Planning a route (ooer!) is fun. You get to choose where you want to go, which way you want to get there, and during the planning you get a bit of a teaser from studying the map and anticipating what you will see. Sort of like watching a Star Wars trailer. Without, of course the annoying alien with the funny voice and the annoying little cute kid or robot (hard to tell the difference sometimes) that is supposed to make everyone go "Awww...." and purchase an expensive plastic toy. I digress.
Route planning is about deciding where to go, how to get there, and presumably how to get back. Preferably in one piece.
What is your objective?
This is not as much of a kill-joy as it sounds. Deciding what you want to get out of your week or weekend away sets some important parameters. Do you want to do a long through-hike such as the Pacific Coast Trail. I've never done this sort of hiking - I stay within the bounds of self sufficiency. Picking up mailed caches while longing long distances with possibly lots of people around doesn't appeal to me. A long through-hike requires a fair degree of prior planning and preparation is required to ensure you don't get stuck without food and equipment replacement. If this turns you on, do a quick web search on things like the Pacific Coast and Appalachian trails.
If, like me, your objective is to get off the beaten track to explore cool new stuff and maybe challenge yourself a bit, then the route can be more flexible, but I'm on my own and have to effect self rescue if required. I can't carry too much equipment for comfort, because I need to carry a bit more hardware. Of course, sitting in a hammock with a fishing rod is a totally admirable objective too. But how do I get there with the stuff I need?
Ok... you have an objective. You know where you want to go, kind of what you want to do along the way or, if going to a certain place, what you want to do when you get there.
Control and coordination features
Getting from A to B needs to be broken into legs. The length of these different legs depends on the terrain, particularly how far away you can see a point you are aiming at. Points far away are usually good, but if they are too far away then they can be bad. You need to continually update your position on the map. For example, lets say you are aiming at Mt Kilimanjaro 10km away. Easy. Can't miss it. But what happens if you break your leg and have to radio for help? "Somewhere on a bearing of X degrees within 10km of Kilimanjaro" is not very precise for the rescuer. You need to have built into your route plan features that help you control and coordinate your progress.
Navigation legs: Attack points/Checkpoints
First things first, it helps if your start point is known. For the most part, this will indeed be known. If you've just been thrown out of the back of a Unimog blindfolded, there might be a wee bit of uncertainty that has to be dealt with first. Next, you need to have steps you need to progressively reach to eventually get to the end point. What types of things should these be? Obvious landscape features that we can physically see and follow a bearing on, or features that - if we need to just march on a bearing using dead reckoning - we will know when we get there. Lakes, river junctions, track junctions, the pub, and so forth. The US Army and Brotherton use the term attack points for these types of features but the term means something different to me. I generally don't physically attack the point I've arrived at. Have a scone and a cup of tea and a quick lie down, maybe. But the term sounds cool, so I'll use it.
If you are part of a group, your attack point should also be designated as a temporary rendezvous point. If for some reason the group, or individuals within the group, gets geographically challenged getting back to the last RV will be one of the things to consider during a relocation procedure. Good checkpoints include isolated features that stand out from the landscape by elevation changes of at least two contour intervals. Hills are preferable, but this could also include depressions, spurs, and re-entrants. Linear features such as ridges, streams/rivers, roads, power lines, railways are also good. Vegetation breaks may not be that crash hot - they can change over time.
If your checkpoint is also where you intend to make a direction change - this is usually the case - you must be particularly sure you are in the correct place. If you are in any way unsure, take the time to do a resection or analyse the map to make sure everything is where it should be. This should be automatic. If you are in the slightest bit unsure, but still decide to proceed - note this in your notes. Your last sure-as-sure place provides the location within a radius of which, if you do get lost, you are likely to be. This is particularly important when the possibility of parallel errors such as going down the wrong ridgeline can occur
Collecting features or checkpoints, and catching features
During the planning and preparation of your route, as you are building a narrative of what you should see and where, you should build in your notes and Nav Data Sheet collecting features or checkpoints. These are features that form a running commentary of your progress toward your checkpoint. They could be linear features such as creeklines, point features such as culverts or bridges, or bearings to features. For example, the feature could be the point at which hilltop X to your right comes into view at a bearing of 90 degrees. These are kind of like potato chips or Oreo cookies - kind of a form of comfort food to continually reassure you that you are indeed where you think you are and on the right track.
Catching features are the navigational equivalent of Oops! My bad! moments. These are points you have identified beforehand from the map that if you reach them - you've gone too far. As with collecting features, they could be point, linear, or lines to other features. however linear features are preferable - they correspond to lines on the map and are pretty hard to miss. The trans-Siberian railway, for example is pretty hard to not notice. But, Mr Smartypants... I hear you say If I'm clever enough to recognise the catching feature, why didn't I recognise the one I was aiming for?. Good question. Sometimes we may want to get to things that may not be that obvious. Track junctions are notorious for this. At least with know not to blindly blunder onwards. With an obvious linear feature we get a head start on doing a resection to verify exactly where we are, and we have a baseline from which we can search to find the point we missed. In the military these control lines are useful to prevent us getting shot by our own mates.
Navigation data sheet
A useful tool is a Navigation Data Sheet. A Nav Data Sheet lists the individual legs of your planned route: The start and end points, magnetic bearing, distance, paces, going, and any other aids to help you stay on track.
Lets look at a simple example. I've decided to go for a short overnighter in Spain just over the border from Andorra. My purpose? Well, I'm either doing a reconnaissance for a smuggling route for tobacco and alcohol from Andorra to Spain, trying to get some lizard photos, or I'm trialling some new gear from the many companies that want to give me new stuff to try and say nice things about so my many web page followers go and check it out. I digress.
So I've decided to hitch to my start point - Refugi de Cap de Rec. A note to hitchhikers - increase your chances of getting a lift by not having hair that looks like a birds nest, with those baggy pants that hang around your knees, waving a tattered piece of cardboard with scribble on it at passing vehicles, looking like a potentially smelly hunt saboteur. Mind, I don't fare much better looking like some urban guerilla. I'm going to do some gentle strolling along a few navigation legs until I get to my night location. Hang out for a day there while I patrol around looking for my smuggling route/lizards, then stroll back. Nothing too hardcore. The whole area has developed tracks which I'm going to studiously ignore. I've checked out the map and scribbled important stuff - distance, bearing and the going and other useful bits. I've checked out the gradients - there's nothing more than 20%, and given the distance I don't need to make much of slope correction. So, write this down in your Navigation data sheet.
You don't need to go over the top - this is a bit extravagant for me, and I don't actually put a pace number in because I measure paces as 10's of meters. But you get the idea.
Apart from forcing you to study the map during the route planning, making a nav data sheet adds a reality check to your expected progress, convenient rest and navigation check points, and serves and establishes points that can be backtracked to as rendezvous points if the group becomes separated. Every navigator in the group should have a copy of it, or at least know where to locate it on your lifeless body so they can get back home.
The Nav Data Sheet also encourages the hiker to maintain a mental checklist as they walk - "keep the eastern ridge on the right, walk ~1km until we hit the re-entrant, a medium size vegetated hill will appear on the left…" and so on. Hey, it's a lot better than "Well, I walked until my tootsies hurt. I'm somewhere. No idea where...". All your collecting and catching features should be listed. Any changes to the route should be appended as well.
Now we live in this modern age, a useful reconnaissance other than the map study is that wonder of wonders Google Earth.
Developing and maintaining a narrative
This may sound strange, but each route should have a story involved with it. This is not a hippy thing, so bear the philosophising for a few minutes. Analytically a navigator needs to have a mental image of the route - what should be where, and conversely what shouldn't be where - conditional on us being where we think we are. If these elements don't line up, there is a difference that indicates we are confused about our position. We start from, well, our start point and move along the route to our intended end point so there is a temporal element to our navigation. This is a story - a beginning, a middle, an end.
Humans remember stories. This is exemplified by aboriginal navigators - I'll use Australian aboriginals as an example (I have experience with them - I've never worked with Inuit or Tuareg for example). Australian aboriginals have no written tradition. They have extensive artwork, but to my knowledge these represent stories - not maps as such. So... no concept of written or drawn maps - yet they managed to migrate into Australia about 50,000 years ago and managed to live in and move around a continent the size of the USA quite happily until white people came along and screwed it up (don't get me started on that one!). So how do they know where they are?
Let's get rid of one nonsensical idea first - they have no 'sixth sense' or other mumbo jumbo. It seems that outside observers who don't understand something invoke some magic, simply because they think if they don't understand something, it must be non-understandable. As an aside, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (of Sherlock Holmes fame) commented about Harry Houdini that he had a metaphysical ability to make his body dissolve and reappear. To which Houdini - who never claimed to be 'magic' - and a psychic sceptic promptly announced - probably in very rude Yiddish - as a lot of bollocks. Disclaimer: Aboriginals have a gazillion different languages and cultures, so these are not generic and my personal experience is limited to a few occasions. Aboriginals do have a mental plan of the land. They have cardinal directions - but often context-dependent. But the map is often mentally stored in the form of a songline or Dreaming track, related to the concept of creation so there are lots of symbolic references. This is a narrative of a journey. It could consist say of a creation story in which a planet or constellation followed a path encountering mountains, waterholes - important stuff - where sacred things happened.
Sound a bit like astronomy and terrain-association to you? Importantly, the oral tradition was (is) central to traditional aboriginal culture. If you don't really have a culture of making paper and drawing a map, why not sing and dance it so you are learning and memorising the map from the time you learn to speak? Everywhere you go from one side of Australia to the other you can share navigation notes with other groups. From my (very) few occasions working with aboriginal navigators - I learnt a lot, however they don't always take the shortest path. But you can't have everything, I guess. If anyone has any experience in traditional navigation, share it. I know the Inuit have a slightly different traditional approach of linear paths.
So why is this important to the modern navigator? Well apart from the fact that one generation ago white Australians were taught in schools that aboriginals couldn't even count past 5 and I want to help redress things (told you not to get me started!) what are we going to remember when we are disoriented, hypothermic, and scared? Trigonometry, or the overhang we were worried about traversing because it looked a bit dodgy, our bootlace had just come undone, and we cut our hand on that sharp piece of quartz sticking out of that rock just over... there? Actually, my non-military background is in science, so I'm a bit more analytical than most.
Philosophising aside - back to the modern navigator. Our narrative is initially derived from our map study. We need to have a mental picture of what we should see, when, and where. We can't just plod along head-down, bum up. We need to constantly observe and both mentally and physically check off our planned points along the map. In the military, a patrol commander has a running line of what if's going through their heads. Places to take cover, to attack from, to defend from, to withdraw to, to rendezvous at. Develop a hobby. If you are a plant-geek - think of vegetation. If you are a birdwatcher - bird habitats and sightings. If a wildlife buff (or hunter!) - tracking. If you are part of a group, point out interesting stuff to each other. In addition to developing an individual narrative of the path taken, there is also a backup from other members of the group. Collectively your chances of getting lost are considerably reduced.