Navigation along the National Trail is by using the NT maps and route notes. It is not possible to follow the Trail without NT maps.
The Trail is marked with distinctive red and yellow striped triangles attached to trees and posts along the way. These are intended to provide occasional confirmation that you are indeed on the correct route. It is not possible to follow the Trail using markers alone.
The information below aids prospective trekkers planning a trip.
There are still some Guidebooks available but these are due to be phased out as Maps and tracklines will become the standard.
NT Trail Markers
It is not possible to follow the route of the NT with markers alone. The purpose of the yellow and red striped NT trail markers is to provide occasional confirmation that you are on the correct route. They have been erected by the volunteers who have established and maintain the trail. Users are expected to navigate the route primarily by the notes and maps in the Guidebooks rather than rely solely on the trail markers. However, it is intended that markers confirm a route decision in sections of the trail where the amount of detail required is beyond the scope of the guidebook.
Trail users should be aware there are various styles of marker on the trail, however all have the distinctive triangular shape and are yellow and red in colour. Some markers are from the original National Horse Trail and some are earlier renditions of our present marker. Users should also be aware that markers can be damaged, vandalised, burnt in bushfires, removed, washed away in floods and otherwise defaced! Your Guidebook contains the navigation notes you need.
Supplementary Topographic Maps
Although the maps in the Guidebooks should be quite sufficient to navigate the Trail, some trekkers feel comfortable with supplementary topographic maps. Usually the 1:100,000 scale maps provide sufficient detail whilst covering a large area. On a short section, 1:25,000 scale might be useful for the increased level of detail they provide. For a long trek, the number and cost of 1:25,000 scale maps would preclude their use. The best scale for trekking is about 1:50,000. One NT trekker described the 1:100,000 scale maps as her “Safety Net” and used them to find her way around problems, to explore areas and visit towns off the trail.
In some states, Queensland in particular, paper topographic maps are becoming increasingly difficult to find as more people rely on web and GPS based mapping solutions. The downside of this for trekkers is the need to carry electronic equipment that both adds weight and needs to be charged!
Map and Compass Skills
We strongly recommend that trekkers be proficient at navigating using a topographic map and compass!
You should be able to follow a bearing using a compass as some of the Guidebooks require you to do this where no natural or manmade features to define the trail. If you get yourself ‘bushed’ (lost) on one of these legs, you must be able to navigate on a ‘back bearing’ using the compass to backtrack your way out.
All these skills must be learnt and practiced at home before venturing onto the NT.
We have a guide to the basics of compass skills – Basic map and compass navigation.
Geoscience Australia’s Map Reading Guide is a well written basic guide to navigating with map and compass and can often be obtained from camping and outdoor shops. The booklet is very moderately priced (only a couple of dollars) and comes with a plastic tool (romer) to assist in estimating grid references on topographic maps. A search of the web should find an online copy to download.
By far the most suitable type of compass for use on the NT is a “baseplate” compass made by companies such as Silva and Suunto. Features to look for when selecting a compass include easy to read markings and scales on the edges that match the maps you will be using (1:100,000 , 1:25,000 and possibly 1:50,000). Don’t skimp when purchasing your compass as a poor quality model will cause you no end of grief long after the joy of the money saved has passed. Overseas visitors should purchase their compass in Australia to ensure that they get a model adjusted to work in Australia’s magnetic declination zone.
Prismatic compasses allow the user to take very accurate bearings and come into their own when navigating cross country on a bearing. They have a sight that allows you to pinpoint a feature whilst reading the bearing (through a prism) off the compass card at the same time. However, they are very expensive, difficult to find and bulkier than the baseplate compasses. Second hand ones (usually ex army of World War 2 vintage) regularly show up on Internet auctions but be careful to avoid cheap copies (usually in a nice shiny new brass case).
Global Positioning System (GPS) units have now matured to the point that they could be considered a useful navigation aid on the NT. A GPS should never be relied on as the primary navigation aid – a place rightly belonging to your skills, the guidebooks, topographic maps and compass. Modern GPS units now have vastly improved performance under tree cover, improved battery life and are much more affordable with good entry level units costing around $320 Australian. The down sides are that a GPS is another bit of gear to carry, needs to be fed batteries and needs knowledge and skills to be useful.
For a GPS to be useful, you need to be able to relate it’s display to topographic maps. This means that you must be able to use six figure grid references on topographic maps, determine the map’s datum, set the GPS to the same datum and set the GPS to display UTM (Universal Transverse Mercator – the grid and grid references used on topographic maps).
Please don’t be put of by any of the jargon or thought of having to learn something new. It is all surprisingly easy to learn – especially when you get out in your local patch and have a go.
Two other handy features on GPS units are waypoints and tracks. A waypoint is the location of a point of interest such as a gate or other point on the trail where you need to change direction. The ability to enter a waypoint’s location into the GPS and navigate to it is a handy feature you can use to confirm where you think you are on the topographic map. The other handy feature is the ability for the GPS to record a track and then allow you to ‘backtrack’ it if you need to retrace your steps. This is very useful in places where navigation is difficult or features difficult to find. Your GPS may be unused most of the trip and only dragged out for these types of situations. Like maps and compasses, you need to learn the skills at home before venturing out on the NT.
At the moment we don’t have kmz files available for download. We are currently working on this, and will let you know if they become available.
Mapping and navigation apps for mobile phones and tablets are becoming increasingly sophisticated and may be suitable for shorter treks. We don’t recommend you rely on them as your only form of navigation for long distance treks.
Maps can be carried in a number of ways. Some people prefer to spread all their maps out then roll them up and carry them in a piece of 90 millimetre plastic plumbing pipe with caps on each end (one glued on and one screw cap). This can be carried on the top of your pack saddle. Other people carry just the map currently in use in a transparent map bag available from camping and bushwalking stores. Your NT Guidebook and baseplate compass can be carried in the same package and kept handy for use during the day.
GPS units and Prismatic compasses can be carried in one of the small bags intended for digital or compact cameras. They come in a wide variety of sizes and are available from a camera shop or department store. They are padded, have a belt loop, can be used with a shoulder strap if preferred with some models having a compartment for spare batteries. If you select a slightly larger size and in addition to your compass you can carry your mobile phone, a basic first aid and emergency kit (multi-tool, fire starters, gas lighter, muesli bars, cord etc.) on your belt at all times.
If you use a GPS, you should always carry a spare set of charged batteries. Trekkers on the NT should consider a solar battery charger and rechargeable batteries. They can be even more useful if all your battery powered items use the same size batteries.