6 mins

Tristan Gooley on navigating au naturel

Tristan Gooley explains how natural navigation enriches journeys and reconnects you with the world

Tristan Gooley

Tristan Gooley has been practising the art of natural navigation for over ten years and runs his own school, The Natural Navigator. The pocket edition of his guide, The Natural Navigator, is out now. 

Who is this book being aimed at? Someone wearing a big cagoule out in the countryside?

I’d be delighted if people were taking it out for walks. But natural navigation is about engaging with the outdoors and connecting with it. I like the idea of people doing their reading indoors and then taking their knowledge outside and focusing on nature and the landscape they see. Otherwise the danger is that people will be walking on footpaths whilst reading the book, the subject of which is “have a look around you!”

Is natural navigation a more practical or philosophical skill?

There’s nothing in the book that can’t be used practically or that I haven’t tried out in the real world. But finding directions is only the start of the fun you can have with the subject. Once you’ve found your way the investigation begins and the fun, awareness and sense of connection continues to grow. The job is done, but the journey continues.

Do you think natural navigation helps travellers to get a deeper understanding and appreciation of the places they visit?

Infinitely. One of my biggest disappointments with travel guides is an obsession with economy. Travel becomes a very mercantile experience. The truth is, there is so much richness and enjoyment to be found when no transaction takes place. Just by thinking "Which way am I looking?” you can have an amazing four-hour experience without any money changing hands.

Many times on our travels we’re forced to stay a day longer than we chose to. Instead of seeing that as a frustration, it’s a great opportunity to view these places on a different level. There’s an example in the book about a guy called John Muir who was travelling across America. He was forced to wait five hours between connecting trains. Most people would view that as an inconvenience but he saw it as a great opportunity. He found a vacant lot beside the station and went botanising. He started making notes in his book about all the plants he found and had a much richer experience than if his train had arrived sooner. With natural navigation, that simple question, “Which way am I looking?” can transform a railway platform from a dull place to somewhere, if not exciting, then at least an interesting place to be.

In your book you mention how most churches are laid out pointing in a certain direction. All of a sudden, you realise there’s a reason why things are the way they are – whether that’s a city, a church, or even where trees are planted.

What appears as random on first sight very rarely is. If a structure has been built somewhere there is generally a reason why. Very often it’s practical things – we want more light, so we align it a certain way. Or it’s aligned in a different way in a different part of the world. For example, in colder parts of the world buildings will be aligned to make them least exposed to the winds, whereas in the hot parts of the world they want to get the breezes through. The challenge is the opposite way around. You’ll find the buildings are square-on to the prevailing winds.

You can see it in the natural world too. Plants are unthinking but they wouldn’t survive at all unless they reacted in a sensible way to the environment. It doesn’t matter if we are looking at a tree or a building, there’s method in the madness and in the randomness.

What are the key skills people need to start navigating naturally?

I encourage people to think from the top down. Start by being aware of the sun. How its position is different not just hour by hour but by season, where it is rising and setting. It changes all the time and by quite large amounts. We’re so busy in our lives that we don’t stop and think, "Hey wait a minute, where does the sun rise?"

And then of course, there’s the stars. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t get great sense of satisfaction from finding directions by looking at the stars. It takes less than five minutes to both learn and do. It’s so easy.

Is technology making theses skills redundant – skills our ancestors needed to survive?

Technology may have removed the need, but on a more positive angle it also gives us an opportunity to connect with our environment in a way that our ancestors couldn’t. I can walk out onto Dartmoor without taking the sort of intense precautions and preparations that earlier generations would have, just to survive. I have all these wonderful gadgets tucked in my backpack, a map, a compass, a GPS, allowing me to do something my ancestors would never have dreamed of – just going for a walk and using my senses to connect, feel and understand where I am going.

We can all do this on a small, safe level. I encourage people to start where they are – walk in a local forest or town. Take a map, take a GPS, anything that you think you need to be safe. But allow that technology to give you a sense of abandonment.

I notice from your website that you run natural navigation courses. What kind of people come along to them?

Well, the subject of natural navigation itself is very diverse and I’m delighted to say it’s a very diverse group of people I get on my courses. At one end of the spectrum I get artists interested in reading the landscape in a different way. At the other end, I get people who are in the navy and the army and airforce. Much more typically the kind of person who does my course is somebody who has been walking, feels comfortable doing their own journeys but is looking to get more 'juice' out of the experience.

Recently, I had a writer do the course. Her grandmother was one of the survivors of the Titanic and she is writing a fictionalised account where her grandmother is going to save some people by using the stars to row her way to safety. Like all good writers she appreciates that if you keep it as bland and one-dimensional as 'I rowed towards the North Star' the reader can tell that this person doesn’t know what’s going on. I taught her beyond the level that would go in the book so that she would have the confidence to imbue her character with enough knowledge to do it.

What would you like people to take away from the book?

I’ve been delighted that people in the survival and bushcraft community have embraced the book. But for your average person, it is highly unlikely that they will need these skills to survive. I like the idea that anyone who reads the book will see the world in a slightly different way. Maybe they are lying on the beach, having drinks with friends at the end of a day. They see the sun set, the stars come out and the moon and they connect with those things. They understand what is happening and share that experience with the people around them. That’s closer to the spirit of natural navigation than the feeling that it’ll get-you-out-of-jail if things go wrong.


The Natural NavigatorTristan Gooley has been practising the art of natural navigation for over ten years and runs his own school, The Natural Navigator. The pocket edition of his guide, The Natural Navigator, is available now on Amazon


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