When it comes to hillwalking, having the right skills is a key component of being adventure smart. And competent navigation in the hills is arguably one of the most important.
You might be a human TomTom but there’s always more to learn. And the good news is there’s no substitute for getting outside as much as possible to practise, practise and then practise some more.
If you are just starting out then map and compass skills can appear somewhat as a dark art. And I’d recommend anyone new to navigation spends a day with someone who knows what they are doing to learn the basics: how to set the map; how to relate the features on the map to what’s on the ground; how to use a compass; get a feeling for timings and pacing.
Successful navigators use a variety of techniques to suit the particular scenario. Combining different skills to back up your gut instinct tends to keep you moving in the right direction.
I was lucky to be taught the basics of navigation at school. But it’s not until recently that I’ve sat down to consider what were the major lightbulb moments for me when it comes to finding your way. Those little nuggets that make all the basic theory just click into place. That Luke Skywalker moment when he’s flying down the channel on the Death Star and puts his guidance computer away and uses the Force to feel his way to the target.
That’s what this article’s about. My top tips to make navigation feel less of a chore and more of a pleasure.
You’ll miss vital clues if you have your head stuck in the map the whole time.
In Ben Fogle’s excellent book about conquering Everest, he encourages us all to look up.
Reading this advice took me back to being 14 years old. Stopping for a quick snack in the woods near Tarn Hows on my bronze practice expedition for DofE. I was determined not to get lost, and had spent the morning walking along with my head buried in the map following every twist and turn.
I’ll never forget the advice from one of the older students who I respected. He told me simply to look around more. Plan a short leg on the map, make a mental note of what you expect to see but then don’t forget to look up.
The map will make so much more sense when you observe your surroundings. And besides, think about those incredible views you’ll miss if you spend your walks looking down at a piece of paper.
Beware of the lines
We are lucky in this country to have incredible mapping available for our mountainous regions. And if you love the outdoors, chances are you get a kick out of poring over maps when you are away from the hills too.
When I first started hillwalking, I was taught that the dotted and dashed lines on an OS map (green on 1:25,000 and pink on 1:50,000) indicate public rights of way. So far so good. But it took me a little longer to appreciate that just because there’s a clear right of way shown on the map doesn’t mean you’ll trip over a defined path on the ground.
Beware of blindly seeking out what looks like a solid footpath or bridleway on the map. Tracks can peter out, particularly in the less frequented areas, and you’ll need to call on other techniques (such as taking bearings) to get you to your destination safely.
Contours put a lot of people off. And I must admit to giving them nothing more than a passing glance when I first started out.
But contours are perhaps the most useful tool available to the navigator, particularly in featureless terrain. I used to think of contours as simply showing me the steepness of the ground. Closer together means steeper ground. And that much is true. But use them to paint a three-dimensional picture of the land and a whole new world opens up.
If you find this difficult with a 1:25,000 map, check out the 1:40,000 Harvey mountain maps. Using those really helped me to appreciate the shape of different landscapes and gave me a new perspective when navigating.
I’m not a huge fan of technology on the hill. I’ve had too many calls with the IT helpdesk in previous office jobs to want to rely on electronics when the mist descends and the wind picks up.
But that’s not to say you can’t take advantage of technology before you leave. I could spend hours on Google Earth, and it’s a great resource to check whether that path which looks so obvious on the map could be the same on the ground. You can see many places in 3D too, which gives you a feel for the shape of the land you expect to see before you leave home.
I’m also a huge fan of books. I tend not to take guidebooks on the hill with me, preferring to rely on map and compass. But I’ll always read around my route before setting off.
Guidebooks aren’t just there to give you little snippets of wisdom to impress your mates with. They provide background information about the routes that maps cannot. Like which ways might be quieter. Or which may look deceptively tricky but aren’t quite as frightening when you get up close. Doing your research also makes sure you don’t inadvertently stroll into an accident blackspot without being forewarned.
A word of caution about guidebooks – they quickly become out of date. Much of my walking is done in the Lake District and I’ll always reach for the relevant chapter in Wainwright’s Pictorial Guides. But remember the original text dates back to the middle of last century, so check the advice surrounding routes is up to date.
A good example of this concerns Lord’s Rake on Scafell. A classic and thrilling scramble, it was out of action for many years due to a large chockstone which had become wedged at the top of the rake. This came crashing down a few years ago and I’d largely assumed Lord’s Rake was open for business once more. But I’ve recently bought Mark Richards’ excellent Fellranger guide for Wasdale, which is about the most current guidebook I’ve found. He describes the various ascents of the fells and expressly excludes Lord’s Rake as an option for Scafell. ‘Extremely dangerous’ are the words he uses. So remember it pays to have this information before assuming the classic routes are there for the taking.