How to Become a Better Navigator

black toy car on world map paper

My husband loves maps. His nickname from his long motorcycle journey days is Map Boy. He would rather have an old-fashioned map spread out on his truck dashboard than use GPS.

I take no pride in telling you that I have been lost about a billion times. On long trips. In my own city. Walking from a hotel and back in a strange town, if it wasn’t a straight line. I know how to read a map but I don’t care to if I can help it. Somehow, I managed to learn most of the streets in the city of Toronto when I was doing live traffic reports in the 90s. Mostly because I didn’t have a choice.

However, even though we are a stereotypical couple when it comes to how we navigate – he does it well, I’m happy to let GPS order me around – researchers say being a good navigator has nothing to do with one’s gender. It’s more about need and whether you’ve had to develop the skills, like I did at MIX 999 for my traffic reports.

And therein lies the problem. My reliance on GPS means I’ll never develop a better sense of direction. Derek will sometimes use GPS but he’ll argue with it and sometimes refuse to do what it says. For him, it’s satisfying to get somewhere via his wits and skills. I’d rather save my brain power and let technology do the work for me. But phone batteries can run out, and there are a couple of spots nearby where satelitte service cuts out. There have been several cases around the world of people driving into concrete barriers or plunging into lakes while following faulty GPS instructions. Nothing’s foolproof.

Too Dependent on Tech

One expert tells the BBC that, partly because of GPS, we’ve lost the abiity to see clues around us that could help us navigate. Staying aware of due north, noticing the sun’s position in the sky, taking note of the terrain are all things that could help us know where we are and which direction to go. Navigation skills can improve, they say, but you have to be willing to experience not knowing where you are. Few people will do that anymore.

In high school, our gym teacher took us to her farm to send us into the woods to practice orienteering. Armed with a map and compasses, we’d look for little flags that told us we were on the right trail. We collected markers and followed flags until, frozen and hungry, we returned to her house and received a grade for our efforts. I did well, but I attribute that to the fear of getting a low mark more than trying to become a good navigator.

Researchers say it’s a myth that women are worse navigators than men. It’s about opportunity. If you only drive back and forth from home to work, those skills won’t develop. But if you portage a canoe into deep woods to camp and fish with your buddies, you’ll get plenty of chances to figure out which way the lake is.

Anthropology research suggests that in more gender-egalitarian societies, gender differences in navigation ability vanish. One relevant study, from 2019, concerns the Mbendjele BaYaka people in the Republic of Congo, who hunt and gather food in the rainforest without using tools like maps or compasses. Research participants were very accurate overall in tests of pointing accuracy, with no differences between men and women. The scientists attributed this to the similar distances travelled (and spatial experience gained) by women and men in this society.

Even simply taking the time to look for landmarks instead of totally trusting GPS directions can help your brain “map” the area. That is, if you want to. Or maybe you’re more like me and happy to offload this job to someone or something who cares more about it: my husband or my GPS.

10 thoughts on “How to Become a Better Navigator”

  1. Before I lost my sight I was an excellent navigator either via experience or a map and now being blind those skills have come in very handy when getting around Toronto or elsewhere. Excluding construction, that’s HELL!

    You should try it some time.

  2. I definitely have a navigation impairment. I don’t have dyslexia, but when it comes to travelling, it’s the exact word to describe the way my mind works while out on the road. When I am a passenger in the car of people who know me well, if I say to turn right, they know to turn left. My husband is like Derek. He swears that Google maps is sending him on a wild goose chase, and his GPS has no idea what it’s talking about most of the time, and yet, he does use it for every trip into unknown territory.

  3. Cheryl Downs-Dileo

    A receptionist at a place I worked at used to transfer calls to me to give people directions your office. 😆

  4. I am like you Lisa!! My husband just knows which way to go like magic, so I let him. I just don’t get it! When on my own I need GPS. Before that technology I used a Perly’s map book we had in the car. Very old school. LOL

  5. I can read a map, but it isn’t practical for modern solo driving anymore. The more I go somewhere, the better I am at remembering it – but now I use Google or Waze for most driving. I work in a medical office and the amount of people that come in without any clue as to where they are going, or what they are here for is staggering. Men and women, young and old.

    1. It’s so baffling until it happens to you! When our family doctor moved I missed an appointment because I “couldn’t” find her new office and I was so frustrated, I went home! I felt embarrassed. But her directions stunk. People who give directions should not be so familiar with a place that they think it’s super obvious. *End rant* 😊

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