My longtime personal path in learning navigation has included land, celestial and natural navigational techniques.
iPhone 12 with GaiaGPS, Caltopo & Avenza Maps
Garm eTrex 20 GPS with waypoints loaded
Icelandic Spar Sun Stone
I also used several natural navigation techniques to help orient myself while on my 3 day, 50 mile hike:
The first celestial body I used extensively was the sun. Since we were walking north to south, we were able to use the sun. Since we were right below the arctic circle, the sun was low in the sky but was a nice southernly beacon as noon approached. I also made custom laminated sun & moon angle cards to supplement times other than noon.
One tool I carried specifically for Iceland was Icelandic spar aka Viking sunstone. Since Iceland often had foggy or overcast days, sunstones were used for maritime navigation between the islands. All you need is a small patch of blue sky and the optical and polarizing qualities of the rock will indicate the direction of the sun.
The soil was primarily volcanic in nature but still offered a variety of colors. In the beginning of our hike the mountains were especially colorful. As the days went on and we passed between the glaciers near the newly formed volcanos Móði and Magni, the soil took on a brown/blackish color indicating recent volcanic activity.
Two large glaciers flanked the trail giving us spectacular views. These were helpful visible handrails that helped reassure us that we were heading in the right direction. Also, while hiking between the two glaciers, we encountered a very visible microclimate that included snow, fog and low winds. There were navigational cairns and pylons that indicated the path and footprints in the snow which also served as trail indicators.
We crossed several rivers that were good waypoint checks as we hiked. A couple of times it was uncertain where we needed to cross and just looked for footprints from previous hikers. Considering we didn’t see any bodies floating downstream we accepted that it was a safe place to cross.
One very unexpected river navigational aid was partying Icelanders but I will save that for the sound section.
Leaving the plane and entering customs you quickly notice that Iceland has an interesting smell of clean air and volcanic dust, kind of a sharp earthy smell. Being an island of geothermal activity gave us some great clues on using smell.
During the first day of the hike there is a section that was marked on the map as a geothermal area and to use caution.
After several miles we smelled the section long before even seeing the thermal off gassing. It had a very pungent sulphur smell that was very unique.
Speaking of waterfalls, as we finished the trail we could often hear the waterfalls but not see them very well. A heavy fog had settled in giving us limited visibility.
Sound was also very confusing while hiking between the glaciers as the fog layer distorted peoples voices and the direction that it was coming from.
One unusual sound we encountered before being seen was a group of locals partying along a river. Before seeing the river we could hear them having fun and carrying on. Surprisingly they offered no help in determining which spot on the river to cross considering it was a very cold and deep crossing that came up your to upper thighs. Perhaps there was a language barrier.
The winds in Iceland are notorious especially when an Arctic low slams into the island.
We had an incredible weather window that gave us almost no wind, with the exception of one short hour wind gust on top of a plateau.
Overall, Iceland had several unique geographical features that provided a nice natural confirmation to my electronic/land navigation tools and orientation. It’s not every hike that you get geothermal activity, newly formed volcanoes and massive waterfalls.
Thanks goes to Harold Gatty & Tristan Gooley, two of may favorite authors on the subject.
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