Bike Navigation                      (with added psychology)

I’m going to start with a bit of amateur psychology, I think it may be useful, although it might not be what you expected this article to start with. Why psychology though? Well, navigation for many is just something you use in extremis, but I’d like to propose that we all take a look at our attitude to knowing where we are, where we’ve been, and where we’re going next.

At a trail centre we often look at where trails start, get there, and then follow the wee pointers. We can switch off the map-reading bit of the brain (and maybe some other bits too) and just ride, feel the flow and enjoy the ride, popping out at the end. This is all well and good, but there are two reasons why most trail centres are mapped, and why many have numbered posts along the way: so you can identify which bit of trail you’re on, and where you are.

Just out there feeling the flow.....

You’ll be fine following the trail until that day you find a fellow rider in a ditch someday, and find that you can’t tell the bike patrol, or worse Ambulance service where you are. So the first part of psychology is in recognising that a big part of mountain biking in the brain is about not thinking about the bad stuff, so we naturally don’t plan perhaps as well as we might. If we can recognise this we can take a bit more control. It’s worth also recognising that a big part of biking for many is taking on the challenge by yourself independently, and so preparing to ask for outside help again flies in the face of this attitude.

But armed with a trail map so we can call for help despite the need to face up to ‘consequences’ and accept a small degree of reliance on others, we can head out better prepared for what may come…(even if we’re doing everything we can to prevent it).


There are two more elements now acting on our consciousness. The first is our innate ability to follow others, or the sheep effect. Focussed on the trail ahead we will wildly whiz by junctions and landmarks, blind to their presence 100% in the flow of the trail. This tendency to follow shows through in our riding too. How often have you ridden a section of trail where you have followed the centre of the trail or others tyre marks, only to discover a better ride just a matter of inches to one side? It’s all about focus, so gaining a wider vision would allow us to be aware of better lines, and landmarks as well, and as a spin off: we will more easily be able to tell where we are.

Removing the ‘Just Follow The Trail’ impulse opens up other trail options too. The Bikefax Southern Scotland guide has a fantastic route through the Glen Tress trail centre which cherry picks from the red and black trails and is a brilliant route, but requires you to know when to turn off the red to get to the next bit of trail.

I did say there were two areas being affected here. The second is how our knowledge of what’s to come affects our mental state, often related to what’s already been ridden. I’ll deal with that in the Positive Psychology Section Below.

Maps as a portal to a parallel dimension, or as a time machine/crystal ball.....

It’s worth pointing out at this point that maps are amazing things. They allow us to predict the future with some accuracy, and then even to pick the future we’d like to have. They are even unfortunately a doorway to parallel universes. What am I on now? - ever said to someone, “we should be there now, but we’re not” or “I was sure it was just round the corner”? Parallel universe: it was in your conscious world, but in the physical world, you took a wrong turn miles back and the car is miles away in the opposite direction.

Anyway, back to time travel rather than parallel universes…. If we can see where we’ve been, where we are now, and where we will be, and predict this with any accuracy then you can see the map as a time machine of sorts, or at least a crystal ball.


So, maps tell us where we were, are now, and will be next, if we can interpret them, and of course if we get them out of the bag. Access to your map is paramount. If you ever try trailquest or bike orienteering, you will find folks with purpose built bar-mounted map boards. This is for constant and regular map use. You can have roll-up map carriers which you deploy when you want to read the map, and you can also have (my personal favourite) the map case on a string tucked into a side pocket on your pack.

The map case on a string gets my seal of approval because it’s a bit of a faff to get out. To use it you are forced to remember as much of the route ahead as possible in order not to have to stop and retrieve it every couple of minutes. Why is this good? Because when you are successful in limiting the number of times you pull the map out, you will have had to picture the terrain in your head, and the trail ahead, and you won’t have to stop so often, which improves the flow of the ride – which is a measure of the quality of a ride. This picture will also mean you don’t get lost so much and will be more likely to spot the ‘bonus’ forestry track that didn’t appear on your map.

I will pause here to mention the GPS, that of the ‘no satellite cover’ in the woods, ‘2 bars of power remaining for the next 25km of trail’, ‘software malfunction’ method of getting lost. I know, I know. Please feel free to buy one, to plot new tracks, to follow you on your explorations, but do bear in mind that none of the above issues can occur with a map and compass. If nothing else, consider the equipment and skill as a prudent backup to your GPS if you’re able to afford one.


The one bit of technology I would advocate is the trusty bike computer. You don’t have to go for one of the super-duper wireless, calorie counting ones: less than a tenner in Tesco will get you a wired computer that will give you distance travelled, which is really all you need (although the top speed function can give you hours of fun/near death experiences).

Armed with the ability to picture the shape of the ground ahead, to picture what the trail will do next, and to tell how far along the trail you are, will open up a whole load of opportunities, and a lot of positive psychology too. Again we come to two areas of possibility.

Not the best example as this computer was lost in a snowdrift within 15 minutes of this photo


Firstly the psychology. Have you ever wondered how much further you have to go up the hill? – ever found yourself flagging thinking the hill’s gone on forever “how much further could it be?!!!”. Well imagine knowing how much further it was, or what proportion of the hill you had already conquered – navigation can do that for you. This little bit of important knowledge can allow you to monitor your progress, to take away the unknown (or the awful possibility that you’ve hardly started yet), and importantly to keep a positive frame of mind “I’ve beaten half of the hill already!!” and it is truly amazing how much our physical performance is affected by our mental performance. Just the fact that you know that you’re half way up can make the second half significantly easier.

I’ve often used a cheesy old analogy for creating a positive frame of mind when faced with challenges, and it’s “How do you eat an elephant? – one forkful at a time”. In short, break the challenges down into small parts. This means rather than the climb being one BIG challenge, set yourself smaller goals, so it might become four, five, or more smaller points to get to that are easy to climb to. This makes the challenge seem smaller, creating a positivity, which is only added to each time you get to one of your ‘micro goals’ – just thinking this way will leave you physically more able to deal with the climb, faster, and you’ll possibly even recovery quicker.

If you’ve ever been on a group ride with someone who’s trailing at the back and has no idea where they are, you will also often be looking at someone who is struggling and under-performing against their ability, stuck in a negative frame of mind. To turn them around, all you might need to do is to help them understand where they are on the ride and how much they’ve already achieved, and stick them at the front so they’re not looking at everyone’s backsides – it may not work; but I have seen it work many times.


I did say at the last junction of this article that there were two areas of possibility, the first being the ability to make yourself more positive when riding. The second is that when you get to the point that you are able to monitor the route ahead and remember significant sections creating flow, you have also started to amass the ability to transfer this from the trail centre environment and take it out onto the hills and mountains. The possibilities are endless once you break free of the trail centre, and I’ll be talking some more about this in other articles to follow (sensitive mountain adventures and safety in the mountains).

So in summary, with a bit of technique learned, and some small investment, you will be able to predict the trail ahead. You’ll be able to split challenging sections up into manageable chunks increasing your performance, and remember sections creating greater flow in your riding and enabling you to get the most out of trail centres. These skills and the confidence borne of practice will enable you to begin to explore a wider and wider range of riding venues and increase your capacity for adventure.

Finally, by dropping the sheep effect, not only will you be able to create our own routes, but it may also allow you to read the routes ahead better and to pick better lines too. In short: the riding and the routes can only keep getting better. Ditch the sheep, adopt micro goals, read the map and go out and ride.

Convinced? – well what are you waiting for: Adventure beckons……