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I have a terrible sense of direction and frequently struggle to know which way to head when I exit an underground station. I can use the map on my phone of course (though there are some places this wouldn’t be safe), and if it’s not nighttime or cloudy, the position of the sun helps, but I’m often 90 degrees or more out in my reckoning.

What tactics can I adopt to help me orient myself for my ongoing travel (on foot)?

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    If there’s a map inside the station this really helps. Often though, there are several exits, some distance apart, and labelled only by the name of a nearby street (which could be a cross-street, parallel street, or not even that nearby) – user13190 Feb 11 at 7:42
  • 14
    I think the answer will depend on the city. In some systems, there are detailed neighbourhood maps inside the station, showing the position (and orientation) of each of the exits, and they have numbers or letters assigned to them. In other cities, this may be less frequent. – jcaron Feb 11 at 7:50
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    Is there a reason you ask specifically for after exiting? I usually emerge, orient myself, and only then I realize I have used an exit which is 500 m farther from my goal than the one I could have optimally taken, if I had known that underground. – rumtscho Feb 12 at 14:22
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    Head straight to the nearest pub. Sit and have a pint. When suitably relaxed, look up the pub on your mobile and compare where it is in relation to the station to get your bearings. – Andy G Feb 15 at 11:27

13 Answers 13

56

I have the same issue, especially in China, where the subway stations are big, often crowded, where map apps don't work well, and I can't read any street signs.

  1. Compass app on the phone is really helpful. If you generally know which direction you need to go, a compass will quickly point you in the right direction and it typically gets a quicker lock than a mapping app does.
  2. Offline map on the phone: very helpful if data is not available or spotty. You may need to walk for a block before the GPS gets a good lock on direction. If you do, make sure you walk straight and remember where the sub way station was. Availability depends on country, though.
  3. You may be able to look up a map of the subway station up front. Exits are either labelled (e.g. "C2") or are named after the local streets they exit into.
  4. Remember your destination with respect to the sub way arrival direction. Count the number of turns (90Left,90Right,180) on your way out. You can also try starting with a finger pointing in the target direction and adjust every time you turn. Looks a bit silly, but it's easier than trying to count and it can be done discreetly.
  5. Look at the route up front in a place with good connectivity (hotel). Check for easy to spot landmarks. Tall buildings, major attractions that are likely to show up on signage or that you can ask for. Check for anything recognizable on the way (park, special building, major intersection, bridge, etc.)
  6. Have the address of your destination in the local language on your phone, preferably in large print. You can always ask for directions by shoving this in front of a passers by. I found that most people in pretty much every country will be happy to help you out.
  7. Have a safe way to return to known ground if all else fails. For example: business card of the hotel or office that you can show to a taxi driver and some amount of local cash to pay for it.
  • 29
    How about carrying an old fashioned compass? There are tiny ones you can stick on your watch strap, key fob models and of course the high end kind which you might already own when you travel. – Willeke Feb 11 at 17:10
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    4. is really key. I learned it while visiting Japan and now do it in smaller cities like my hometown. Just a good way to generally orient oneself in/out of buildings – Jeffrey supports Monica Feb 11 at 20:13
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    Compasses are unreliable in city environments. There are too many magnetic objects around. A smartphone compass in particular will usually need calibration after emerging from a metro station. Luckily that's easy to do, but I found that in practice it is necessary to be cautious when using a smartphone compass for this purpose ... – Szabolcs Feb 12 at 15:57
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    Why would offline map depend on the country? Openstreetmap and GNSS are both worldwide. – gerrit Feb 13 at 8:51
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    I've never noticed a compass to be unreliable in the city. Certainly not enough that you won't be able to tell whether this is the north entrance or the west entrance. Any magnetic or metallic object would have to be extremely large or powerful to have a significant effect unless you are standing next to it. So basically don't rest your compass on top of a substation and I think you will probably be fine. – Eric Nolan Feb 13 at 9:52
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Before you arrive download the city in google maps (or your preferred application), when you are in the station the GPS isn't reliable so you just want to know the street you want to end up on when you leave the station.

I get where you are coming from with the safety aspect. Most pickpockets or snatch and grabs are opportunistic. For them to steal your stuff they need 3 things. 1) to identify a target. 2) to actually grab your stuff 3) run away to somewhere you wont find them. You want to avoid looking at your map/phone where all 3 of these are a possibility. Personally I like walking into a shop, check my map, make a mental note of the next stage in my journey (I need to exit on xyz street, go right, walk for 5 intersections) and put it away again. If I need to check it again I'll find another shop or something similar.

This way; I don't look like a lost tourist, just a guy on his phone. People in the station will be less likely to identify me as a tourist while I'm looking at the map. It's harder to get away in the shop, thieves like several options to run to, lanes, crowds etc.

If I can't find a shop I'll duck into a doorway and try to look like something just on his phone.

12

Here is an answer from a Londoner who does not have a smartphone.

I go about this by memorising in advance the key features of the immediate vicinity of the station, using this version of OpenStreetMap (because it has the correct colour scheme for roads in the UK, unlike the default version) or a London A-Z paper map.

I start by identifying the main road(s) in the immediate vicinity. For example, at Baker Street station,

OpenStreetMap tile showing vicinity of Baker Street station

the biggest main road is Marylebone Road. It is, in fact, a primary route, so its directional road signs (e.g.: "Central London, 1"; "A41(N)") will have a green background (a proper map should reflect that in the way it colours the roads). But so are parts of Baker Street (the road) and Gloucester Place. So, I cannot rely on green-background destination signs alone. However, you can see that, as well as being smaller roads, Baker Street (the road) and Gloucester Place are one-way streets, so that enables me to distinguish them from Marylebone Road.

Let us say, for the sake of argument, that I am going to St Marylebone Parish Church. I would orientate myself as follows:

  1. Upon exiting the station, find Marylebone Road (it is pretty obvious);
  2. Look for any features which are not rotationally symmetrical -- for example, there is a smaller one-way road running parallel to Marylebone Road on the north side, going in the direction I want;
  3. Memorise a couple of side-roads in the wrong direction, which are Baker Street (the road) followed by Gloucester Place -- if I find myself going past those side-roads in that order, I simply turn around 180˚;
  4. Memorise the side-roads and other landmarks near my destination, which would be Nottingham Place (same side of Marylebone Road as the church) and the Royal Academy of Music (on the opposite side of Marylebone Road); and
  5. Memorise a couple of side-roads or landmarks near Baker Street station which are in the direction I want, noting which side of the main road they are, which would be Allsop Place (on the way to my destination, but I need to cross the main road at some point), Chiltern Street (same side of the main road as my destination, and opposite that one-way parallel road I mentioned under §2 above), and Luxborough Street (same side of the main road as my destination, and on the way to my destination).

Written like that, it seems like a lot to memorise, so you may want to be a bit more selective in what you consciously try and memorise (do not underestimate your unconscious memory -- it can soak up many clues). Just ensure you have enough cues so that you can quickly and easily correct yourself if you start going the wrong way at any point. A brief memorisation for orientation purposes might run:

follow Marylebone Road (biggest road), in the direction of traffic on the parallel one-way street outside the station, then passing Allsop Place and not Baker Street (the station's namesake)

Ultimately, orientation is a skill best developed by making mistakes and recovering from them successfully using cues in your local environment. I have happily navigated my way from underground stations in cities as diverse as New York and Stockholm without resorting to technology, nor even asking for directions (ironically, the one city where I have had to ask for directions is in the country where I live, the UK... specifically, Edinburgh).

  • A lot of London is made particularly easy by the "Legible London" totems which are strategically places and have a map of the surrounding area on. The map is oriented based on the direction you face to read it too. These are often placed near exits to stations. – thosphor Feb 15 at 13:17
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A useful trick for orienting yourself in urban areas is to look for satellite dishes on buildings. In the northern hemisphere, these will point south. In the southern hemisphere, they will point north.

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    Yes and no. In the UK, for example, the position of the main satellite broadcaster's satellite is such that dishes here tend to point south-east, not south. Countries with multiple broadcasters may have a greater range of dish directions - though as you imply, those in the northern hemisphere will always point in a broadly southerly direction (and northerly for the southern hemisphere). And if you're in the tropics, dishes could point east, west or straight up! – Steve Melnikoff Feb 12 at 16:32
  • Do they have drainage holes? – nigel222 Feb 12 at 18:56
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    That's a very cute urban equivalent of tree moss. – gerrit Feb 13 at 8:54
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    With wireless links now everywhere, this is getting harder: their parabolic dishes look very similar, but can point in literally any direction (as they're pointed at another parabolic dish in a similar location, not a geosynchronous satellite). – Piskvor Feb 15 at 14:13
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Usually subway stations have numbered or lettered exits and a map of the surrounding area before you exit the station itself (though perhaps outside the fare-paid area). They will show major landmarks and typically the exits may also tell you major destinations (such as hospitals, markets etc.). It's relatively safe and low-stress to look at the map within the station, compare it with your destination and with major streets and confidently head out of the station in what you think is the correct direction. Sometimes the cell phone and/or GPS won't work within the station but if you have offline maps enabled you should be able to orient yourself.

For example, when I arrive at my usual hotel in Shenzhen, I know to exit the station from the C2 exit and make a hairpin turn back along Honggui Road. Sometimes you can find online maps of the subway stations, but not in that particular case.

I usually double-check after a couple of blocks, when I'm separated from anyone that might have been looking for clueless visitors exiting a subway station, just in case I'm turned around and walking in the incorrect direction.

The worst situation, in my experience, is when the subway station is part of a retail complex and you don't have a clearly defined path to the exits. I've run into those in China and I think Mexico City, and in both cases, I was totally disoriented by the time I reached the street. There's not a lot you can do but walk until you find some intersection with understandable street markings or landmark to orient yourself.

The other thing to keep in mind is that if things look too threatening outside, you can always retreat back into the station. I've done that twice- in Washington DC and in Seoul Korea (there was an active riot in the second case).

I'm not so confident about getting a taxi as a back-up- in some places, especially if it's rush hour, raining or you look foreign or the taxi drivers are looking for only long haul fares, you may have a bad time with that. If you can get the equivalent of an Uber (Taxify, Grab, etc) things may go more smoothly.

Of course if you have a phone with a working SIM card and access to Google Maps, you can just follow the phone and it will correct you if you're walking in the wrong direction. Usually a block or two in the wrong directly isn't a huge deal. If you don't have a VPN set up before you go to, say, China, that may not be so easy.

5

Almost every London Underground station has "You are here" maps on the wall, usually near the ticket machines.

Multi-exit stations have each exit marked or labelled differently, and clearly marked on the map.

Old Street ticket hall

4

On the London Underground at stations with multiple exits, they are often described (for example) "Oxford Street (North), Regent Street (West)." You will emerge close to the intersection of those two major roads, North of Oxford Street and West of Regent Street. But how to know which road is which, if you aren't familiar with London?

Bus routes can provide a clue, as can the maps on bus stops. If the nearest bus stop serves buses running from West to East, you are on the North side of Oxford street (London - we drive on the left). If it serves buses running South-North, you are on the West side of Regent Street. If you know a little London geography, the destinations on the front and rear of the buses themselves will suffice.

As for smartphone/ personal security: you can buy a nominally smart phone for sub-£40 which can orient you via GPS. I suspect you don't even need a SIM in it for the GPS-compass function to work, although you do of course need data connectivity to use Google maps. (Another £10 or thereabouts, for a month, pre-pay no contract). It's not expensive enough to worry about somebody stealing it, and street-robbers will probably recognise a crappiphone not worth stealing. An ancient smartphone bought at a Cash Converters or similar place is another even cheaper option.

Or -- what about a magnetic compass key-ring bauble? They aren't terribly accurate but they ought to let you know the difference between North and West when it's raining.

3

Well, anyone can get disoriented. But it's a lot easier when you have an inherent love of maps, and a desire to be well connected to the physical world as it is.

I wasn't born with a sense of orienteering. Though it is a human ability to become good at it, because when all the countryside looks alike, it's useful to know how to get back to your clan's village and stay out of the other clan's territory.

If anything, relying on other humans or Siri for navigating has blunted our senses. A lot, and especially with airplanes, places are just things we "teleport" between, we go place-???-place and nobody cares about the ??? bit.


The most important thing about map-loving is to work big. Don't even bother trying to love maps on a phone, not even a tablet, and not those horrible pages-in-a-binder Thomas Guides, those are for people who already know the lay of the land, and just need a reference for the details. You need the big old fold-out maps and the space to spread 'em out. AAA (in US, AA in UK) gives out free maps to members, and if all the maps of your metropolitan area are the same scale, you can even puzzle-fit them up on a wall for a super-map!

A map of London ought to be a staple. So you spend some time poring over the map, going out and experiencing London, looking back at the map to reconcile what you saw, round and round as a matter of habit. After a little experience, it all starts registering. You know which side of the river you're on, you recognize major roads, you look down the road and see downtown or a feature you recognize, or the way three streets intersect.

If you want to see more detail than the map can tell you, then you fire up assets like your phone maps, or Google Earth on a PC.

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Extracting your smartphone from your bags then staring at a compass or map app is the best way to look lost and get your smartphone stolen.

When you exit an underground station you have a good idea of where you are, but you don't know the direction, so all you need at first is a compass.

Solution: Some suitcases have an integrated compass in the handle.

enter image description here

While it might not be the best compass ever, it is certainly precise enough to tell you whether you should start walking along this street or that perpendicular one.

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In New York, and some other places at least, you will find Neighborhood Maps such as

http://web.mta.info/maps/neighborhoods/mn/M11_midtown_2015.pdf

That show you exactly where you will emerge from a given exit.

  • The neighborhood map can, however, be difficult to find. Not every exit has one. – phoog Feb 12 at 12:45
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Most smart phones have an option to rotate the map display based on the internal compass so the map orientation matches the location. iPhone and most Android phones have this capability. NoGPS signal is required. Google for how to accomplish this.

If there is no cell connection there are map apps that will pre-download the map data for a city or country.

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This is what I do after arriving by underground to a place I've never been before: I have offline maps on my phone for the city, and I've added boookmarks at home already: airport, underground station, hotel, conference location etc. I choose a random exit and go up. I get a GPS fix. I add a bookmark to the map on my phone to my current location. I walk 100 m in a random direction. I add a bookmark to the map on my phone to my current location. I look at the 2 bookmarks I've added, I look at the map, I look at the landmarks nearby, thus I get oriented.

When I return to the same underground station, chances are that I'll be using a different entrance. Before walking down, I get a GPS fix and add a bookmark to the map on my phone.

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You can use Citymapper which in advance shows you the best exit for your destination. You can view it offline or take a screenshot and follow their directions. They also indicate which train carriage is best to use for your preferred exit.

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