Some more thoughts on navigation

I’m an unashamed, proud map-geek, and I generally find navigation easy to do. I also provide digital route guides for a growing number of routes.

Over the bank holiday weekend at the end of May, I went cycling the Grand Union Canal, along with a friend of mine, Dom (@Tdr1nka on Twitter). I’ve spent considerable time building a highly-detailed .TCX file for the route. In case you didn’t know. .TCX files are files that can be used by cycling GPS computers, such as Garmin or Wahoo, and also by several smartphone apps.

Though I’ll undoubtedly now be far slower than someone who does orienteering, or especially someone from Mountain Rescue, I can still navigate using just a map and compass, amongst various other methods.

Also, when designing routes, I often end up memorising the route, and rely solely on the map that exists inside my head. Mainly, it works.

When setting off to cycle the canal, I didn’t use any navigational aid at all. After all, it’s just a case of following the canal, so how hard can it be? There are benefits to not using any navigational aid, as it helps pinpoint where anyone using my route guide might get confused by which way they’re supposed to be going.

Everything went fine on the ride, but there were two issues I hadn’t factored into all the planning:

  1. The towpath makes for very technical riding in places, and you’ll be absolutely focused on just that 5 metres (often less) right in front of you, meaning you can easily miss quite prominent landmarks.
  2. When the towpath improves, you’ll be riding faster, to make up for the extremely slow pace you’d been riding at when encountering dodgy segments. That again means you’re focused on what’s just ahead of your bike, rather than the scenery around.
See also  Travel to the Bronze Age

In practical terms, this meant I simply followed the towpath as it curved around, from the main Grand

Union Canal, onto the Leicester arm, and we made it as far as the Watford Gap services (the canal passes just behind it) before realising the mistake.

Had I been using digital navigation, specifically the .TCX route file, it would have alerted me in advance, and we will have remained on course.

Of almost equal importance, I fill the .TCX files I create with oodles of extra information. For example, if you used the .TCX I created for the Grand Union Canal, it’d alert you when you cross the path of the old Oxford Canal – the course of that canal was altered a long time ago – and it’d tell you when you’re passing the point where the canal spur leading to the arms depot an Weedon Bec used to be.

I’m going to have to start taking my own medicine, and extensively use the .TCX files I created, as they will add real value to my rides.
On the bright side, this experience also serves as a gentle confirmation of the value of the route guides I create.

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