How To – Read a Dakar Road Book


At Off Road Skills, How To… is kinda what we do. Our entire team is made up of folk who love teaching as much as they love riding. Reading a road book is a subject close to the heart of our founder, Dakar Rally veteran Simon Pavey. So when we run the GS Challenge and GS Trophy events each year, there’s always some rally navigation flavour to be found, putting to practice all the skills Brake Magazine covers



Road book navigation is one the most unique parts of the Dakar Rally. Everything revolves around that scroll of paper. The beauty of the Dakar is that it relies so heavily on this primitive form of navigation. It’s a rider’s best friend for the whole event and without it you are royally screwed. You’ll never find the way, you’ll never see the dangerous pitfalls of the desert coming and you’d having nothing fun to colour in during the evenings of the event.

The road book in Dakar is special because it is incredibly primitive yet effective. The freedom of the modern age has allowed us to be almost anywhere on the planet and use a GPS. It’ll tell you where you are, where you’ve been and quite likely where to go. You can know anything and everything at any time. With a road book you know nothing more than the exact track you’re on, if you’re still on the correct path. When you go the wrong way you are utterly lost. We don’t mean the type of lost where you can still see civilization, where there may be a small village over the hill type lost. We mean they type of lost where, if a man wandered out of nowhere and handed you a world map you wouldn’t have the faintest idea where you were, are, or might be. That is bloody awesome. It’s not often we find ourselves that lost in life.

The beauty of races like Dakar is that the GPS is primarily a tool for the organisers to check you aren’t speeding, breaking the rules and to keep track of you should anything negative happen. It does have some function to the rider, but only works within 800m or 3km of a waypoint depending on the type of terrain. That is because on most of the piste based terrain you don’t need it.

The Cockpit of the Bikes

Understanding the basics of navigating in Dakar is made easier by understanding the cockpit of a bike. See the image below for a general outline. Most bikes are set up in a similar way to this. The actual brand of equipment may vary but the principle is the same.

To view the images click on the thumbnail.

The Methodology

The reading of a road book is the same as that of a comic book. You read the boxes across the row before moving to the row below. The distance marked in the first box is how far you have travelled in total distance from the start of the section in KM’s. Inside the first box we have two smaller boxes.

The bottom left is the instruction number, ie it’s the 44th instruction. The bottom right is the distance from the previous command. The first of the small boxes is most often used when making changes to the road book. There are often alterations that must be manually added due to changes in the route or hazards that have appeared since the road book was first written.

The middle box is a “not to scale” drawing of the scene in front of you. It is important to understand that this could look like anything when you arrive. The scale of the drawing is immensely flexible. In boxes where instructions are a long way apart they will often descibe the distance between two landmarks for reference.

The drawing always comprises of an arrow that starts from the bottom of the box and works upward. That is the direction you are travelling in and need to head toward. This direction is often supplemented by a compass heading written like this – C 10˚. This is degrees on the compass and provided by one of the trip meters. It is used to make sure you choose the correct track or as the direction of travel in off piste sections.

In all the boxes there are additional instructions. Most of the main drawings are self-explanatory. If it looks like a bump, it is a bump. If a road crosses the drawing you will cross a road.

On each arrow there is a is a thin line that intersects from the bottom right. This the exact point at which the distance was measured.

The rest of the information in the middle box is supplementary and normally describes the terrain. Even with an English road book, a large portion of the information is in French and the abbreviations are best learnt. There is a cheat sheet in the images below.

The third box is used for additional information to supplement the middle box. Often, you get bitesized pieces of information about the lie of the land, including warnings about stones, holes, ruts, sand, trees, the ease or difficulty of seeing the next track, the up or downhill nature of the ground, the danger and the size of obstacles. There is rarely something missing.

To view the images click on the thumbnail.

The Marking

Road book marking is the stuff of legends. Most of us will have seen the images of riders sat down with marker pens, scribbling away on their road books until they look like a five year olds’ art project. It’s a tradition that has been around for a long time in Rally Raid and its origins are unclear. But why? Why do they colour so furiously?

There are three main reasons riders scribble all over their road books.

Reason Number One.
To make the notes easier to read. The black on white and small notes are tough to read whilst trying not to blow your brains out. It genuinely does help parts stand out and draws your eye into instructions that are especially important, danger markers, speed zones, the direction of travel etc. A lot of riders also make other pieces of information like gradient markers bigger.

Reason Number Two.
You remember key parts. Now this may sound ridiculous when a stage is 500km long and we’re not suggesting you remember every instruction but you do remember a surprising amount of key points. It allows you to develop a good idea of areas that are dangers or sections where the nav may be complicated. For the top riders who arrive early and are well organised, they spend hours and hours studying the road book each night. It’s utterly imperative to how they ride blind terrain so fast. They rely on the road book, their marking systems and remembering the key parts well.

Reason Number Three.
Everyone else does. A large part of the spread of the colouring is merely because all the other racers do it.

At some point in most people’s rally riding career they arrive at a point where marking the road book becomes secondary to eating, sleeping or having a working bike. When you arrive at the finish after dark no one cares any more. At that moment your road book goes unmarked and while it might feel weird you can still navigate perfectly well without the colours.

It’s also something entirely personal. Everyone has their preferred colours, their system and the items they choose to mark. Lots of the top riders make their road books look like a skittles adverts, others not so much. It also means you need to find your own system.

To view the images click on the thumbnail.

The Mistakes Commonly Made

There are a lot common of mistakes, all of which are easily made and easily repeatable when navigating by road book.

1. Getting lost.
At some point we all get lost. It’s guaranteed to happen and it’s nothing to be embarrassed about. Even the best in the world struggle to find the way on occasion. The key when you make a nav error is to admit it quickly and retrace your steps to the point you were last positive everything was correct. From there you can reset the trip and find the correct way.

The biggest mistake made is to convince yourself that the trail is definitely still matching the road book and continue far longer than you should. Again, even the best do this sometimes.

2. Riding too fast.
This is a sure fire way to make lots of navigation errors. It’s something you have to accept when riding navigation events but you can only ride so fast and still read the road book. Riding at the maximum of your ability uses immense brain power and this leaves no room to take in or retain information from the road book. Everyone, even the best guys are not riding the same speed they would in an enduro because it’s simply not possible. You need to find a speed where you can observe, take in and retain the road book detail without exploding into a million pieces.

3. Taking the diagrams too literally.
It’s easy when you’re learning, to interpret the drawings as literal, “to scale” images. They are not. They are the creators 2D, crappy interpretation of the trail at hand and you must treat them as such.

4. Lacking fitness or suffering dehydration.
Many of the mistakes that happen in Rally Raid are related to fitness levels. Riding tired is entirely possible. Lots of very good motorcycle riders are capable of riding very quickly when tired but the ability to navigate well and retain the information in the road book dissipates incredibly quickly. You quickly go from being able to remember three entire rows of information to not being able to decide what order the numbers should be. Retaining the KM of a note becomes nigh on impossible once tired and dehydrated, leading to mistakes and frustration.

Top Navigation Tips

There are lots of little tricks to picking up the art of navigation well. Here are our five:

1. Read Every Box – The key to not making mistakes is to actually read all the information in the box. Especially when learning you’ll make less errors and end up with better stage times. To achieve this you’ll also have to ride a bit slower than you want but that’ll be a good thing.

2. Remember Multiple Lines – Being able to read two or three lines of the road book is massively helpful for being smooth with your navigation, especially if the notes are very close together.

3. Don’t be afraid to trust yourself – Good navigation is about trusting yourself. If you’ve read all the information and think the route is a particular way then trust yourself. Someone having more experience doesn’t mean they are correct. Remember that if the road book isn’t matching the ground the chances are you’ve got it wrong too.

4. Slow down for danger markers – Danger Markers are in road books for a reason. So often people have big crashes or get hurt in big rallies on the danger markers because they didn’t trust them. If it’s a triple caution get on the brakes hard. Likewise, spectators often congregate at dangerous or tough obstacles so beware.

5. Drink and Eat – It sounds obvious but any lack of energy, caused by dehydration or hunger, will remove the ability you have to focus on the boxes of the road book or remember any of the other key information. Eat as often as you can, maybe an energy bar or energy gel while you’re riding, something at every fuel stop and drink plenty so you don’t get dehydrated.

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