Night Navigation

With the Navigation Workshop coming up in April, I thought I would write some of my thoughts and experiences about night navigation.

My first experience of night navigation was during my first event, which was the 1994 Australian Championships at Bethungra (near Cootamundra). Prior to entering this event I had never used a compass at night, but that still made me the team expert, because my two companions had never used a compass at all.

I was really pleased with my control finding ability until the wheels fell off about 2 in the morning. We found a tricky control about midnight and then proceeded to the next control about a kilometre away. We never found it.

By 2am I had to admit that not only did we not find the control, but I had absolutely no idea where we were. We could see teams moving by headlight in the distance, but pride prevented me from trying to find them and ask for assistance. So rather than move around and get more lost (if that was possible) we slept on the ground until dawn. Once the sun rose the surrounding mountains made it pretty clear where we were and we headed back to the hash house.

From that night on I was hooked on rogaining and rogaining at night still has a special place in my heart. Rogaining at night is an interesting emotional roller coaster. With many emotions playing out as the night unfolds.

The first phase is panic as you rush to get as many controls as possible by the failing light.

The second phase is melancholy. Being at home just after dark usually means food, company and TV (or Youtube these days). Home, just after dark, is a very hospitable place. The bush, just after dark, is quite an inhospitable place and demons tend to lurk in your brain. More than once, just after it has gone dark on a rogaine, I have asked myself “What the hell am I doing here?”

The third phase of this emotional roller coaster is acceptance. Acceptance of the fact that it is dark and you need to shift mentally into night mode. Night mode means pace counting and careful navigation using the lesser number of clues that are available at night.

The fourth phase of night navigation is confidence. Confidence comes at the time you have bagged a couple of controls in the dark and you have your pace counting distance down pat and you are starting to score serious points despite the handicap of the darkness. It’s a great feeling, but it never lasts.

Night Rogaining
Me rogaining at night (I am on the left, smiling).
The fifth phase of night navigation is “the fog”. No not a literal fog, it is the fog that enters your brain from fatigue and being awake when your body is screaming for sleep. This fog has caused me (and my rogaining colleagues) to make some horrible navigation decisions. I distinctly recall my partner, Julian Ledger, and me walking up the wrong valley for 45 mins, at the Garland valley rogaine, and then looking for a control that wasn’t there before realising we had made an appalling mistake. That is what the “fog” does to you. Human beings just weren’t meant to be awake between 2 and 5 in the morning. My sister is a long term nurse on night shift and she gets my respect.

Assuming you don’t walk off a cliff while enduring “the fog” the next phase of night navigation is optimism. This is the optimism brought on by more points under your belt and an emerging dawn. There is something special about the optimism combined with the inevitable fatigue of rogaining into morning’s first light.

Night navigation also brings funny moments. I can’t remember which rogaine it was, but it had been raining and we had to ford the upper reaches of Cox’s river. It was a very cloudy night so it was pitch black. I had no idea how deep the river was going to be at the the ford so, pushed for time, I proceeded straight in. My rogaining partner baulked when the water reached chest deep, but I told him he was being precious and we proceeded across the river. Halfway across the river, chest deep in water, I could hear some people crossing the river next to us. I turned my light to look and see another team crossing the barely ankle deep river at the ford which was only about 3 metres away.

That partner never did another rogaine. I am not sure if it was the “ford incident” or the fact that it rained most of the night or the fact that one of our headlights failed and we had to share a headlight for the rest of the night (when I say share, he wore it all night).

In conclusion, I love night navigation. At the risk of being a bigot, the best rogaining is done at night and the best rogainers barely slow down as they trot uphill and down dale finding control after control regardless of what challenges stand in their way.

Rather than learning night navigation the hard way, like I did, come along to Navigation Workshop in April. Imbued by the skills learnt at the Navigation Workshop your nights in the bush will be full of confidence until “the fog” gets you.

6 Replies to “Night Navigation”

  1. Chris Stevenson – you absolute legend. What a wonderful picture you paint of night rogaining and rogaining in general! Fantastic… and to everyone else – go to the Nav workshop! It will be great.

  2. Brings back memories of similar experiences plus the elation after being extremely lost at night and stumbling on a control.

  3. Spot on analysis Chris. I would add that – in my experience – some of the worst mistakes are made after dawn. The period of optimism you rightly describe is further heightened by the rising sun. This gives rise to over-confidence which, combined with fatigue, results in silly mistakes and crazy errors of judgement.

  4. Well explained Chris ! Everyone who read this should be tempted by the workshop.

    I will add that I found my night navigation going significantly better when I have been on the same type of landscape before dark, because somehow I do understand the landscape and I have experienced it in daylight for the first part of the rogaine. However I found it much more challenging when you start to navigate in an area without trying it in daylight. This happens often in Adventure Racing.
    In QLD, they have a special rogaine they called “Upside down” and this rogaine starts at midnight or something … Interesting concept that I’d like to try.

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