Map reading: how not to get lost in a forest


Source – Rich Moffitt (Flickr Creative Commons)

Today’s guest post is from Simon Shanks – an experienced runner, hillwalker and graduate of  Royal Marines Commando Training!

Are you a keen hill-walker? Do you carry a map and compass with you?  Most importantly,  do you know how to use them?

Or do you always go out with someone more experienced? Too many people don’t know how to navigate and are happy to let someone else do it, but just how good is that ‘someone else’? What happens if you get separated, if they have exaggerated their abilities, or something happens to them?  If you want to improve your map reading skills, check out these useful tips for easy navigation!


Apps or Maps? 

With the advances in technology, there is now more than one way of navigating. We have gone beyond the global positioning systems (GPS), which give a simple grid reference, to satellite mapping systems, to applications on our phones, which will show your location on a map to within 1 metre.

Smartphones are great, they are extremely accurate, the apps are no more expensive than an equivalent Ordnance Survey (O.S.) map of that area, but what happens when the battery runs out? It is no secret that smartphones need charging regularly and a mapping app uses a phenomenal amount of battery life. I’ve used them and have never known them to last the whole day.

A serious situation can develop if you check your phone and it is completely flat, by which time you have no idea where you are. Not only that, now you can’t phone for help.

There are ways to re-charge them on the hill, from emergency “one-use” plug-ins, to portable devices that can charge your phone about 10 times from flat. (These are about the size of an iPad mini).


O.S. Maps

Traditional map reading (by this I mean a compass and O.S. map) takes concentration and a skill which needs developing if you are to avoid becoming navigationally embarrassed.

People try to avoid navigating because they don’t know how/it’s too energy intensive/ they would rather talk to friends, catch up, have a laugh; and rightly so, as hill walking is a social thing too.

The more you need to navigate, i.e. difficult terrain, poor weather, wet and cold, tired and fed up, the less people do it. It is very easy to put your hood up, hands in pockets and stumble on, desperate to get off the hill. And the map may be at the bottom of your bag, instead of inside that handy map pocket, in your jacket! This is why a map and compass must be easy to reach.

I spoke to a very experienced Mountain Guide who believes almost all hill walking incidents start with a failure to map read. In the wrong place, lost, too close to a cliff, taking longer than expected….fatigue sets in. All these things mean having a fall becomes more likely or simply just ending up out all night.


 Stick to the Roads!

Another method people use to find their way about is by following paths, hopefully it’s the right one, and surely this will take me to the top, or back to my car! Fingers crossed it’s not part of a completely different route. Some hills have different paths leading off in many directions. Once in cloud, you will not be able to see which one is correct.

I made a mistake once before in terrible conditions on top of Ben Cruachan some years ago. This is a huge hill, which is basically a circular bowl. How could I go wrong? Climb up one side, walk round the ridge, back down the other………except halfway round there is a track junction marked by a pile of stones. I went right, but should have gone left.

After 20 minutes of going downhill I realised something was wrong and checked the map as the descent was unexpected. I turned around and had 40 minutes going back uphill to where I left the correct path. Not good for morale in driving rain and wind.

My preferred option is to know how to read a map. However, I also keep a garmin sat-nav in my rucksack with spare batteries. I can then turn it on, get a grid reference, turn it off. It’s purely for reassurance. 

If you do wish to step forward in your group a bit more, then practice map reading in an area you know, take a bearing, practicing your pacing (how else will you know how far you have walked?). Plot some points on a map, short distances apart, walk between them, make them blatantly obvious, road junctions, buildings, etc.

Then make them further apart, harder to find; a contour line, or stream junction. By making the distances between the points initially small, there is less room for error.

Joining walking groups can develop your skills as well as your social life!

Learning to map read will give you a great sense of achievement, and confidence in your abilities. 

SportPursuit readers, what are your best tips for not getting lost when out exploring?

Twitter: @simonshanks1975

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