Desert walking hints

A Classy Compass 

Those brought up on the Silva type compass might be surprised to discover that there are far superior machines out there to aid desert navigators. Typically handheld yachting compasses are easier to use and more accurate. The silva is great for transferring a bearing from a route on a map but when it comes to sighting up, even if you stick both fingers out along each edge it is possible to make errors of up to five degrees. Whilst this is acceptable when orienteering where there will be geographical features to cross reference from off the map, this is not accurate enough for the most demanding tasks of the desert. The Plastimo Iris 50 is a great yachting compass that hangs around the neck and can be read even at night. It is wonderfully accurate and very easy to use.


Walking on a Bearing

In the desert you may walk on the same bearing for several days. To do this accurately you need to sight up on a distant feature such as a dune or mountain and then walk towards it. You can also take a back sight of the landmark you have just left in order to check you aren’t going off course. If you need to go around obstacles simply note the number of paces you need to deviate left or right as either a plus or minus figure. At the next landmark you can calculate the total of this and work out how much you need to correct your course.


Finding your way in the Sahara by using the stars

In the northern latitudes the Great Bear points to the pole star and makes navigation at night easy – as long as there is no cloud. In the Sahara the Great bear doesn’t rise above the horizon until very late at night so other methods are called for. 


Find the ‘M’ shaped constellation Cassiopeia and track down the second stroke of the ‘M’. Make a slight bend to the right and you will be at the Pole star. Check after twenty minutes - it will be the only star that hasn’t moved.


To walk on a star bearing simply find the pole star and then turn in the direction you want to walk. Look for a star above the direction you want to go in. After twenty minutes, find the pole star again, turn the same rotational distance and find a new star to follow. 

To read the time of night watch how Cassiopeia and the Great Bear rotate around the Pole Star like the hands of a giant clock.


Finding your position without a GPS

If you have a sextant you can use this, with tables, to calculate both latitude and longitude. Without a sextant it becomes a little more tricky.


If you sight up along a stick to the pole star and record the angle the stick makes with the ground that will be your latitude more or less.


To find your longitude requires at least some knowledge of clock time and sunrise times. If you know the sunrise time at a location whose longitude you also know (such as Cairo or London) on whose Latitude you more or less share, you can calculate your position by the difference in times between the two sunrises. Every minute of difference is equivalent to about 100km on the ground.


More boot yarns

Boots can be the deciding factor between fun and torment on a desert journey. Though sandals are best probably for hardened feet, they are really better suited as the back up to a pair of reliable boots. Bedouin walk in sandals and nylon socks, or no socks if it is hot - but our feet seem to be made of softer stuff. 


A good roomy boot with two pairs of wool socks is my preference - but then I am an inveterate sufferer from blisters if I stray from this standard. Tougher folk survive with one pair of socks - but the boot must be worn in first - the desert is no place to try out new boots. 


Desert boots - meaning suede uppers and ordinary boot soles allow a lot of moisture to escape - and it is moisture that causes blisters. Army types prefer the Meindl Desert Fox - which in practice is an excellent boot. 

Brasher boots I have observed are good for a day or two but are cut too narrow and unforgiving for many days walking. Trainers admit too much sand and also allow sand into the lining which reduces the shoe size and can be a real killer.


Walking on sand

Walking on sand is tougher than walking across a springy moor in the UK. Sand can get in the boot and cause nasty rubbing - though with a sewn in tongue this is unlikely. Sand gives, a bit, but it allows of a repetitive walking action that seems to speed up blister formation and tire the feet rather more than walking on a more forgiving surface. If you walk 10 km on sand it will feel further - especially after several days of such walking.