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Book review: Tristan Gooley’s “The Natural Navigator”

I earned the Orienteering Merit Badge as a Boy Scout. I must have, because when all was said and done the circular patch with a compass on it was sewn there on my Boy Scout sash. But I’ll be honest—my memories of earning this badge are foggy at best, which means I probably phoned it in (counselors at Camp Maple Dell were notoriously lenient—especially with larger troops consisting mostly of annoying twelve year olds).

I say this because although I consider myself an avid outdoorsman, navigation has never been a strong point for me. Give me my GPS and I’m a regular Ferdinand Magellan, but I can hardly find my own car in the Wal-Mart parking lot without satellite assistance. Airdrop me into the West Desert without my smartphone and I’m doomed.

So what’s a navigationally-challenged outdoorsman to do? Is my dependence on modern gadgets short circuiting my intrinsic connection with nature? Is it really possible for me to find my way around this world using little more than my own senses?

English adventurer and author Tristan Gooley has the answers, and he explains everything in “The Natural Navigator: A Watchful Explorer’s Guide to a Nearly Forgotten Skill.”

“Natural navigation is one of the rarest arts on the planet,” writes Gooley in his introduction, lamenting the fact that modern culture has reduced the concept to a bag of tricks relegated to survival situations.

Though the veteran adventurer concedes that the ability to find one’s way using nature is not essential to everyday life, its practice is the key to communing with our surroundings and the philosophy behind it is as relevant as ever.

Thus, “The Natural Navigator” seeks foremost to prove that relevance. Though replete with information, tips and diagrams, this is not an exhaustive handbook. There are no bulleted lists or organized instructions. In fact, the book reads more like an informative yarn. Gooley forgoes a technical treatment of natural navigation skills, choosing instead to weave them almost lyrically—along with metaphors and historical factoids—into a larger philosophical framework.

It isn’t enough for Gooley to explain how to read the sun using a stick in the ground. To truly appreciate the method, one needs to know why it works, how it works, who used it for what, and when.

Gooley’s passion for the natural navigation is contagious. Frequent historical references are concise and relevant. His visually-oriented, layman’s approach to complex scientific processes of the earth and cosmos allows for seamless transitions to and from the various topics. Though some parts of the book seem overly philosophical, the narrative is an overall delight—a fitting ode to this all but forsaken art.

Has Gooley convinced me to leave the GPS at home the next time I head for the hills? Not quite yet—changing one’s navigational paradigm doesn’t happen overnight. But armed with the philosophical basics of natural navigation, my next outing will be extra rewarding.

For more information on the book and author Tristan Gooley, visit his website at

To read about my hapless attempt at orienteering, check out Orienteering provides old-school test of speed and smarts.

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Posted by on February 22, 2011 in Reviews


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