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Collins Ultimate Navigation Manual, by Lyle Brotherton (a review)

Collins Ultimate Navigation Manual, by Lyle Brotherton [1]

I don’t normally refer to material without a direct New Zealand connection, but I’ve made an exception in this case. In my kiwi-centric world (at least on this website) I’m very interested in outdoor navigation. Globally the Collins Ultimate Navigation Manual by Lyle Brotherton is a highly recommended resource. I haven’t seen it on retail shelves in New Zealand, but it’s accessible fairly cheaply with an online order via an NZ web retailer such as Fishpond [2], although you’ll need to wait for the book to be mailed from the UK

I was excited when I first heard about this book. I’ve seen it informally referred to as something that resembles a complete and authoritative guide to navigation. The book itself doesn’t state this, but still claims via its preface to be “the most comprehensive and easy-to-use navigation manual ever made available”, and “a landmark in land navigation”.

More specifically, the book considers what its author refers to as “micronavigation”, which is essentially described as [my translation] the form of land navigation that involves connecting together short legs of movement through a terrestrial environment to successfully form a lengthier journey. In other words, it’s a guide to virtually all types and tricks of navigation that are normally required for finding one’s way through the back-country.

I don’t know my internationally renowned navigators very well, but with token research it’s easy to figure out that Lyle Brotherton is an established navigation expert of significant reputation, with a background that allows him the respect for authoring a book such as this. He has a strong involvement in Search and Rescue circles, and he clearly has much experience and many contacts to draw on when preparing his material. The book is prefaced by Sir Ranulph Fiennes [3] (a renowned British adventurer/explorer with a bunch of endurance-related achievements). It’s forwarded by David Whalley [4], a Scottish mountain rescue specialist.

For myself, I’m certainly not a world-renowned navigator, but I’ve spent considerable amounts of effort building qualifications in trying to learn about navigation through various means. I hope this will at least give me a worthwhile angle in offering a review.

About the book

The printed book was first published in 2011, and this is the edition which I reviewed. It has 365 pages of content. It’s heavy on colour, photographs with superimposed annotations and diagrams, and includes a few blank pages at the back labelled “notes” for people who like that sort of thing. It’s heavy for its size, so not well suited if you’re after a lightweight handbook for reference as a traveler.

Structurally the book is divided into four main sections, plus an appendix section. Section 1 covers “the essentials”, as an introduction to basics like maps, compasses, stars in the night sky, and so on. Section 2 covers “techniques”, and all of that section is devoted to a practical “lesson plan”, intended to be followed by the reader over four separate weekends for practicing practical skills in outdoor settings. Section 3 considers navigation in “special environments” (eg. mountainous areas, forested areas, arctic areas) and how to approach them, and Section 4 looks at “global navigation satellite systems and digital mapping”.

I’ve listed a more complete table of contents at the end of this review. The book, as a whole, is a major work that’s seen a high amount of commitment from both its author and from the publisher.

The book aims to be instructive, and the author advises that it should be followed from start to finish, without jumping or skipping sections. It aims to give everyone an opportunity to become “an outstanding navigator”, but this is only if you follow the rules.

Alongside publication of the book, the author provides a website [5], where interested readers can access additional material and discuss ideas in the forums, and also as a general publicity site for the author. Certain parts of the site already seem to have withered since the book’s 2011 publication. Most notably the author has politely stated that blogging is discontinued as it’s not his sort of thing [6], and it was mostly at request of the publisher anyway, but the discussion forums [7] still appear active.

The eBook edition

The Ultimate Navigation Manual is available in electronic form, but I’m not convinced of its worth. I’d recommend against it in a non-paper form without careful consideration. My first attempt to obtain this book was via my eBook reader (I use a relatively cheap black and white Kindle from Amazon). I’m glad I’d only downloaded the demo, because I’d have been disappointed if I’d paid money for it. The heavy use of photographic examples with detailed annotations, and other graphics, did not flow well in the electronic version. Colours and details of diagrams and maps translated badly to the pixelated grayscale shading of my eBook reader, and few of the annotations were rendered in any kind of visible form, even when attempting to use the cumbersome and limited zoom functionality that my e-reader provides.

If you plan to pay for this book in its electronic form, make sure you have a reader capable of high colour, good contrast, and high resolution, and also an ability to easily flip between pages. You’ll want to do these things a lot. You might also want to carry the book outside in the field, so consider things carefully before you plan to use a non-mobile device (such as a larger computer) as your main reader. A tablet might work. After my brief attempt with the eBook, I bought the real book online, and waited for the mail.

Good things

There are many things to like about this book. The diagrams and sample maps are precise. I noticed few, if any, glaring spelling mistakes or similar to distract from the topic, although other people have reported some in other reviews.

Its content is comprehensive, and it covers as much practical material about land navigation as I’ve come across anywhere. As I read through each section, with a description of each technique being described, there were multiple “ohhh, so that’s what it’s called” types of moments, when a navigation trick that I’d once picked up from a random person was given a formal name and a place amongst other techniques.

The book has a mostly clear structure from start to finish. It’s well divided into headings and boxed information. There’s a preference towards using bulleted and numbered lists rather than lengthy paragraphs. Consistent conventions are used for referencing. For example, terms and phrases which have a fuller explanation elsewhere in the book are styled in bold, and the book uses this convention consistently. All of this structure adds together towards making a genuine field manual, within which information can be located and relocated quickly.

The book, purely on its own, probably won’t turn you into a practical navigation expert (despite its claims) even if you follow the lesson plans in section 2. If you’re a complete navigation newbie, it’ll give you a very good idea of how much is involved with good navigation, beyond simply owning a GPS device and having it tell you were you are, and it will help you to identify techniques to practice. If you’re at more of an intermediate or expert level, the book will be a good check-list and reference manual to verify that you’re familiar with all of the common tips and tricks which can be used for obtaining location awareness and for finding one’s way.

It’s certainly added structure and labeling to my existing knowledge of land navigation techniques, which have otherwise been pieced together through a combination of practical and theoretical courses, self tuition, and and by visiting the outdoors with different groups of people who often have different perspectives, ideas and ways of doing things. Whether this structure and discipline lasts, for me, remains to be seen.

The reasons above are more than enough for me to recommend this book for anyone interested in terrestrial outdoor navigation. Despite the good sides, I did also come away with mixed feelings on what I thought of it.

Other things

A significant impression which I had of this book is that if it were genuinely a navigation guide book, it could have been written in half the length. As is, the book doesn’t seem to know exactly what it wants to be.

The title indicates that it’s a comprehensive manual of navigation. Internally, from the first chapter, the book refers to itself as a “field instruction manual”, and then declares that little or no theory will be covered. The blurb on the back speaks as if navigation and Search and Rescue are one-in-the-same thing, which I don’t personally think they are. At best, navigation is a skill that’s often used within SAR, but the book’s attitude is that there’s nothing unusual about referring to Search and Rescue frequently, often whilst leaving the topic of navigation behind.

For example, are ground-to-air emergency signals (page 355), to tell a helicopter pilot where to land, really part of navigation? It’s just one of many occasions in which the author has conveyed general safety, or bushcraft, advice, which doesn’t seem to directly relate to actual practical navigating or wayfinding at all. It’s great stuff for a more general outdoor skills or bushcraft book, and I can see it being relevant for people who have failed to navigate or struck some other problem and therefore need to be found and rescued, but in a navigation manual it caught me by surprise.

I was also asking myself, as someone generally interested in navigation techniques, if I really cared about the use of GNSS in Emergency Management (page 321). I found it academically curious and if I was deeply involved in SAR or Civil Defence, then I might have found it practical knowledge, but I also think that this sort of topic might have been better covered in a more specialist book, or booklet. I appreciate that knowledge can be translated between many different domains, but for me this type of material simply didn’t seem relevant for everyday navigation.

I’ve wondered if the author’s original intent had been to write a general book on everything, including all of what he thought could have helped the subjects of his search and rescue operations. Maybe the “Ultimate Navigation” title was applied afterwards so as to sell the book in a more obvious niche, and help it stand out from other more general outdoor-training books. Possibly the editing phase simply failed to separate and extinguish all of this other material.

The book also contains recurring pieces of superfluous information, which contribute to its length and would have been better edited out. For example, on page 352 the author emphasises how he spent months researching and obtaining permission to publish certain information. I appreciate the amount of effort that’s clearly been put in, being told this type of thing as part of the content is superfluous to the actual information, and contributes towards what I think is an unnecessary length.

References in the book, which are numerous, are also likely to date, so hopefully new editions will be published as required. In at least one case, I found a reference to the book’s own website which no longer works, after only 2 years since printing. (It’s on page 355, regarding pre-registration for SMS with emergency operators.)

As I read section 4—on GNSS and Digital Mapping—I came away thinking that, due to the amount of device-specific detail, large parts of the section were also gratuitous and at risk of dating unnecessarily quickly.

GNSS, mostly in the form of GPS receivers, is obviously a central component of today’s terrestrial navigation techniques. It should be covered, but my own view was that there was too much detail. It’s very well to discuss the general topics which are common in GNSS use, such as the use of waypoints, routes and tracks, but the section frequently reverted to something which seemed more like a device-specific procedural instruction manual.

I think some might claim that this style is consistent with the book’s intent to focus on practicality rather than theory, but I also think there can be such a thing as too much practical detail. For example, do we need to know that it’s important to delete old routes from the device (page 294), so that it doesn’t run out of space? How about several years from now, when the most popular devices might be engineered to make more efficient use of their available storage space such that routes don’t ever need to be deleted? It’s the type of information that might often be imparted from a teacher to their class, and maybe it has all been lifted from teaching notes. Putting it in a book, that could still be in circulation 20 years from publication, seems unnecessary and will limit the book’s relevance and usefulness in future.

As another example, it’s excellent advice that “proximity alarms” on GNSS devices (page 318) can be used to create virtual walls, or to mark specific locations of danger, but do we need to know the specific sequence of menus required to accomplish this on the author’s own device, which appears to be a Garmin GPSMAP 60CSx? In section 4, this type of device-specific instruction-manual-level detail was repeated in bulleted lists, over and over again, and contributes significantly to the length of the section and the length of the book. Most of this is unnecessary, and will be irrelevant for many readers either immediately or in the future. It’s the type of thing which readers should be obtaining from their own device’s manuals.

Impressions

From a selfish New Zealand perspective, I found that many of the examples were biased towards the northern hemisphere, particularly European countries and the USA, and the book sometimes refers to or recommends references and services which might not be available in New Zealand. This is understandable because, as well as being the origin of the book, it’s also likely to be where the largest retail market exists for the book.

The book is also a personal project on the part of the author. The author often reverts to the first person narrative, saying things like “I do this”, and “I have found that”. It’s very much in a form of a teacher speaking to his students, and it’s sometimes as if it’s the author’s own personal memoirs than an objective manual. He’s not above giving very specific recommendations, by brand and model, for equipment which he believes to be “the best” (such as for a compass on page 19). As with the procedural details for using GNSS particular devices, I think this will also cause the book to date more quickly than necessary, at least without masses of work for future editions.

I found the instructive and imperative “always do it this way” type of style to be a little irritating to read at times, especially in section 2 which is the main lesson section, where the author requires the reader to follow instructions exactly or risk not becoming a great navigator. My irritation might be because of cultural differences, or many I’m just a bad student, but if you’re coming with a background of at least some navigation experience then it might require effort to read past some parts of the book without feeling patronised.

mcgregorc_mike_navigating_20130331_155749 [8]
Fear and respect me, for my use of the
brace position clearly negates anything implied
by the hat I’m wearing.

Photo: Craig McGregor

My favourite example is the instruction to adopt the brace position, as standard practice, when using a map and compass (pages 96 to 97). According to the author, this isn’t just about creating a stable platform for taking precise bearings. It’s also about “signaling to others that you are working and should be left to get on with it”. I tried using the brace position recently, and I agree it was potentially useful, but I was also laughed at rather than given much respect due to the way I’d positioned myself. Craig thought it was funny and took a photo. Gareth was more interested in running ahead to the evening’s accommodation. Neither prevented me from getting on with whatever it was that I was doing, but they’d know through other means if they were!

I disagree with the way in which the Ultimate Navigation Manual has been portrayed by some as an authoritative guide. To me, an authoritative source is one that describes how an entire community or industry has decided to treat a subject. It should not include personal opinion unless there’s clear reason to believe that the majority agree with it. This book is valuable with its massive collection of knowledge, but I think the nature of how information is conveyed, and the many interspersions of personal opinion, rules out this book as an authoritative source.

Another minor issue I had, and this really may be just me, is that the book takes something which I normally see as fun (getting outdoors) and turns it into a serious exercise of military precision. In preparation for the book, there’s clearly been a photo shoot with one of the author’s navigation classes or Search and Rescue teams, or something of that nature. Wherever there’s a photo of a person operating a compass, or reading a map, or anything else, they are wearing black trousers and a two-tone dark red and black raincoat.

Even the photo of the man allegedly skydiving from 4.5km high (page 300, although we can’t see if he’s really free-falling due to the photographic angle) shows him to be wearing a two-tone dark red and black raincoat. Nobody is ever smiling, or showing the slightest indication of enjoyment. It’s as if navigation and being outdoors have nothing to do with enjoyment.

Conclusion

It seems strange to have described so many reservations, and yet I believe I could still say that this is the most usefully complete book on navigation that I’ve read so far. I hope I don’t put anyone off. Despite the issues I’ve indicated, I’d definitely rather have this book available as-is than not have it at all. I think I just reached the end in disappointment, as I think it could have been tuned a lot from an editing perspective… and shorter.

If you’re considering purchase of this book in the future, be mindful of its likeliness to date in the space of a few years if there’s no new edition, especially section 4 regarding GNSS, considering how rapidly technology changes. None of this invalidates a huge amount of useful content elsewhere in the book.

Enjoy.

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1 Comment To "Collins Ultimate Navigation Manual, by Lyle Brotherton (a review)"

#1 Comment By rossbrowne On 18 August, 2013 @ 12:56 pm

RT @izogi: Collins Ultimate Navigation Manual Review: I don’t normally refer to material without a direct New Zealand connec… [16]