Imagine you’re out for a long run and get pulled into an amazing new trail network that you’ve never seen before. You know that you should be turning back, but you just have to see what’s around the next corner ... and then the next. The excitement of the trail just keeps pulling you forward.
Finally you make the decision to turn around and begin heading back to your starting point, but things look different. Much different. Was it a left turn at the birch tree, right at giant boulder, and right at the mossy log, or was it right, right, left?
Not only are you confused about which direction is the correct way back to the start, but now a storm is blowing in, it’s not long before nightfall, you’re beginning to get very tired, and you haven’t brought enough food and water. What started as an exciting adventure could be turning into a very dangerous situation.
One of the things that can help you get out of this scary situation is knowing how to use all the features on your GPS watch. Your running watch can actually save your life, or at least save you from a lot of misery.
Most runners don’t look much beyond pace, distance and how cool their map is going to look on Strava afterwards. There are a few navigation features that every trail runner should learn how to use. I use these features on the Suunto Spartan Ultra and Ambit3 Peak, and these watches continue to be improved upon further with many of the software updates. Similar functions are available in other brands, so be sure to set aside some time to check out specific instructions for your watch in your user manual. Do this before you need it, and test it out on training runs. You'll thank yourself for investing the time.
The following are five features to be aware of.
At the turnaround point, instead of trying to guess which is the correct trail and turn to take, you simply activate the ‘track back’ option in your navigation settings and a mini map will have you following a breadcrumb route on your watch allowing you to retrace your exact footsteps to where you started. The Suunto Spartan Ultra now has this function as a default setting so it’s always readily visible.
This option is very similar to track back, however instead of following the exact trail that you took, this will point you in the shortest direction possible ‘as the crow flies’ to where you started. This isn’t always helpful in the thick forest as bushwhacking is never advised if you’re not sure of what lies ahead.
However, if you are on a loop route and thinking that you are close to the end, this is very helpful. I’ve also used this feature when running on frozen lakes in the winter during a snowstorm, as you can be only a short distance off the shoreline but lose visibility and get disoriented. Clicking the find back option will point you in the right direction for the shortest distance.
This feature takes a little bit of pre-run planning, but is well worth it. You can preload your planned route on your watch and just follow the route on the screen to find your way. You can follow the planned route map on your watch, but can also see how far you have gone vertically on your elevation profile, so that you know exactly how much more climbing or descending you still have to do. With so many shared route services, like Movescount and Strava, it is easy to load your route beforehand for accurate navigation. It's also very useful for races if the tracks are available. I will sometimes even just build a route from a zoomed in satellite view of crown land and plot a rough route to load on my watch to follow.
Points of Interest
Having POIs saved on your watch work similarly to the find back option; when activated it will point you to the most direct way to get to that specific point (ie. shelter, water source, etc.) and tell you how far away you are. I use POIs a couple of different ways:
When preplanning a route I’ll include POIs as benchmarks along the way.
I’ll also include specific POIs off of the planned route in case I need to locate water, shelter or find a quick way out of the trail.
I will also mark my current location on my watch while running with a POI to indicate spots I may need to get to or trail intersections that I may need to return to.
Many watches now incorporate barometric pressure features, which not only gives you better altitude accuracy compared to GPS readings, but will alert you to any sudden changes in air pressure. This can be an indication of an impending storm, and is extremely helpful when mountain running, as the last place you want to be is in the high country when a lightning storm is approaching.
The best part of trail running is exploring wild and remote routes, but it is only enjoyable when you can do so while staying safe. Not only are these features great when running remote trails, but can also be a big help if visiting a new city and trying to find your way back to your hotel.
Other safety tips
Going Low Tech: If your watch battery dies, or you have no navigation features on your watch?
Map: Always bring a map of the area if there is one available.
Compass: Learn basic compass and map skills. Many orienteering clubs offer training classes that can be very useful.
Landmarks: Be aware of surroundings and large landmarks that you pass. Knowing where you need to get to in relation to the sunset is also helpful.
Natural breadcrumbs: Create your own breadcrumbs to follow out of the forest if you are doing an out and back run. Leaving sticks, rocks or footprints as indicators at key intersections can help to get back to the start after turning around.
Cell phone maps: If you have cell service, you may be able to pull up a map of exactly where you are and can see where you need to go.
Be prepared: Bring extra safety items if running long that includes food, water, first aid, compass, extra clothing, whistle, headlamp, cell phone (if reception), and a personal tracking device (worth the investment for the avid adventure runner).
Don’t panic: Staying calm is vital if you do get lost and will help in making good decisions.
Alert others beforehand: A good rule, regardless of your equipment and navigational skill level, is to let others know where you plan to be running, and when you plan to be back.