The global spread of the coronavirus is disrupting travel. Stay up to date on the science behind the outbreak>>

Natural navigation: an expert reveals how to read the weather on your next trip

The only living person to have both flown solo and sailed single-handed across the Atlantic, Tristan Gooley is an expert at interpreting nature's signs for navigation. Here he reveals his secrets for reading weather, from warning clouds to cooling trees.

Published 14 May 2021, 17:28 BST
Author and explorer Tristan Gooley has pioneered a renaissance in the art of natural navigation over the ...

Author and explorer Tristan Gooley has pioneered a renaissance in the art of natural navigation over the course of his career, which has included expeditions in five continents.

Photograph by Jim Holden

As a boy, Tristan couldn’t wait to scramble up a hill to see what was at the top. This scaled up as a teen to climbing Kilimanjaro, then, in his twenties, he graduated to flying single-handed over oceans. Since then, Tristan has navigated in the world’s remotest places — learning lessons from the likes of the Tuareg, Bedouin and Dayak peoples — and become a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and the Royal Institute of Navigation.

“Natural navigation, rather than being a series of quick tricks, is actually a very deep, rich and wonderful subject. Everything outdoors is a potential clue or sign,” says Tristan. Over the past decade, his books have outlined his philosophy on natural navigation — be it navigating by land, by water or, as is the case in his new book, The Secret World of Weather, using meteorological clues.

The Secret World of Weather: How to Read Signs in Every Cloud, Breeze, Hill, Street, Plant, Animal and Dewdrop is published by Hodder & Stoughton (RRP: £20 hardback).

Photograph by Hodder & Stoughton

“There was this sort of happy explosion in my brain where all the things I’m passionate about came together,” Tristan says. “I suddenly realised that mainstream meteorology — an incredible science, led by amazing pioneers — is pretty misleading and generalised. What we learn from weather forecasts is often what’s going on 100ft above your head, and what you might experience will be different for a person standing even 50 yards away. It’s the blandest form of weather reading. If you go outside for even a three-minute walk, I guarantee you’ll experience at least half-a-dozen different winds! So now, for me, it’s all about the using knowledge of weather patterns and your local terrain to navigate and predict for yourself what’s coming.”

And it’s something, Tristan argues, that can be practised wherever you are. “Weather changes are most noticeable where two different landscapes or environments meet each other. It could be sea to land, or smaller differences like open ground to woodland. The things that excite me about weather and survival underpin our species. You can meet a stranger wherever you go in the world, and if you talk about food, shelter, weather — nature’s clues and signs — we’ll have these things in common; we’ve all evolved to find them and use them.”

These are skills many of us have been, often unwittingly, rediscovering during lockdown: learning to use elements of natural navigation to explore our local areas more deeply, to slow down and get more from each repetitive walk. “It’s free, it’s available to everybody and you don’t even need to go outside. You can study clouds from your window, and you’ll learn that each change has a story.”

Tristan Gooley's new book is the latest in a series of acclaimed titles including The Natural Navigator (2010), How to Read Water (2016), How to Read Nature (2017) and Wild Signs and Star Paths (2018). A collection of his writings was published in 2020. 

Photograph by Tristan Gooley

Tristan’s top four navigation tips for walkers, campers and outdoors enthusiasts
 

1. Utilise trees for warmth or breeze

On a sunny but cold day, use trees to keep warm. A tree acts as a roof overhead, stopping heat from escaping upwards. Stay within sunshine, but under a tree, and you’ll feel a dramatic temperature difference. I’ve remained warm like that in near-zero temperatures for 20 minutes or more. Choose a tree on the edge of woodland to gain shelter from wind. 

If you find yourself out on a sunny day that’s too hot, seek shelter under an isolated tree. Wind is forced around objects like trees and accelerates while doing so. So, if you’re in an open field that’s too hot to picnic, set up camp under a solo tree to gain shade and a breeze.

2. Spot rain makers

Rain showers occur more often over towns or dense, dark woodland than in open countryside. These areas are rain-makers: they heat up more quickly, sending columns of warm air into the atmosphere, creating clouds and rain showers. For this reason, you’ll find more clouds over land than sea or large bodies of water. Pacific Islanders use the clouds over islands as signposts. Stand just downwind of water to avoid clouds.

3. Beware halos

This is a fairly well-known weather-predicting sign. If clouds change from cirrus (wispy tail-like clouds) to cirrostratus (thin, white clouds covering the whole sky like a veil), rain is likely later. These faint clouds can be hard to see in the sky but are very distinctive — and beautiful — over the sun or moon, where they appear to form a halo. There’s a Native American saying: ‘When the sun goes into its tipi, rain is coming.’ 

4. Avoid eddies

In an urban setting, if clouds are moving left to right overhead, pollution will be worse on the side the clouds are coming from because eddies of wind will push it against buildings and funnel it back towards you. Weather forecasts can predict wind but not eddies, as they’re too localised. This is exaggerated in big cities like Manhattan where you also get wind gaps, where wind is funnelled between tall buildings, a bit like when you hold your thumb over the end of hose.

More information about Tristan Gooley's work can be found at naturalnavigator.com

Find us on social media

Facebook | Instagram | Twitter

Read More

Explore Nat Geo

  • Animals
  • Environment
  • History & Culture
  • Science
  • Travel
  • Photography
  • Space
  • Adventure
  • Video

About us

Subscribe

  • Magazines
  • Newsletter
  • Disney+

Follow us

Copyright © 1996-2015 National Geographic Society. Copyright © 2015-2016 National Geographic Partners, LLC. All rights reserved