain, created by generations of humans passing along it, is widened and levelled to cater for those large machines. Destroying the gentle path and leaving an ugly scar in its place.
Looking down from the sky or from the mountain when walking, it is often easy to spot paths for hiking, even if they are just a foot wide. From below this is much harder, since the path's surface (i.e. what distinguishes it from its environment), is not visible. However, the (little) scar is always there. One of the tricks to identify roads or paths from below, is to spot irregularities in the flora or the earth itself such as a dip in the height of trees, changing flora, or the stones on a rocky slope changing in colour or quantity. These changes could be a induced by the soil or any other natural phenomenon (fertile soil next to rocky soil, different exposure to sun or wind), but often indicate human interventions such as trails, forest roads, canals, or ruins. Natural changes often run along the slope without making sharp turns or seem to consist of isolated aberrations only. Human induced aberrations show up as sharp bends, running uphill in a zig-zag manner, being in a good spots for crossing a mountain pass, leading to refuge, et cetera.
Be careful not to see human-made paths everywhere. Animals create paths as well. Although these can be quite useful, remember that they are meant to go where the animals like to go. Which is not necessarily the same place you would like to go. Nature creates 'paths' as well. Mountains slowly collapse over the years. Every object on a mountain slope is falling or sliding down, friction slowing down the pace. The loose stones on a rocky slope are in equilibrium, because the friction between the stones balances gravity's pull. When you try to walk across such an area however, you will notice that your presence disturbs this delicate balance. The stones start sliding as soon as you step on them. And you start sliding with them if you do not take care. As the stones are sliding (due to passing animals or humans, snow, rain, et cetera), there comes a moment when there are simply too many stones for gravity to pull at the same time. There is too much friction and the sliding stops. This creates patterns of flattened out, interconnected sections across the slope. People often think these sections are animal tracks, but they are not. They are simply (temporarily) stabilised parts on the slope. A temporarily frozen stone avalanche. Animals such as chamois gladly profit from these 'paths', as does the occasional hiker that could not find a regular path. They are far from stable, but more pleasant to walk than the unstable parts in between. Animal tracks are stable, since animals walk on them frequently. Just like us, they prefer walking over sliding.
Temporary marks such as footprints in the snow, can hardly be called landmarks. Yet animal prints, whether in snow or in mud, have helped me finding my way. Animals have been in the area far longer than me and tend to be the local experts. Over generations they have found ways of crossing a forest or a mountain, while evading that nasty swampy area and dangerous cliff respectively. Following animal footprints could get you out of trouble or into it. The outcome is determined by a mix of expertise and luck. The latter often being the decisive factor. I remember showing up in a village in Himachal Pradesh once, after following animal tracks down a mountain for several hours. The tracks were easy to follow, but went down a gully that was getting steeper and steeper. Suddenly the tracks stopped at a drinking spot, leaving me with nothing but my own expertise to navigate the remaining distance down to the valley. This involved dangling from dangerous verticals and sliding down the occasional rapid and waterfall. Close to exhaustion at the end of the day, I suddenly heard a car passing while taking a rest. I was quite surprised to find out I had stopped just twenty metres short of the only road that lead to a nearby village. The villagers were just as surprised, seeing me arrive out of nowhere, and very curious about which path I had taken. When I told them where I had come from, they replied that there was no path up there. The crowd laughed happily when I told them that there was a path now. And me as well, realising that I must be one of the few humans that (almost) got trapped by animals, rather than the other way around.
More recently I was walking along a forest road in the Haute Alpes, looking for a way down to a cabane from which I knew there was a path down to the valley. Being on a mountain with a steep slope, my guess was that there would not be many paths to lead me down safely. So, I was determined to get back to the cabane. The differently coloured rocks on the opposite side of the valley had been excellent landmarks during the hike. On the way up, I had noticed that the rocks opposite the refuge were black, the ones further down south red, and the ones further up north yellow, with the latter two being separated by a waterfall. These landmarks showed me that I had already passed the refuge in the horizontal plane (i.e. I was too far north), but I had not encountered a trail down yet. About 20 to 50 centimetres of hard packed snow covered the forest road at this altitude. Suddenly I observed old (melted and refrozen) human footprints that crossed the road. The snow on the valley side of the road had mostly melted, causing the footprints to vanish into the air. I assumed that the person who had walked here, had gone straight down the gully. I almost knew for certain now that following this gully would bring me down to the cabane. Being assured that I had finally found a way down, I continued my search for a regular trail. Which I found a few minutes further down the road, parts of it still hidden by the snow cover. It took me back south and down to the cabane at the bottom of the gully that the footprints had taken. The next morning I awoke with a blanket of snow around we, about five centimetres deep (at 660 m altitude in the beginning of April, the third snow dump in ten days). Higher up the mountain, the footprints probably had disappeared under twenty to thirty centimetres of fresh snow. Temporary marks may be very helpful for navigation, as long as you are aware of their temporary character. If you see three donkeys in a field for three days in a row, that does not mean they will be around the next time you are there. They may have been moved to another field, escaped, turned into three donkeys and two little donkeys, or turned into sausages.
I assume I have given you enough inspiration to find your own landmarks by now, so I won’t bother you with things such as, buildings, bisses, (abandoned) ski resorts, villages, cities, crosses, power lines... Oh well, just one more then. Overhead power lines are connected with civilisation, whether they are small or big. The smaller ones (25 kV or less) tend to be more useful. Following these power lines will get you to a village, a farm, a relay station, or anything similar that needs electricity. There are two ends on a wire, so you could happen to have followed the wrong one (ending up near a farm for example, while searching for the village). But a fifty percent chance to get it right the first time is acceptable when you are lost (i.e. when the chances of finding your way have been reduced to sheer luck rather than intelligent luck). You could dramatically increase this already comfortable chance if you make an effort to analyse and think. If there is an antenna on a mountain and you spot a take-off in its vicinity, then following the power lines will get you to the antenna and thus your take-off. If you have spotted the antenna in the image, then it is evident where the power lines (and me as well) are going. But in the forest that I just left behind me here, it was comforting to have the power lines nearby to help me find my way up, as the summit (take-off) was hidden from view. When in doubt at a crossroad for example, but having seen the power lines blaze the trail, following the road that stayed close to them turned out to be the right (but possibly not the only) way. You could also try to follow the power lines themselves, rather than searching for a regular way up, since the area underneath them is usually cleared of trees. But this approach is likely to be tiresome though, since electrons don't care that much about gravity and take the shortest (steepest) route, as well as that thorny bushes have often reclaimed the area left behind by the chopped trees.
By now, I hope you understand that anything characteristic could be valuable for navigation, be it temporary or perennial. The only drawback is that I have mainly talked about using sight, so let me quickly correct that.
Other senses than sight
The above has been mostly about seeing landmarks, since most of us largely rely on their vision to observe their surroundings. It also allowed me to gently draw you away from your maps and GPS without scaring you too much, since the sight focussed approach probably feels logical and natural to you. By limiting your observations to vision only however, you will miss out on vital clues that could help you when vision deteriorates (fog, rain) or even fails completely (moon- and starless night, snowblind). Try to avoid getting caught up in a situation where only a single sign tells you the way to go. Verify a sign by looking for other clues, by other senses. By using all your senses to observe the surroundings, you are cross-checking your conclusions and therefore less likely to make an error. Also, one sense might help you navigating where the others fails. Redundancy and backup are vital instruments in mitigating risk exposure. So, let me give you some examples of using other senses than sight to help you find your way.
Your ears are the most likely secondary source of information for navigating. Even when you sit on a mountain, far away from civilisation is seems, you will be able to hear things. The wind may carry sounds from objects you are unable to see over a large distance, such as barking dogs in a village below in the valley, cars passing on a road out of sight and far away, the wind howling through a mountain pass, fighting bouquetin on the next mountain summit a few kilometres away, a waterfall hidden in the forest, a stone avalanche created by a chamois on the rocks high above you (giving you time to take evasive actions), et cetera.
Horses, cows, sheep, goats and other livestock can often be detected before you see them by their smell, the insects that feed on them, or their excrements. If you are besieged by stingy flies, then you can bet there are horses or cows nearby. Cows and sheep have bells, so you can hear them if you can not see them. This could be handy when you are trying to find your way up to a mountain plateau for example, but are unable to see the plateau itself to point the way. The cows on the plateau will guide you instead. Cows tend to have the bigger bells that say "clong" or "clang", while sheep and goats tend to have the tinier ones that say 'cling-cling'. This local tradition has not prevented me from running into a giant bull that had a tiny 'cling-cling' bell which size was inversely proportional to that of the bull. This tiny friendly bell kindly invited me to make a slight detour in order not to arouse his majesty's interest too much.
Rivers make noise as well, waterfalls even more, and can offer excellent guidance. A railway might be too far away to be seen or it can be too foggy, but it can be heard when a train passes. The same goes for a road. Trying to find my way back in the snowy mountains on the Italian-French border at the end of a dark and snowy winter day, with faltering visibility and my footprints covered (it had started snowing heavily, making backtracking unlikely to succeed), my intuition and compass showed conflicting directions. I was close to the end of a long and exhausting walk, so I tended to rely on my compass rather than on my tired intuition. However, a short pause to clear my mind and rethink the situation, revealed the almost inaudible noise of the road where I started hours earlier. The cars were ploughing slowly and almost silently trough the snow and the noise that was there was being dampened by the heavy snowfall. But I managed to hear it nonetheless. Needles to say that the direction I needed to follow, corresponded with my initial intuition. Totally opposed to the direction indicated by the compass, which somehow was completely useless (even dangerous) at that spot. Being back in my car three hours later, I became sick within an hour. Dehydration had set in, despite the cold and humid weather. If I would have followed my compass, rather than my intuition that told me to listen for the road, it would have taken a lot longer to get back. And considering the state I was in now, it would have been very difficult to get back at all. Next to impossible I guess.
I have talked about the navigational insight of patous, but other dogs can help you as well. Hiking in the mountains of Todos Santos (Guatemala) one day, I was hearing a dog barking somewhere near, mixed with the sound of people chopping down trees. After crossing the mountain pass higher up, the dog’s presence and the chopping sounds slowly faded. During my descend on the other side of the mountain, a fog set in. Since the region was unknown to me, having arrived the day before, I decided to turn back. Upon arriving at the mountain pass, visibility had declined to such a degree that it was hard to determine the right direction. There were several trails leading down the mountain and clues as to which one was the right one had been swallowed up by a white ghost. Unfortunately, the dog could no longer be heard in order to guide me. I picked the most likely trail and after twenty minutes was happy to hear the dog again and the chopping as well. The fog turned out not only to have dampened visibility, but sound as well. Or possibly the people and dog had moved to another harvesting spot further away. Anyway, an hour later I descended out of the clouds and saw the village from where I started in the morning below me, happy to have received good navigational advice from the locals. I only regretted not having seen them, just to say hallo and thank you.
Smell has an underrated status in ordinary life, and even more so in navigation. People are generally not aware on how much they rely on smell to tell them something is tasty, nasty, or dangerous. As an example, try eating a meal while closing your nose. Your meal will lose a lot of its taste. A lot of natural smells (such as the ones from your body), are disliked by humans and battled with deodorants, perfumes, chlorine, disinfectants, et cetera. Although understandable from a human (cultural) perspective, this could create confusing (natural) messages. Fortunately, nature has not forgotten about the importance of smell and encourages, rather than represses it. It is an important means of communication. Telling friend from foe, for example. An ant that happens to stray into territory belonging to another colony, is killed on the spot as soon as its intrusion has been smelled by the rightful occupants. Animals such as deer or wild boar are likely to smell you, long before you have had the opportunity of spotting them. You need to be inconspicuous, but especially downwind, if you want to get close. Smells are also important for nutrition. A deer knows which plants to eat and which one to avoid in order not to get sick. Even better, it knows which plants to eat when it does get sick. I have three books in order to identify those three categories for hundreds of plants. Yet, I am often still not sure which category I am facing (nutrition, poison, medicine) when seeing a plant. It is one of the many things that keeps vol bivouac interesting. It keeps my life interesting. I still have a lot to learn.
Places smell different, which helps you in navigating. A pine forest smells different from an oak forest. The sea has a specific scent that will be carried to you by the sea breeze. Likewise, land has a specific fragrance that you notice at sea, while the land itself is nowhere to be seen yet. And there is this specific scent and feel in the air near a stream or lake, that I find hard to describe. Maybe it is not the water itself, but rather the flora related to it. Dirty water or swamps on the other hand, have a strong smell that is easily noticed when you are near or downwind from them.
It is funny that I can not reproduce smell in memory. I can recall the image of a wild rose, the stings on my arm from its thorns, as well as the scraping sound these make when clinging to my backpack or clothes, but not its smell. Yet, as soon as I smell a wild rose again, I instantly recognize the smell. So, somewhere in my brain there is a storage capacity for smell, that is accessible only when the smells are present in the real world. Cleaning my car in spring from the dirt it had collected over the previous season, I hit the front seat a few times in order to get rid of the dust inside. A cloud of pollen that had settled in the fabric of the seat almost a year ago, suddenly filled the car. It instantly transported me back to the place where I had camped in my car for a few days, while it collected pollen at the same time.
Following the smell of smoke upwind will usually get you to civilised places such as a cabane, refuge, house or village. Or a forest fire. Which unfortunately is a common event here in the south. The smoke of these fires tends to be denser and smells more 'suffocating' compared to a 'controlled' fire. It is a smell that tells me to get out, fast. Not only because wild fires are dangerous, but also because of those low flying (yellow) aircraft that dump tons of water to fight the fire. These aircraft take on water at the nearest lake, so be prepared for them when flying near one. Even if you do not see a fire nearby. The wildfire might be too far away to threaten you, but having those acrobats in your flightpath is no fun (not for you, not for them).
I have the habit of touching large stones and rocks when walking up to a take-off. Combining this information with ambient air temperature and the strength of the breeze, tells me the thermal strength I may expect when arriving on take-off. Rocks (and to a lesser degree stones) are lazy. They heat up and cool down slowly. This means they are still dissipating heat when the sun is no longer warming them. For example, when the sun has set a little while ago or has been swallowed up by a thick layer of clouds. So, even though you may no longer see the sun, you might still be able to deduce its position by feeling for the warmest side of a rock or stone. If the sun has set, the warmer side of the stone roughly indicates west. Often it is not even necessary to touch. Those parts of your body that are not covered (arms and face in my case), will easily sense a large heath source such as a cliff or a wall, when walking by. Even if this source it is only a few degrees warmer than the surrounding air. Having walked barefoot for a few years in summertime, a habit I picked up in India, I was surprised at how much information my feet where given me on the heat dissipation of the underground during the day. It also allowed me to follow a road with my eyes closed, one side of the road being in the shade. This lazy behaviour is also why a rock that is currently in the shade (but has been in the sun for the last few hours) might give a better thermal than a rock on which the sun just started to shine. But that is a topic for another article.
I will skip this one in order not to sound to eccentric or scare you away.
If something is beyond your comprehension this does not necessarily mean it is beyond your ordinary senses. Navigating by sixth sense seems a strange excuse invented by outsiders for not trying hard enough to understand nature, to understand a natural navigator's skills. And neither should you confuse sixth sense with luck. That being said however, I have often found my way by making choices I could not justify on logical grounds. Except that when looking back in hindsight, I remembered things that I did not notice when navigating. At least I was not aware of noticing them. I guess this is due to intuition often being nothing more than compressed knowledge, allowing you to think without really thinking. Yet there remains a tiny fraction of adequate decisions that I cannot reason away. It does not matter whether they were inspired by sixth sense, fate, god, or another supernatural power, I am just glad that it worked when I needed it. Sixth sense may seem navigational nonsense (sic!) and out of this world at the same time, but I would not want to miss it.
Besides being your watch and alarm clock, the sun likely to be your most frequent and reliable consultant for navigational advice during a vol bivouac trip. When you are flying, it is usually there in the sky. When walking, because the sun is hidden and incapable of creating adequate thermals that day, most of the times you can still derive its position in other ways. In a completely overcast sky for example, you will often still be able to notice a slight shadow. By holding your pocket knife vertically, the point of its blade resting in the palm of your hand, and slowly turning it to find the position that creates the narrowest shadow, the blade will align with the sun. Be aware though of a thin section in the clouds masquerading as the sun when using such methods. If the sun is hidden below the horizon, then the shadow on the moon will tell you its position (seen the next section).
For simplicity’s sake, let’s assume that the sun circles the earth, rises in the east and sets in the west. I know this is no longer true today, but hiking through the Alps (or anywhere else on earth for that matter), this reference frame is much easier to cope with than the scientific reference frame that got Galileo Galilei into so much trouble. A view which by now has even been confirmed and approved by the pope since a few years, so it must be a good one. It assumes that the earth revolves around the sun and spins around its north-south axis. The latter being slightly tilted with respect to the sun, thereby causing seasons in the higher latitudes.
All this is too complicated for our purpose, so I am throwing away five ages of scientific and religious progress here and assume the sun circles the earth. This daily circle takes a day, or rather 23 hours and 56 minutes to be precise. Since the earth’s surface has moved ‘away’ from the sun (remember the scientific reference frame), the sun needs another four minutes to catch up. Thereby creating an exact total of 24 hours for a day, which fortunately is easily divided by four (i.e. the number of major directions: north, south, east and west). This means that in the northern hemisphere the sun is precisely north at 0h00, east at 6h00, south at 12h00, and west at 18h00. Or any direction in between for the times in between. Please note that these times are sun times, the real local time. Not the local time as given by your watch, which is an agreement rather than a scientific statement.
If you don’t know the time, but have a day to spare, you could put a stick in the ground (or a needle on a piece of paper), and trace its shadow on the ground (or draw it on the paper). The shortest shadow exactly indicates south. The longest ones roughly indicate east and west (nearer to south in winter, nearer to north in summer). I found this out when I was nine years old. Assuming you are old enough to fly a paraglider, you should be able to use this method as well.
Since I like to fly when the sun is shining, rather than drawing lines in the sand, I use my watch to determine directions. What!? A watch? The blasphemy! Fetch the comfy chair! Confess! Confess! Confess! ... I Confess! I confess that I am not as natural as other people (especially pilots) somehow expect me to be by now. I confess of having used a watch to tell the time and navigate. And I will continue to do so in the future. I am aware that this is a compromise used by the weak navigators among us. Please drop your comments, expectancies and disappointments in the mail box in order to get rid of them. Now let's get on with it.
If the local time on a summer's day in the French Alps is 15h00 for example, then the sun time is around 13h30. The Greenwich time at three o'clock in the afternoon is 13h00 UTC, since our time zone is one hour in advance and we need to subtract the extra summertime hour. The French Alps are roughly six degrees east of Greenwich. Adding 6 / 360 * 24 = 0,4 hours or 24 minutes to the Greenwich time, gives us the local sun time. Half an hour is easier for calculating though. So at three o'clock in the afternoon, sun time is about 13h30 (14h30 during wintertime). At this time, the sun is at 1,5 / 6 = 1/4 of its trajectory between south and west, thus SSW.
The sun thus serves as a compass that is accurate enough for my purposes. The biggest advantage of this compass is that you can verify your direction without needing to stop for taking a bearing with a 'real' compass. I do not need to, but when I precisely know the time, the sun compass becomes just as accurate as an ordinary compass. And if I do not know the exact time, then a little guessing usually gives me a sense of direction that is adequate enough. Humans have a built in 25 hour biological clock, its surplus hour getting synchronised with the 24 hour scheme at every sun rise. This biological clock is good enough for me most of the time, thereby eliminating the need for a real watch. Which hopefully makes Cardinal Ximinez and other devoted purist among you happy. But I have to confess that I tend to look at my altimeter now and then, which by pure coincidence happens to double as a watch. In addition to the exact time being of little importance, the mountains often offer few choices when deciding on the path to fly. Sometimes the choice is as simple as heading south or west. If I just started with the early thermals in the morning and want to go south, I just follow the sun. If I want to head to the west at the end of the day, I do likewise. Or I keep the setting sun in my back when heading east.
The moon is a bit more difficult to understand than the sun. This is mostly due to us sleeping at night, the time when (knowledge about) the moon comes in handy. And during the day of course, there is the much easier to understand sun to guide us. Lack of experience and understanding makes the moon underrated as a navigational aid. But it would be a shame not to use such a beautiful signpost. Especially when a full moon provides abundant light for a nightly hike. A great advantage of the moon over the stars (see the section below) is that it is often visible when clouds (partly) obstruct a clear view of the stars. Even if the sky is completely overcast, its white backlight often reveals the moon's position. Learning to use the moon as a navigation tool is worth the effort, even though it is more complicated in comparison with the sun.
The moon used to be a mystery to me, but over the years I have noticed a few things that may come in handy. Which does not necessarily mean the moon has lost its mystery to me (nature never ceases to amaze me, the mystery never seems to end), but my limited knowledge enhances the moon's beauty even more. Somehow mystery and logic all seem to fit together nicely here, as with a lot of other things in nature.
The most important thing to remember is that the moon is not shining by itself, but only reflects the sunlight. By looking at the moon, we can derive the position of the sun. Which brings us into the already familiar territory described in the previous section and tells us that the moon is not as complicated as it might seem. Half of the moon is always illuminated by the sun, just as is half of the earth. This means the moon has night and day, just like the earth. Except that the cycle takes a month rather than a day. As the moon orbits the earth, this illuminated part (day), as well as the corresponding shadow (night), moves across the moon's surface, changing our view of the moon as seen from the earth. When the earth and moon are aligned, we either have a full moon or a new (dark) moon. The former happens when our viewpoint (the earth) is between the moon and sun. The latter happens when the moon is between the sun and the earth. In between those two phases we have a waning and waxing moon respectively. By convention, the moon's cycle starts with a new (dark) moon, followed by a waxing phase in which a slight shimmer of light on the right part of the moon's face slowly expands the illuminated part of the moon until we have a full moon. This full moon is followed by a waning moon, starting with a slight shimmer of darkness on the right part of the full moon's face. As this dark spot slowly expands over the moon's face, we end up with a new moon half a month later, after which the whole cycle repeats itself.
The moon takes 27,32 days to orbit the earth. But since the earth-moon system orbits the sun as well, the moon actually takes 29,53 days (or 29 days 12 hours and 44 minutes) to complete its full cycle from new moon to the next new moon (or blue moon). Since the moon spins on its axis in exactly the same time, we always see the same face of the moon. Contrary to what some musicians stated, there is no dark side of the moon. Just as there is no dark side of the earth. There is only a front side and a far side, a day and night. However, this fact did not stop those musicians from making millions by stating their deviation dark opinion. The front side is the one with the rabbit on it, at least that is what the Mayas perceived in those dark spots on a white surface. But since everyone and especially artists have an opinion and mind of their own, you are free to see something completely different in them such as broccoli, bomb craters, modern art, cheese, secondary homes, or even conspiracies. The far side is the side you never see, even if it is completely illuminated by the sun during a new moon. The moon wobbles a bit, so you occasionally get a glimpse of the border edges of the far side. But as far as I am aware, only those lucky Apollo guys got to see the far side for real.
The moon's orbit is slightly tilted with respect to the sun-earth orbit. This means we see a full moon every 29,5 days, rather than an eclipse of the moon, and a new moon rather than an eclipse of the sun. An eclipse simply means one object in the universe moves into the shadow of another object. In the solar system this means one of the objects block the sun from shining onto the other. But even simple things become superstition, among the Mayas for example, when you don't understand them. Superstition or not, it is indeed a magnificent moment to experience. Standing on a hill in the north of France, seeing the shadow of the moon racing towards me over the hills, is vividly engraved in my mind. Having an eclipse every month would make it less magical I guess.
The moon rises in the east and sets in the west, following an arc in the southern sky on the northern hemisphere. It basically follows a similar path (in the sky that is!) as that of the sun, but less regular in appearance because it has a monthly cycle rather than a daily cycle.
How does all the above help me navigating? Well, remember that the moon tells us something about the position of the sun. The crucial observation here is that a full moon at midnight (all times related to sun times here), exactly shows you the southern direction. At midnight, the sun is precisely in the north. Being below the horizon, the sun is invisible to us during the night. It is visible to the moon however, which reflects sunlight towards the earth, and thus to us. Unfortunately, we do not have a full moon every midnight. In order to find our direction during the other phases of the moon and at other times than midnight, we have to do a little thinking.
Because the earth spins in the same direction as the moon is orbiting, the moon rises 48 minutes and 49 seconds later each day (24 hours divided by 29,5 days). This means that the night after a full moon, the midnight moon will no longer be south, but 50 minutes (in time that is) east of south. It will be south at ten to one in the morning. By counting the days since the last full moon and multiplying these with 50 minutes, we get a rough estimate of the delay and thus our direction. For example, seven days since the last full moon means the moon is in the east during midnight (7 * 50 = 350 minutes, a six hour delay), or south at six o'clock in the morning. Rather than counting days since the last full moon, the phase of the moon could tell you how much time you need to add to get the midnight moon reference in a glance. A last quarter moon is roughly six hours behind the full moon. This means it will be in the south six hours later than the full moon, thus at six o'clock in the morning rather than midnight. At midnight, it will be in the east. A first quarter moon is six hours before the full moon. This means it will be south at six o'clock in the evening and west at midnight. I guess you get the idea for the other directions by now, such as shown in the table.
I have taken the full moon as a reference here, since that is the phase I am most familiar with when hiking at night, but any phase in the moon's cycle can be used. As long as you understand the method, the reference phase is not important. To the beginner, it might seem difficult to distinguish between a three day and a five day moon, but as soon as you start howling at the moon frequently, you will quickly attain adequate phase judgement in order to help you find the right direction. After mastering this technique, you will not only appreciate the light of the moon during a nightly walk, but also the direction being shown without a flashlight or compass disturbing the scene.
If you find this technique too complicated, then just remember where the moon is today at a given time by using the stars (which need to be visible, that is the drawback here) or any other navigational aid. The next day, you add 360 / 29,5 ~ 12 degrees to yesterday's direction (at that specific time!) in order to maintain the same direction. You can keep on adding twelve degrees every day, or take a new bearing after a while. For example, when the stars finally show up after three cloudy nights in row. And while the beautiful moonlight romances up your night, it will not be spoiled by complicating calculations.
The even more lazy navigator could draw a line through the middle of the moon, all the way towards the centre of its trajectory arc. The point where this lines touches the horizon is roughly south. Not exactly south, since the centre of the moon's arc is below the horizon, but close enough to help you navigate. The line will only indicate the exact south when the moon is at its highest point in the sky. Before and after zenith, the line points east of south and west of south, respectively. The error increases as the moon moves away from zenith, but remains small enough to allow you to navigate. The easiest way to draw this line from the moon to the horizon is to draw the line trough the end of the horns. These can be the white horns (in it's first and last quarter), or black horns (in its second and third quarter). Both will point slightly off-centre, but do the job nicely for our purpose. Just as the elliptical orbit of the moon (rather than a circle), creates noise on the observation, but not too much to disturb our navigation.
Stars, flora and sun, wind, and general hints
Will be dealt with later. I got blisters on my fingers. It's time to fly now.