Photo of Bluebell Woods in Sussex Photo of Bluebell Woods in Sussex

How to Navigate Using Snow Strips

As is my habit at this time of year, I like to get out early after any overnight snow. The tracking opportunities are spoiling and sure enough there were signs of all the usual suspects: fallow and roe deer, rabbits, grey squirrels, foxes, pheasants and many songbirds (see below for examples). But there was a surprise too in the number of badger tracks, I hadn’t expected to see so many of them so early in the year.

I also like to take the opportunity to do one of my favourite exercises, ‘the snow strip square’. This is a really simple natural navigation exercise but very satisfying.

All you need to do is spot how the wind has blown the snow onto one side of the trees creating dozens of ‘snow strips’. Now find a patch of the woods where you are free to roam away from paths or tracks, find an easy to identify start point and then:

  • Walk towards the snow strips for a hundred metres
  • Walk with the strips on your left for the same distance
  • Walk with them directly behind you for the same distance
  • Walk with them on your right for the same distance
Facing towards the snow strips (in this case looking close to SW).
Facing in the opposite direction (in this case close to NE).

As with all natural navigation, it is up to us how far we choose to walk (how long to make each side of our square) and the success of this simple exercise will depend on care and practice. But with a little of each it is very easy to find yourself within a few metres of where you started.

If we choose to, we can use other clues to identify and label the ‘compass’ direction of the snow strips. More often than not it is somewhere between North and East, since that is the most common direction for snow-bearing winds to come from. But it can in theory be from any side, so care is needed. However, one of the joys of the snow strip method is that it can be used for effective natural navigation without attaching a direction label to it.

The joyous thing about this little exercise is that near the end of the second leg, it is surprising how often you will feel you have reached the ‘wild’, even if you are not far from home. By which I mean that even over very short distances it is possible to get a sense that you have roamed beyond your immediate comfort zone. But by using the snow strip technique, you soon find yourself back within it. Not ‘lost’ and ‘found’ as such, but wild and home again.

PS. Obviously, this exercise is to be undertaken at your own risk. And there is some small risk involved – the greater the distance and the less you know about your surroundings, the greater the risk. If you don’t feel you can gauge that risk effectively, reduce the distances until you can or don’t embark.

Badger track in snow
Grey squirrel tracks in snow
Bird tracks in snow
Rabbit tracks in snow

You might also enjoy:

The Snow Shadow Compass

How to Make a Compass out of Sand, Snow or Dust

Snow Compasses and Avalanche Advice