Book review: The Natural Navigator by Tristan Gooley

We all love navigation. I find it interesting on so many levels. So when I read about Tristan Gooley’s book The Natural Navigator I knew I had to read it. To be honest I’d never heard of Tristan before but reading the “about the author” blurb I couldn’t help but be impressed by his achievements and wondered why I hadn’t. When someone has had this much experience there’s always something to learn. Couple this with the fact that Tristan has spent many years studying and teaching what he calls natural navigation and I knew that one way or another this would be a good read.

It’s obvious even from a quick flick through and from a look at the very impressive bibliography that alot of research has gone into this book. From his expeditions and some of the journeys Tristan describes on the South Downs and further afield we know plenty of time’s also been spent applying the skills.

To give you an idea what the book covers here’s a chapter list:

  1. Vale and Dune: The Land
  2. The Perfect Illusion: The Sun
  3. The Firmament
  4. The Fickle Moon
  5. The Sea
  6. The Elements
  7. Creatures of Habit
  8. Where Am I?

So often these days we expect to pick up a book and be told simply what to do and how to do it. I guess we don’t really want to invest the time in anything more. After reading alot of books along these lines lately I’d sort of expected this to be the same but it wasn’t. The author takes the practical bits and weaves them together using a fine thread of history, anecdotes and science. This makes an enjoyable read and makes the facts more likely to sink in. Having said that I found some of it a bit lengthy but that might say more about my schedule than the writing.

So what is Natural Navigation? Gooley sums it up pretty succinctly as “the art of finding your way by using nature”. One of the beautiful things about navigation is the low entry level. It’s really easy to get out there and do it. In fact most of us do it all the time without really realising that we’re doing it. Of course in our modern lives there’s less need for intuitive pathfinding – just follow the signs! However, anyone interested in wilderness travel, or just wanting to know nature better, will be well served by the information found here.

Anyone who’s read bushcraft or survival books or attended a course or two will be aware of the tip of the natural navigation iceberg. They may have used the sun’s shadow to find the cardinal points, or found south (or north!) using the hour hand of a watch. Everyone’s aware of the conventional wisdom that says that moss always grows on the north side of trees. All these things are often trotted out but rarely examined, challenged and understood. And that in a nutshell is what this book offers.

The student of tracking won’t find the subject matter that unfamiliar for much of it is based on the same keen observation and understanding of nature. It’s all about knowing your environment and what’s normal. Similarly, anyone who’s read Harold Gatty’s classic “Finding Your Way Without Map or Compass” will be familiar with the general principles in this book. However, I feel that Gooley takes a more nature-based approach (I suppose the clue’s in the title!) and is probably more suited to the casual reader.

Will you be ditching the map and compass after reading this book? Possibly not. Will you be more self-reliant and less likely to rely on technology? Definitely. Even if you only learn a couple of things it will add another dimension to your navigation – knowing where you expect the wind to come from, where you feel the heat of the sun and hear the rush of water all add valuable weight to our navigational decisions and you never know, after a while instincts may well become as accurate as any compass.