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Navigation: A day to learn, a lifetime to master

David LinternEver been lost on a hill? Last week, David Lintern found himself with Mountaineering Scotland.

“I’d have thought you Walkhighlands guys would have your navigation all sorted, no?” said Steve, with a bit of a twinkle in his eye. We were walking in on the approach to Ben Donich, a popular Corbett above the Rest and Be Thankful, and our training ground for a one-day navigation course provided by the Mountaineering Scotland.

Steve was only teasing, but he probably had a point. I do OK I suppose, but I can’t pretend for a minute I’ve got it licked. To be honest, I’ve been getting away with murder for well over 2 decades. Most of the time it’s fine, of course… but then there’s the times it hasn’t been. I’ve had a few close shaves over the years, both at home and abroad – 1 or 2 of which I’ve been very lucky to escape with only a bruised ego.

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I’ve become more careful in recent years, and increasingly aware that my navigation skills needed some attention.

The lay of the land

Our day began with an hour or so of coffee, biscuits and introductions, whilst poring over maps and compasses. Hill-going is (thankfully) a broad church, and everyone is welcome – an experienced runner, a recent veteran of the Cape Wrath Trail, confirmed hill baggers and never-done-a-Munro newbies, as well as those inbetween. In common with other Mountaineering Scotland (MS) events I’ve attended, it’s a friendly and enthusiastic bunch of like-minded people, all up for a bit of a challenge and eager to learn. Heather Morning, the MS Safety Adviser who coordinates these events, tells me there’s often a high percentage of female attendees on navigation courses, too.

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We are not on the hill as yet, but it’s time well spent – there’s plenty to learn for everyone. For me personally, I own 3 compasses but none have proper Romer scales on, so it was good to remind myself just how useful these are for calculating distance. For others, it meant learning how to give and take a grid reference. Either way, a little desk time meant everyone began from a similar place. One thing is guaranteed on a navigation course – no one gets left behind!

Later, we reconvened at the Rest and Be Thankful, along with the midges. Unsurprising then that we were soon marching along the forestry track towards the eastern ridge of Ben Donich. Pacing, taking bearings and timing were practised on the way. There was plenty of scotch mist above 600m – perfect weather for a Nav course. As the cloud closed in, the classroom theory came into play for real. This was knolly, uneven terrain that required our full concentration. On the return leg, fissures appeared at our feet and the odd section of wet rock loomed out of the cloud for us to scramble over. It’s to the credit of the course leaders that the learning takes place in sometimes challenging, real world conditions – it means learning is embedded properly, because it’s applied. As a one time teacher myself, I have no end of respect for those who take this style of learning by doing – sometimes called ‘experiential’ in the trade – beyond the classroom and into a mobile environment. After the first few legs of pacing on our own bearings to a common landmark or contour feature, we noticed the group began to tighten up. Clearly, it’s working!

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Missing Links

My own aim for the day was to demystify: Was I overcomplicating things? Why did some of this still feel like witchcraft?! I was fairly sure I had the general idea, but I knew I was a bit sloppy, a bit plot and bash – what I really needed to do was to formalise things. By lunchtime, I realised that while I’d been taking rough bearings on linear features and using slope aspect to calculate my position for years, I’d not been consciously thinking about it! For my money, that conscious decision-making process is crucial: Pulling the techniques apart step by step may have made me more confident in my ability and experience, but over the course of the day it also made my calculations far more accurate.

Other pieces of my own navigation jigsaw puzzle began to make more sense as a whole, too. I finally linked Naismith’s Rule with how many steps I take in 100m – a measurement I’d never bothered to do accurately – but which takes both pacing and understanding of the grid mapping system to another level entirely.

It was also great to practise using tiny features and ring contours to break up legs of the route – things that in the past I might have ignored as too small for my numerically dyslexic brain to deal with. That really helped cement the fact that this was equally about careful observation and common sense.

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Our approach route to the summit was over uneven and occasionally steep ground, which raised the topic of ‘missing’ contours. At first glance it’s easy to see these areas on the map as being flat, but as Heather pointed out, Mountain Rescue deal with more casualties in areas which are so steep that all the contour lines aren’t recorded on the maps.

Recapping at the end of the day, everyone had different take home lessons, which is as it should be. As the saying goes – your mileage may vary – but everyone went away with something new and useful to them.

Tools of the trade

The MS recently ran a news item which discussed a link between increased Mountain Rescue callouts and the use of GPS in the hills. Fairly predictably, it met with some misunderstanding in the media and a few kneejerk comments online, mostly because people hadn’t read beyond the headlines. Beyond the huffing and puffing, what the piece actually pointed to was a connection between the cognitive load involved in calculating our own position, and the development of spatial memory. In other words – those using map and compass become more mentally engaged with the lay of the land, whereas those who solely use electronic devices are less involved. Another example – Inuit people are seeing an increase in young skidoo users needing emergency rescue, because they are reliant on GPS and don’t have the same ability as their forebears in reading the ice.

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It’s a shame the piece was dumbed down with a badly written BBC headline, because it’s incredibly interesting psychologically. For me on the day, there was the added irony of showing up a few minutes late to a one-day navigation course, because my phone-based Sat Nav failed to lock onto the postcode for the Arrochar Mountain Rescue centre!

… I wish I was making it up. Then again, a map and a compass are technology too. Just as a GPS can fail or run out of power, a map can get blown away in high winds and a compass can be subject to reverse polarity. But if good technique is the efficient use of tools, why limit ourselves to one or the other on the hill? Why not have ALL the tools in the toolkit available to us?

For Safety Adviser Heather Morning, keeping people safe in the mountains is a lifetime’s work. Far from being a Luddite, she has 17 years of Mountain Rescue experience and uses GPS regularly in that scenario, as well as for climbing and guiding in the Skye Cuillin (where compasses are unreliable due to magnetic rock) and for ski touring, which makes judging time on descents particularly tricky. She also advocates registering your phone with the Emergency SMS service. It’s also worth considering one of the smartphone apps available (some are free and/or will give a grid reference without paying for the map tiles) which will give a grid reference position. This is useful as a last resort in bad weather or just as a confidence booster… but the important thing is a grid reference puts us back into the map, not into the device, which means we are then back engaging with how map relates to ground and vice versa – not relying on a machine to do the whole job for us.

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So, the advice isn’t ‘don’t use a GPS’, but rather ‘equip yourself with the skills to stay safe’. Map and compass skills improve our own self-reliance and self-confidence in the mountains. They are also relatively simple to learn but need to be executed with care, and as such are another aspect of hill-going that can give great satisfaction. Perhaps the question is: Why wouldn’t we want to learn?

7 key ways to improve your navigation.

1. Learn to ‘set’, or orientate the map. This will make identifying features out there in the real world a whole lot easier.
2. Break up the route into several shorter stages, or legs – especially if the weather is bad.
3. Know your own pace, and pace yourself when needed.
4. Be familiar with Naismith’s Rule. This works in conjunction with pacing to help you break down the route and know your location.
5. Learn to take an accurate bearing. Break the job down into a) direction of travel, b) setting the baseplate c) orientating the compass so north is aligned.
6. Learn to take a back bearing to confirm that your descent from a ring contour (for example a summit) is on target.
7. Working out a ‘Slope Aspect’ can help you narrow down your location.

Mountaineering Scotland runs one-day mountain navigation courses, and also courses specifically for Walkhighlands’ members announced on this site, which include a free year’s membership of Mountaineering Scotland and are a great way of meeting up with other forum users. This summer is now fully booked, so look out for more courses in 2017 and be quick to book!

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Walking can be dangerous and is done entirely at your own risk. Information is provided free of charge; it is each walker's responsibility to check it and navigate using a map and compass.