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You lose your way on a busy road. What's the best action to take? You lose your way on a busy road. What's the best action to take?

  • Possible answers:

  • A. Stop at traffic lights and ask pedestrians

  • B. Shout to other drivers to ask them the way

  • C. Turn into a side road, stop and check a map

  • D. Check a map, and keep going with the traffic flow


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Learning to navigate

When you first start to drive you will need to know how to find your way to and from places otherwise you will get lost frequently.

Growing up in rural Lincolnshire, I had plenty of times where I wasn’t sure where I was when I first started driving, particularly at night when there were no streetlights, and few signs out in the countryside.

Snow and fog can make navigating even more difficult, so follow these 11 tips to make you an expert at finding your way around.

1. Learn the major roads that surround where you live

If you know your main roads then even if you are lost on a B road you will eventually come to a main road and will be able to find your way home. For me, it was the A16, A52, A158, A17, A15 and A1121. These encompassed almost everywhere I travelled on a regular basis to visit friends, go to parties, etc.

2. Learn the towns, villages and/or suburbs that are near the main routes

You can be stuck in the middle of nowhere, like in the village of Claxby Pluckacre, but if you know where the main centres are, and how to get between them, you will be safe. In the case of rural Lincolnshire, I knew my way between home and Boston, Horncastle, Skegness, Coningsby, etc, so even in the middle of the night, if I was lost but saw a signpost to one of these places, I could get there and start back home from somewhere I was familiar with.

If you live in the city, you’ll want to know the main suburbs and the main arterial routes that pass through them. Of course, in somewhere like London you can also use post codes, and signage and lighting will be much better.

3. Learn the landmarks

If you are lost in a city but can see a major landmark, then you know which way to head. This works in cities around the world, too as many of them have large towers or significant buildings (e.g. The Sky Tower in Auckland (New Zealand), CN Tower in Toronto (Canada), or the Space Needle in Seattle (USA).

If you are lost in the countryside, hills, mountains and rivers can help. However, be mindful that rivers can meander significantly.

4. Use the sun

The sun always rises in the east and sets in the west. It will always be in the south (in the UK), so you can judge which way you need to go.

5. Use your phone’s satellite navigation function

If you have a smartphone and a data plan you will be able to use Google Maps or similar to find out where you are. Make sure you pull over before doing this. Be careful of following its directions without using your own common sense as the mapping software has been known to direct people onto airport runways and other places they shouldn’t be.

6. Use your car’s satellite navigation

If your car comes with built-in satellite navigation, take some time to learn how to program it but, again, don’t rely 100% on its directions without checking you’re not turning the wrong way into a one-way street.

7. Use a third-party sat nav

You can get third-party satellite navigation units from companies such as TomTom, Navman and Garmin. These units are removable from your vehicle and often have functions that are more advanced than built-in sat navs, such as being able to define specific points in a journey, and being able to choose different voice packs. These units come with proper mounting brackets for your windscreen or dashboard. TomTom, Garmin and Navman also make apps for your smartphone or tablet.

Before you buy, check out reviews and videos of their operation. Some are more fiddly than others, and you also want to get one with a screen that will suit you. Reputable testing organisations such as Which frequently publish details of best buys, for example the Garmin nuvi 3597LMT was September 2013’s Best Buy from Which.

8. Use a physical map or a printed online map

Physical map reading takes some practice to learn properly. If it helps, align the map in the direction you are going. Pay attention to road names and numbers, and the names of locations you will be passing through. It’s often easiest to count the number of roads you will have to pass before you turn.

Google Maps and other services offer route planning and some also display locations of petrol stations and other landmarks.

9. Ask directions

Sometimes it’s difficult to ask for directions if there is no one around, or if you don’t feel safe doing so. You can always drive until you see the nearest petrol station or pub and ask in there. When you ask for directions many people store information in their brains using local landmarks, for example, ‘turn left after the two oak trees’. Of course, in the dark, you might not see the landmarks they refer to, and you might not know what oak trees look like. So, ensure you draw a map of what someone is saying – it will be difficult for you to remember verbal instructions any more than 3-4 turns ahead; also get some contingencies, for example, how do you know you’ve gone the wrong way?

10. Have an idea about roughly how long your journey will take

If you only have to travel 20 miles and you’ve been on the road for an hour and still haven’t found what you’re looking for, you’ve probably gone the wrong way (assuming you’re travelling at more than 20mph). You should get an idea of rough distances and how long they will take to traverse so that you can correct your directions if you feel you’re going the wrong way.

11. Remember where you’ve been

Remembering key landmarks when you are travelling will allow you to backtrack easily if you need to. It also means that when you travel that road again that you will become familiar – an unusual gate, a crooked tree, a house with an odd-coloured roof, an off-camber corner, etc. Doing this also helps when the weather conditions are challenging, such as in the snow or fog.

12. Fill in the gaps in your knowledge

Don’t use the same routes every time – try different routes to see which one is most efficient. If your usual route is closed one day, you will have knowledge of how to get to your destination using an alternative route, and that might even be quicker than following any designated diversions.

This technique is particularly useful in the event of storms or other natural disasters which might block routes. By taking different routes your brain will build its own map and you will have moments of recognition when you realise that a road you’d travelled past the end of many times links two locations you know, but you’ve never used it between them.

Keeping safe

If you are completely lost and you risk running out of fuel, you need to weigh up whether to stop and wait, or try to find someone to ask. If you have a phone on you, you can find a junction and ask someone else to look at a map and give you directions. Smartphones often have apps that will tell you the nearest petrol station. It’s unlikely in the UK, though, that there will be many times where you are more than 20 miles from a settlement. This is not the same for some other countries, though. Places like New Zealand, Australia, America and Canada have significant tracts of land with no settlements and few road signs. Be even more vigilant if you get a chance to drive in these countries.

Readers – do you have any other tips you use to help you navigate your way around ? Let us know in the comments section below. I’m not talking about leaving crumbs like Hansel and Gretel, though!

Also, take a look at this video which has robots teaching you map reading. OK, it’s designed for kids, but it’s a bit of fun.