Navigation: Leave Your Compass at Home and Use Handrails and Fences

An example of fences and handrails on a chart of the Apostles

Although it’s best to always have a compass with you, if you have a detailed chart or map, you don’t always need to use it when you’re navigating. If you use handrails, fences (also call catches) and checkpoints during the day, you needn’t check your compass often. Handrails and fences are techniques and features that do exactly what they sounds like they do; you follow a handrail and a fence keeps you in. A checkpoint is just like a checkpoint on a road or race. It’s a known point on the chart.

A handrail is a feature or landmark that leads towards your destination and one that you can follow or keep within sight. It can be manmade or natural. The most common in kayaking and canoeing is the shoreline. If you’ve followed the shore towards your destination before, you’ve followed a handrail. It doesn’t need to be the shoreline though. You could follow a chain of islands, for instance. In the image above, the two red arrows show two possible handrails, one in the West Channel following the mainland and one in the North Channel following the west shore of Madeline Island. Both channels are also handrails.

A fence or catch is a landmark that marks a point where you don’t want to go past and if you hit it, you’ll know that you’ve hit it. It should be a distinct and big enough that you’ll hit it even if you’re off in your navigation, such as using it to aim off. Examples include a long island, the shoreline, the opening of a bay, the end of an island, etc… You should identify fences on your map before leaving for the day and watch for them. If you reach a fence, you know you’ve gone too far, but, at least, you know where you’re at. In the above image, the double ended arrow between Bayfield and the southwestern point of Madeline Island is a fence. When you reach the narrowest point between the mainland and the island, you know that you’ve reached your fence.

Checkpoints are landmarks on your handrail that are easily identifiable on both the chart or map and in the field. When you pass a checkpoint, you know where you are. Any easily identifiable feature will work, such as points, islands, shoals, river mouths, cliffs, towns, etc. Checkpoints along the West Channel/mainland handrail include Red Cliff Bay at “A,” the light at “B” and the point at “C.” There are others.

Another feature that you can use is a funnel. A funnel consists of two or more fences or handrails that come together so that you’re funneled into a location. In the image above, West Channel and North Channel both funnel towards the fence.

Example of Finding and Using Handrails, Fences and Checkpoints

Before you set out for the day’s paddle — I like to do it the night before in the tent — you should look over your map or chart and find any potential handrails that you can use to get to your destination. Then identify fences along the way and to each side of your route, and then find prominent checkpoints along the route. You can mark these on the chart or make mental notes.

After you set off on the days paddle, as you follow your handrail, make notes as you pass your checkpoints. As you near your destination, watch for it, but if you miss it know that there’s a fence ahead to catch you. If you hit the fence, you know you need to change your plans.

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One comment

  • Great technique – I also used barriers point funnel and linear in tactical flying that I translate to kayaking.

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