If you remember the story of Theseus and the Minotaur you’ll know that Ariadne kindly suggested he take a ball of red thread into the maze so that he could find his way out again once he’d dispatched that bull-headed chap. In a lot of ways navigating with a compass is like creating a ‘red thread’ that you can follow back to the start of your journey.

There are different types of trips you could make into the jungle, but quite often I find that I’m going from A-to-B and then back to A again.  This type of return trip is the easiest to navigate as, so long as you’ve noted where you’ve gone, you simply have to retrace your steps to get out again.  Saying that, many of the people (if not most) who get lost in the jungle are on one-day type hikes just like this and fail to return back to the point where they entered the jungle.

Why can it all go so wrong?  The main reason is that the jungle looks the same (as least to the newcomer), there are no far-off landmarks with which to orientate yourself and maps are of limited use (and may not be available anyway).  The other reason is that people often (myself included) get distracted when in the jungle and forget to pay attention/make notes on where they’ve gone.

For newcomers to the jungle it’s easy to get distracted by all the fascinating things in the forest (or by the torrential rain!) that you’re seeing for the first time and, let’s face it, who wants to take compass bearings and make boring pace notes in an exciting new situation like that?

The problem can be avoided by employing a (competent!) guide to show you the way but, if you are venturing in on your own, then it’s a good idea to use a compass and make notes on where you’ve gone.

If you’re on a good trail this might be as simple as noting the trail direction every 100 paces or so, major landmarks (like streams) as well as if the trail abruptly changes direction, but where there’s no trail at all you need to be more meticulous and use dead reckoning and checkpoints to really ensure that you can find your way out again.

There are navigation techniques (such as aiming-off or squaring off a route) that work well in open country but are more risky in the jungle.  The safest way to go out of the jungle is to go back exactly the way you came in and calculating as short-cut instead can be a bit risky.  It is very comforting when going out to find checkpoints that you made on the way in, whereas with a short-cut you won’t know you’re on the right path until (hopefully) you reach your destination.

I remember once when I went off the main trail (at 90 degrees) to explore the surrounding jungle.  I carefully marked the trees and an hour or so later was happily returning, following the trailblazing I had made on the way in and confident that I was going in the right direction.  Then something confusing happened, I could see marks on the trees going in a line off to the left and another set of marks on the trees suggesting that my route went off to the right.  For a minute I couldn’t work out what had happened – which way was the right way and why there were two trail paths going in opposite directions?  Finally it dawned on me that I had come back to the main trail and simply hadn’t recognized it.

That experience taught me two things: 1) it’s a good idea to look back at the trail you’re following in, so that it is familiar to you on the way out, and 2) that pace counting is a very useful way of checking where you are.  Had I pace counted in the example above I would have been expecting to find the main trail and would have immediately recognized it, as I hadn’t (and thought the trail was much further on) I got momentarily confused.

The key to navigating in the jungle is to anticipate what level of navigation is required – you don’t want to make unnecessarily detailed notes and take thousands of bearings if you’re following a route that is as clear as day, nor do you want to be left with just a vague idea of the direction you went in on if you followed a torturous route that twisted and turned through deep jungle.

The other important thing is to practice using bearings, pace counting and dead reckoning before you have to rely on them to get you out.  This can be done in any forest where the line-of-sight is limited and doesn’t just apply to the jungle.  The techniques are not difficult to learn but they require practice before they become second nature.  For example if you are pace counting and forget to move a bead to mark a 100 paces, you are in danger of over shooting the trail later on by 100 paces and getting very lost indeed, so it’s important to get it right.