North up or track up?

I was reading through an article on pilotage [Wikipedia] in the December AOPA Pilot. In general, I found the article enjoyable, but one thing stuck out like a wart — the author’s assumption that people should always read a chart track up (with the chart rotated for the direction they’re heading) rather than north up.

I have no objection to the suggestion that people try using a chart track up, but frequent claim that it’s easier — and some pundits’ and instructors’ insistence that it’s the only proper way — grates a bit. In informal surveys on aviation mailing lists, I’ve found people split about 50:50 between north up and track up, and I suspect that it has to do with how different people’s brains work, something along the lines of left-handedness and right-handedness.

Personally, if I’m flying west, my mind already pictures me flying right to left, so it’s by far easier to hold the chart north up so that it lines up with what I’m seeing in my head. Track up would be a double annoyance, since (1) I’d have to rotate everything in my head, and (2) all the text on the chart might be sideways or upside down. Likewise, when I’m walking, cycling, or driving around a city, I think of myself as heading northwest, south, etc. — I never memorize a trip as a series of left or right turns. I imagine that people who do navigate that way probably also find track up easier.

So if you fly, hike, boat, or whatever, do you prefer to hold your charts (or set your GPS display) north up or track up? Why? If you’re an instructor (aviation, seach-and-rescue, orienteering, etc.), have your students generally found one or the other easier? Has anyone every done a proper scientific study?

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15 Responses to North up or track up?

  1. Paul Tomblin says:

    Track-up. I learnt to do it that way as a champion orienteer (Ontario champion and 4th in the North American championships in my age class), and I continued to do it that way as a canoer, backpacker and pilot.

    It just makes more sense that if you look ahead of you and then down at the map, the things to your left out the window are to your left on the map, and the things to the right out the window are also to your right on the map.

  2. Tim says:

    North up for paper maps. I dislike rotating the map around. I like being able to read all of the text without it being upside-down. When I go somewhere and back the map looks the same both directions. I found when trying to use a paper map track up that map looked so much different upside down that it was difficult to become “familiar” with the route. Everything just makes more sense to me North up. When I’m traveling on a 90 degree heading I know anything below my pencil line should be outside the window.

    When looking at a map track up, different headings become a little more difficult to determine. When ATC says “turn right to 270” it takes my brain slightly more time to “view” 270 on the map. If the map is held North up I know exactly where 270 is all of the time.

    So for me track up always leaves ambiguity… you need to know that one more piece of information (heading) to tell which way anything is on the map. North up takes out that ambiguity… left is always west, bottom is always south and you don’t need to look at the printed text to figure out which way is up.

    I totally agree that this is one of those things where it depends how your brain is wired. What I’ve said works best for me based on how I know my brain to work.

  3. Jeff says:

    North up. My PPL instructor insisted on track up, which caused me all sorts of problems.

  4. nec Timide says:

    Track up for real time nav (flying, driving, paddling, or flying and driving while searching) because what I see out the window should match what I see on the chart or GPS. North up for big picture strategic planning, or when navigating for certain pilot who always manage to turn when I’ve got my head in the cockpit which makes track up a bit moot.

    My abinitio instructors strongly recommended track up for charts though they didn’t use that term GPSs not existing at the time. I think you should use whatever lets you get safely down range with the minimum amount of helmet fire.

  5. Rob says:

    North up.

    I find it very distracting to have the moving map rotating while changing heading. I suspect that if the refresh rate were as fluid as the DG then I wouldn’t find it so distracting.

  6. Ed says:

    North up mostly.

    But occasionally I’d use track up when trying to match up ground features with map features.

  7. As already mentioned, track up for navigation, north up for the big picture. I have to sit up close to the controls and find that map reading is impractical. During my training, however, when a GPS wasn’t in the picture, I found track up was handy when looking out the window.

    Today I have the GPS show track up unless it’s zoomed out quite a bit and I have a print out from Jeppesen FlightStar that shows the whole flight on one page, north up. So I guess my answer is really both.


  8. Mongo says:

    I think there are two schools of thought as you say. It’s almost a religious difference. At one time I thought that “track up” people were less experienced with maps. Then I met a couple of very experienced CFIs who are “track up” types. So, there went that theory.

    I’m a “north up” guy and don’t understand the track up people, but they don’t understand me either. I believe you’re right, that it points to some pretty fundamental thing in the way the brain handled spatial relationships.

    I think about the world in a north up way, not a track up way. Geez, that would change all the time! Very confusing.

  9. Flyin Dutchman says:

    We have had this discussion in the plane in regards to the IHAS unit. Most people have it on Track Up because its easier for them to get the picture of where they are I guess.

    Personally with the EFIS nav displaying track up it makes sense when flying especially on a GPS approach. Doing a GPS approach with North Up would take some getting used to but once I was used to it I am sure I would argue its the only way 🙂

    I leave the IHAS with North Up because to me it represents a planning screen for me as I can zoom out to 2000 NM and when I am flight planning I don’t move the chart to track up when drawing lines on it. The IHAS also shows TCAS traffic so it might take an extra second to figure out where the plane is but the IHAS displays an iconic airplane so if its off the right wing tip then that’s where I will look.

    But if your a North Up guy David flying with EFIS Nav displays would convert you in at least the flying portion 🙂


  10. randall ga says:

    Since I was a kid I have been looking at maps, always north up. That is the way I view the world and when flying I always have the chart north up. The one time I tried track up I couldn’t stand it. The only time I rotate the chart is briefly in the mountains, to help identify specific peaks and valleys directly ahead on my route. When I bought my plane the first thing I had to figure out was to program the GPS moving map to display north up rather than track up. I have been training for IFR and the same goes for approach plates. I agree with Mongo that this is a religious issue.

  11. randall g says:

    D’oh, name should have been randall g

  12. sylvia says:

    Haha! This is a major source of contention between my boyfriend and me. He’s a north-up sorta guy, I find it difficult to cope unless it’s track up.

    I’ve become used to the GPS set up for North Up (it’s too much of a pain to reset it every time we switch) but I can’t stand not rotating the map to match my track — I find myself twisting my head into unnatural positions when I try to hold it north up.

  13. Arnold says:

    Track up.

    I don’t think it’s so much a matter of how one’s brain is wired.
    I think it has more to do with two other factors:
    -Where you fly
    -What you use the map for.

    If you fly mostly on coastal areas, it doesn’t really matter as much, there just isn’t much of a navigational challenge. If you leave in California and you can see the ocean, you know you’re looking Southwest and it all makes sense in one sweep of the eye.

    Try that in certain parts of the midwest…

    Pure contact navigation, if you aren’t using a “moving-map” device, just isn’t effective with a north-up map. It is much better when the picture out the window matches what you see on the map (right on the right, left on the left as opposed to “up is left… or is it just kind of left”).
    If you find yourself in unfamiliar territory and terrain looks the same in every direction, the only way to figure it out is by finding landmarks and their relative positions.
    But if you hold the map north up, their relative positions will all be very confusing (unless you happen to be heading north). Otherwise, good luck trying to untie that knot.

    I once was flying with student who got lost that way on a 150NM trip which was severe visual.
    He was holding the map North Up and confused a city that should be on the left of a road with one that was on the right… when I turned the map track up, voila, he found himself real quick.

    You can’t perform contact navigation by just “looking at the big picture” if you know what I mean.

    I was pleased when the airlines adopted track up on the EFIS, that definitely makes more sense to me.

  14. david says:

    Arnold: I’ve done a lot of my flying through northern Ontario and Quebec, where there’s nothing to see but trees, hills, uncharted twisty logging roads, and small lakes as far as the horizon (by contrast, farmland like the U.S. midwest with its roads, railroads, powerlines, streams, and towns is a piece of cake). For me, north-up is still easier.

    As an experiment, I tried holding my chart track-up on a recent flight that couldn’t have been easier (following a big river eastwards), and I still got confused about where exactly I was along the river until I turned my chart north-up — then it quickly became obvious to me which bay, towns, and islands were which. Maybe with more practice I could learn to navigate track-up, but it hardly seems worth it when north-up already works well for me.

    How about this: when you’re flying somewhere that pilotage is easy (such as along the sea coast or lakeshore) then it might not matter what approach you use. When you’re flying somewhere that pilotage is more difficult (featureless farmland, forest, etc.) it’s much more important to use the technique that works best for the way your brain is wired — in your student’s case (and yours, I’ll guess), the right approach was clearly track-up.

  15. John Cowan says:

    Disclaimer: I am not a pilot. I don’t even drive.

    I am fundamentally a track-up person; when holding a map, I always orient it track-up. Unfortunately, I’m not that helpful as a navigator, except on foot, because I tend to say left when I mean right and vice versa, and east when I mean west and vice versa. (I think these concepts are linked in my slightly defective brain.)

    When navigating for my wife (who does drive, and has flown but not in many years) I say “my side” and “your side”, which I seem to consistently get right; these also avoid the homonymy between “right” (opposite of left) and “right” (correct).

    In Englisn and French, we usually use relative (track-up) location references to describe our personal space: we say something is ahead or behind, to the left or to the right of us, and likewise that person A is on the left of person B. In Hawaiian and Navajo, however, absolute directions are used: someone in Hilo or Tuba City is north or west of you, at least when speaking in the native language. There are also languages where the basic spatial directions are things like “upriver” and “downriver”, which are absolute directions but not oriented to the compass.

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