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The right tools for the job…

The image above shows Three Points of the Compass navigating on the Brecon Beacons in 2012. As the mist rolls in, it pays to be sure of where I am and where I am going, taking the time to take a compass bearing on soon to be lost in the mist features is of immense benefit, possibly even life saving. To be safe on the hills, at least three things are required…

Map and compass

oh yes, and knowing how to use both. That, in essence, is it. I know that GPS and mobile mapping aps are taking over the World but I still believe they are a complement, not the answer. Batteries fail, electronics get water logged, GPS’s get nicked (when was the last time someone stole your compass?). I am no great map reader, it is a skill I continue to develop. There are some great websites and YouTube clips that can really explain not only the basics but the more complicated stuff too. If you wanted to, and I don’t, you can even sign up and join one of the ‘in the field’ training sessions that take place across the country. That last point raises a crucial matter, in the field experience. I continue to make the occasional mistake when map reading, but importantly I also try and learn from said mistakes. The time to make errors is when it doesn’t really matter too much, when safety is not really an issue. Make the mistakes then and the lessons learnt mean that you (or more importantly, I) can stay safe when it DOES matter.

So what do I use?

It is very rare that I go for any walk at all, even a two mile jaunt around the local countryside, when I don’t carry a map. Also, I refer to it. A map in the pack is great to pull out when lost, but not much use if you haven’t been keeping track of where you are on it . And yes, I do know that a GPS would be a damn useful piece of kit to have in such an eventuality.

A quick check on location. Hadrian's Wall, April 2014

A quick check on location. Hadrian’s Wall, April 2014. Yep, wall is on the right

I attempt to always be aware of where I am. If in uncertain or difficult territory, I may not stow the map, instead keeping it my hand with my thumb following my location as I move. I would far rather make the more frequent and brief halts to affirm location that to wander miles off course before I realise. Or worse, to wander down the contours and have to labour back up when I become aware of my mistake. It has happened and will no doubt occur again. All I can do is try and reduce those times.

In the UK, I put most of my faith in Ordnance Survey maps. I absolutely adore (not too strong a word) the 1:25,000 maps. The detail is fantastic. I have written before on my long-time love affair with O.S. maps. For instance, to be able to tell which side of a wall a path is can be a real boon. For wider expanses with less features (yes Scotland I am talking about you), then 1:50,000 are pretty much all that is required. Increasingly these days I find I am using the Harvey 1:40,000 maps, their strip maps for long distance paths are lighter, waterproof and show more than enough detail. Just don’t walk ‘off the map’ though. I have used other maps on occasion, the Footprint maps are really good and the A-Z Adventure bound strip maps could only be improved by making them waterproof.

Local diversions, you are going to need a decent map. Guidebooks and strip maps may not suffice. Hadrian's Wall Path, 2014

Local diversion. Hadrian’s Wall Path, 2014

The danger with a strip map or reliance on tiny portions of Ordnance Survey maps being reproduced in guide books (or worse, an ‘artist’s’ rendition of what he thinks the ground looks like) is when you go ‘off piste’ for one reason or another. Be it looking for somewhere to shelter, poor weather on the high ground, local forestry works, or even lost. That is where a full sized map is worth its weight.

Three Points of the Compass does use guide books on occasion. Those published by Cicerone are almost exclusively excellent. However I never read them ‘on the go’, on longer treks and trails my guide book usually comes out in the evening to read of what I should have been looking at rather than what I did! I am attempting these days to get ahead of the game and read about the next days walk rather than the past days experience. I’m getting there, just very slowly.

Map case

If I am taking an Ordnance Survey map then I need a map case. I have used the Active and ‘Tuff’ variants they produce but not only do these add greatly to the cost, but they are also considerably heavier and bulkier too. On occasion I simply use a zip lock bag, this is perfectly up to the job for a day hike. Certainly these can also be used to store maps that are ‘next up’, which are kept in the pack until required. A large Aloksac works well but I battle to get the seal to work properly after a few months of use, particularly if bits of grit, pine needles etc get into the seal. Instead, I continue to invariably rely on one of my oldest pieces of kit still in use, the Ortlieb map case. I don’t bother with the strap that goes around the neck, I cannot abide the damn things, they always want to spiral in the wind and end up throttling you. The thick UV and tear resistant cases measure some 270mm x 270mm. Mine has developed a slight yellowish tinge over the years and has a pin prick hole or two. I shall eventually replace it but in the interim it continues to work excellently, and you can sit on it at halts too.

When not in the hand, I often have this rolled up and fixed to my packs shoulder strap. I use a couple of lengths of shockcord with a couple of sliding plastic lock thingies to hold it securely in place. The top loop passes though a split ring which in turn passes through one of the daisy loops on the strap, the lower loop of cord is free to slide on the strap below this. I must admit that as my years advance and arthritis begins to make itself felt, I can find this painful on longer days so have begun to keep my map in my chest pouch on longer, multi-day, hikes. The ravages of age.

Esk Valley Way, 2014

Navigation in the mist, again! Good permanent features help to reaffirm location. Fat Betty on the Esk Valley Way, 2014. Fat Betty is the one on the left

There are a lot of poor compasses on the market, equally, there a lot of very good ones too. It is not difficult to buy a good one. Just about any from the Silva or Suunto baseplate ranges are perfectly adequate for hill walking in the UK. For a decade or so my weapon of choice was a Silva Ranger 3. No fancy bells and whistles but had enough features to keep me safe. Three Points of the Compass upgraded from this a few years ago. Firstly to the Expedition 4 for no other reason than the longer baseplate on that compass is better for taking bearings on a map. However I found the Suunto M-3 a better baseplate compass. As eyesight dimmed with age and my navigation skillset (slightly) improved, I also moved on to Mirror Compasses for more demanding or longer hikes. The Silva Expedition S is an excllent mirror compass however the Suunto MC-2G, which also has a global needle, is probably the finest compass currently available for the outdoor navigator. It does take a degree of skill to use this style of compass properly. I have written a little more on compasses elsewhere.

Silva Ranger 3 compass

Silva Ranger 3 compass

There are two other aids to navigation that I also take with me. These are a set of Pacer Beads and a small Suunto Clipper compass. I have had other similar mini compasses in the past but lost them all. Primarily because I used to clip them on to the edge of my map- asking to be lost in that position really. Some people clip them on to their watch strap but the Clipper is really robust enough for that, I clip it to the sternum strap of my pack and have yet to lose it from that position. It is cheap, handy for quick checks of direction and a back up should I ever lose the big ‘un. Bit of a no brainer really.

2 replies »

  1. Great to have met and walked with you on the South Downs today. Shout if you ever want to come to the old Post office HQ for a nose about. Ps. Seriously inspired by your walks. Need to up my game and planning. Walking poles and a map for the my next leg of the way for sure!


    • Likewise Mark, good to have the company. I might take you up on that offer, was always curious as to what they did regarding the 100 from long Italian and Irish marble counter! Do enjoy your remaining days on the South Downs Way, whenever you get back out here. Map- possibly not for this trail, it IS incredibly well waymarked. But for your next trek, definitely. Do have a look at the couple of blogs I did on the London Countryway, I guarantee you will enjoy it


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