Caro Ryan is a bushwalker, search and rescue volunteer, TV and video producer, writer and the creator behind website Lotsafreshair, where she shares her passion for all things outdoors. Now, she’s also an author with the release of her new book How to Navigate.
If you’re the type of person who loves a good mystery, piecing together the clues to solve a riddle, then map and compass navigation might be just for you. Not only does it require a few technical skills (which can be readily learnt), it also requires us to be intensely aware of the world around us. It’s one of the ‘old skills’, like making sourdough or growing veggies, that forces us to slow down and become an active observer in our surroundings. In Caro Ryan’s new book, ‘How to Navigate – the art of traditional map and compass navigation in an Australian context’, she reveals a simple, step by step way to adding traditional navigation to your skill set. We sat down with Caro to find out what makes her tick.
What is your job and what does your work involve?
Unlike my parent’s generation, when most people had one career, I wear a few different hats – I’ve worked as a producer for the last 21 years, in both television and my own production company, creating video content with a focus on travel and logistically tricky projects. That work fuelled my passion for storytelling across different mediums and taught me the skills I needed to start making how-to videos and content for my main passion – bushwalking – via my website LotsaFreshAir. LotsaFreshAir came out of seeing a need for accessible and relatable information for a new generation of hikers and nature lovers, who weren’t learning the ropes from bushwalking clubs or Scouts. I have been a volunteer in LandSAR (land search and rescue) since 2003, in what is now called State Emergency Service Bush Search and Rescue Unit and in this time I have seen that it’s often a lack of understanding of the fundamentals of bushwalking (navigation, safety, gear and other how-to’s) that get people into trouble in the bush. I created LotsaFreshAir to address this problem.
How did you get started in hiking and bushwalking?
My family were not outdoorsy at all. We never went camping and only ventured down a well-marked trail once a year to walk off Christmas lunch for 30 minutes. So what got me into hiking and bushwalking, was a hunger for adventure, exploration and discovery. To answer the questions of, ‘where does that go?’ And, ‘what will I find?’
As none of my family or friends was into hiking, I joined a club (The Sydney Bush Walkers Club) to learn the ropes and discover places I never thought existed, but am so glad they do.
What is the appeal of of bushwalking and hiking?
There are many things that draw me to hiking. Walking (and off-track scrambling) is the only real exercise I get and as a person who struggled with weight and body image, I like that moving my body and exercising in the bush makes me feel strong and connected. It’s not just about ticking a box of x number of steps or hours of cardio each week, it’s so much more and speaks to me physically (through exercise), mentally (by navigating, planning and undertaking a trip) and spiritually, by slowing me down to the speed of nature. It heightens my awareness of all living things and allows me to savour the world around me.
You’ve recently published your first book How to Navigate – why publish a book about traditional navigation?
2020 not only brought us a global pandemic, where we became more aware of our need for connection to natural places and a desire for the freedom that time in the bush brings, but we hungered for the old, slow and dependable things in life that we could rely on, when everything around us seemed to be uncontrollable. Traditional navigation is one of those skills.
It allows us to step into the bush and put away our devices, which can also let us down. GPS and apps rely on battery life, along with a vast amount of intricate and interwoven technology, such as multiple satellites and ground systems to all be working well. A compass is a very basic piece of technology, that doesn’t rely on electronics and works inside a canyon, in a deep gully, a cave or underwater… unlike a GPS.
Traditional navigation can become a meditation and a way of engaging more deeply with nature. Oh, and you’ll be pleased to know that it has nothing to do with having a sense of direction. So if you’ve felt you’ve struggled with that in the past, learning the skills and methods and putting them into practice can liberate you! Purchase How to Navigate here.
Can you describe a favourite moment you’ve experienced while bushwalking?
Carrying everything I need on my back for a weekend (or longer) and navigating to somewhere I’ve never been, on the hunch that I’ll discover a great spot and then finding it, is a great reward and gives me immense satisfaction. To then sit quietly, without technology, without any sounds except those from nature, and simply ‘be’, is one of my favourite moments. Wollemi National Park is the less-visited next-door neighbour to Blue Mountains National Park and is full of such places, with thousands yet to discover.
What about a least favourite moment? How do you deal with difficult, dangerous or challenging situations?
I’m one of those people who becomes super calm in a crisis. I feel as though my mind becomes clearer and I become very pragmatic and methodical. Strangely enough, my least favourite moments aren’t when something goes wrong or the weather is bad. In those situations I just keep telling myself, ‘All this shall pass and before I know it, I’ll be in a hot shower, soft bed, etc and wishing I was still out here’.
My least favourite moments have been when I’m on a monotonous fire trail, slogging along unrelenting, and knowing there’s still another 25 km of the same terrain to go. Needless to say, I avoid trips with a road bash like that!
How does the hiking community support women?
There are lots of different ways that women can get into hiking and bushwalking and I would recommend finding a club to get started. There is a reason that many women’s only adventure groups have emerged in the past 10 years. I believe one of these is because women haven’t felt welcomed or been able to learn at their own pace. There are certainly some traditional gender biases around outdoor leaders or navigators being men or some who like to set a pace that doesn’t allow for people building their hike fitness appropriately, so I encourage women to find the group that’s right for them and not to be put off if you don’t succeed first go.
Interestingly, the early days of the bushwalking ‘movement’ in Australia, saw the emergence of powerful and forthright women such as Marie Byles and Dot Butler. Incredibly fit, tenacious, smart and savvy people, who didn’t let traditional roles stop them from spending time exploring and having wild adventures in the bush.
What’s your advice for women thinking about taking up hiking?
Be gentle with yourself. If you need to build your fitness (as well as your gear) be strategic and work at a pace and plan that is right for you.
What would you say to women considering a career in the outdoor adventure industry?
All across Australia, there are outdoor adventure and travel providers who are desperate for guides right now, 2021. When COVID-19 closed outdoor education, tourism and recreation businesses, many guides (who were casuals) sort other employment and switched out of a career in the outdoors. From guides at the coal face to training, administration, hospitality and land management, there are roles to suit a variety of people.
There is a lot of work to be done in the area of creating a national award for pay and conditions of guides and whilst a career in the outdoor adventure industry doesn’t pay the big bucks (in fact, it’s miserably low), the rewards in seeing lives positively impacted and having a view from your ‘office’ that changes every minute, are incalculable.
Getting back to How to Navigate, aren’t topographic maps obsolete given the rise of apps and digital navigation?
Although most state government mapping services are moving to be fully digital in the next year or so, topographic maps will be (some already are) available for download and printing at home. This means that the ability to keep the old skills alive is in our hands. Apps and digital navigation are helpful for speeding things up or clarifying your location, but one of the main reasons we venture into wild places is to switch off technology and become present.
What are the keys to learning and understanding traditional navigation?
Don’t rush. It’s easy to want to jump in and rush to find an answer to a particular navigation question, or rely on our ‘hunch’ and ‘inbuilt sense of direction’, rather than slowing down and making planned, deliberate and measured decisions.
Take one step at a time. First, learn to read and interpret a topographic map (no compass required), along with reading ‘map to ground’, which is where you see the 2D landforms from the printed map, in real life, in the landforms around you. Then learn how to use a compass, followed by how to plan a route, before finally putting it all together in actually navigating, which starts with what I call, ‘putting on your NavHead’.
Practice, practice, practice. Take supportive people with you who will not ‘take over’ when you’re trying to learn, but allow you the time and space to go at your own learning pace.
What’s the best way to improve your traditional navigational skills (aka #tradnav)?
Learning the skills is one thing (and there are some things you just need to learn by heart), but reinforcing it regularly by practising in the field is essential. Apart from going out bushwalking or hiking (particularly off-track once you gain some confidence), getting involved in the sports of rogaining or orienteering will certainly help bed down your knowledge.
Read more about Caro and learn how to navigate at Lotsafreshair