Author of Be Ready for Anything and Build a Better Pantry on a Budget online course
I’ve always had a pretty decent sense of direction in urban environments. When I was in Croatia, others commented on this, so recently I have been thinking about how it is that I’m able to find my way back to my home base without using navigational tools like maps.
While, of course, I have a map and a compass, if there was an event that occurred which made me want to get home in a hurry, I’d rather know my way around without it instead of being forced to stop at every intersection and find the right way to go.
This proficiency isn’t just for city dwellers or travelers. Being able to quickly navigate through an urban environment is a very important skill. You never know when the S is going to hit the Fan. You might be at a doctor’s appointment in the city, shopping, or on a business trip. If the emergency is big enough, you may not be able to rely on Google maps or other navigational software to get yourself out of the area.
This is the way I orient myself quickly when I arrive in a new city.
Take a walk.
First things first, even if you have a vehicle to drive or plan to take public transit, you should take a walk. Since walking is slower, it’s easier to notice those little details that pass by in a blur when you’re in a car.
This morning, after arriving in a new city, I took an orientation walk to learn about my immediate neighborhood. To make this walk even more effective, I used the time to stock up on supplies for the next few days. I got food, snacks, drinks, etc.
I like to walk a minimum of 3 city blocks around the perimeter neighborhood of my apartment. I find the busier streets which are generally a good source of food and supplies. While I’m walking I take note of any place that would have useful supplies in the event of an emergency, like camping stores or hardware stores.
Here in Greece, street names aren’t especially helpful to me because I don’t read Greek – they use a different alphabet. I find that even when I attempt to memorize the letters, it doesn’t make as much of an impression on me as landmarks do.
When I say “remember landmarks” that doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m remembering big touristy things like the Acropolis.
For your own purposes, a landmark can be anything that catches your eye. For example, today I found a door in a beautiful shade of lavender where I turn to get back to my house. Sometimes it might be a shop that has some interesting architectural features. It could be a restaurant that looks like it would have tasty food. Maybe it’s a large flowering plant or unusual balcony. You get the idea – find things that catch your eye.
A big one here in the city I’m currently visiting (Thessaloniki, Greece) is the sea. This is a large, unmoving landmark that is in front of my apartment.
Where are the landmarks in correlation to your home base?
Next – and this is the most important thing – where are all your landmarks in correlation to your home base?
This city is basically a mountain that leads down to the sea. So if I started out walking downhill, any time I face the sea, my apartment will be behind me. If I’ve walked uphill, when I turn to face the sea, my apartment is that way. A large body of water that you can see from multiple vantage points is a great landmark for orientation.
But not all cities are by the sea or a river, so you’ll need other landmarks too.
One block down the hill from my apartment is an extremely large church from the Byzantine era. That’s tough to miss and can be seen from a lot of different locations because of its size. I know that if I see that church, which is built into a hill, I simply need to walk uphill and I’m on my street. I also know that my apartment building is to the left when I get to the back of the church.
Coming from a different direction, I should turn right when I’m facing the charming lavender door I mentioned earlier. That’s one of the landmarks I use to find my street. I also found landmarks at the cross streets that my apartment lies between.
Each day, build your mental map out a little bit further.
As you explore the new area you’re visiting, each day you should venture a bit further. Find new landmarks further away and then think about where they are in relation to your home base. For example, if I go to visit a castle tourist attraction that is about a 20-minute walk to the left of my apartment, then toward the sea, it’s pretty simple to navigate my way home.
Another great way to work on your navigation skills while traveling is to use something like Google maps to get you to where you’re going, then use your landmarks to get you back home.
By the time you’ve been in an area for a week or so, you should have a mental image of your home base that is like a sun with rays coming out of it. Your apartment is the center, and each ray leads to a landmark. From each landmark, you’ll be able to make your way home.
You’ll get lost sometimes.
Obviously, this is easier if the city you’re visiting is laid out in a grid. If it’s not, you’ll need additional landmarks to remind you where to turn.
I like to challenge myself so recently when I was in Athens, (which is not a grid at all I might add) I decided to try and find my way back from about 4 miles from home. I purposely took a different road first because I didn’t want to simply backtrack. I walked for about 2 hours and was about to give up and call an Uber for rescue when I saw a movie theater I had noticed a few days previously because it showed only old movies and charged 10 Euros for three movies.
As soon as I saw that, I immediately recognized where I was and was able to walk home in a fairly short order.
You can’t be afraid to get lost when you’re doing this. Just be sure you have a few safety nets in case you get really, really lost. (No, you don’t have to add any of these apps to your phone – but I’ve found them to be useful tools, personally.)
- Have navigational supplies with you at all times in your everyday carry kit.
- If you feel like you’ve walked into a dangerous neighborhood, you probably have. Turn around and go back the way you came. Pay attention to those “bad feelings” – you’re usually experiencing them for a reason.
- Put the Uber app on your phone. Not all cities have Uber, but if they do, the driver will locate you via the GPS on your phone.
- Have a navigational app on your phone like Google Maps or Garmin. Program in the address of your local home base.
- Always carry a paper map. The first thing I do in a new city is to grab a map. Then I mark where I’m staying on the map with a dot.
- If you don’t know how to read a compass and use it with a map, learn. I thought I knew how to use one but when I went to Selco’s Urban Survival Course in Croatia last year, Toby, the co-instructor, had to give me a refresher course.
Learning to navigate is a very important skill and I strongly recommend it to everyone. Even if you are a person who thinks they have a terrible sense of direction, try using landmarks instead of North, South, East, and West and see if this makes things easier for you.
Work on your navigational skills.
You don’t have to head to another country to find unfamiliar territory. Just head to the next town over and park your car in a new neighborhood. (This is home base.) Then start exploring.
Make sure you don’t have anything to do the day you decide to go plunk yourself down and get lost because a time deadline can make this very stressful.
However, when you have plenty of time, not only is this an educational exercise, but it’s a whole lot of fun. I have seen all sorts of things that are off-the-beaten-path during my navigational excursions. And I’ve also found the more I do this, the faster I become oriented in new places.
What are your best tips for navigating through the city? Please share them in the comments below.