Mountain Navigation is quite simply the ability to plan and follow a route in the mountains. If the weather is fine then it is a relatively simple matter but when the weather changes, as it rapidly does in the mountains, life can suddenly get more difficult.
Mountain Rescue statistics show that a very high proportion of mountain accidents are due to poor navigation. Cafe statistics would probably show that poor weather days in the mountains equal high levels of cafe dwellers frustrated at not being able to enjoy a days walk on the mountains.
Navigation requires the competent use of a map and compass. In the British Isles we are very lucky to have some of the best maps in the world made by Ordnance Survey and Harveys. We have a range of different scales to choose from to suit our particular needs. When I am wanting to be really accurate in my navigation I like a 1:25000 scale map. This means that everything on the map is 25000 times bigger on the ground and you will be amazed at how accurate and detailed they are.
Features on the ground are represented on maps using symbols and it is worth being able to identify a field boundary, footpath, crag etc before you leave home. The key on the map will provide you with all of the answers.
Contours are the most accurate part of the map and are brown/orange lines that connect points of equal height. They represent a 3 dimensional shape in a 2 dimensional image and are fantastically accurate but they do take some getting your head round. (See my seperate article on contours)
I like a compass that has a large base plate, it makes taking and reading bearings easier. Be aware that shops sell military and civilian compasses so make sure you get the one you want. Civilian compasses read in degress whilst the military use mils. Read my article here on how to take a bearing.
Key Skills & Top Tips
The ability to relate the map to the ground and vice versa is a fundamental skill in mountain navigation. How often have you convinced yourself that the map really does match the spot you are stood on only to realise later that you were miles out! I find it best to set the map when I am reading it. Imagine that the map is the last piece of a jigsaw puzzle and you need to slot it into the ground around you, twist it round until everything matches up and read the map that way.
Another top tip is to cut your map into sections and laminate it. This will mean that you don’t need to carry an unwieldy map case around your neck and take your partners eye out. It will also avoid having to refold maps through the day and it will be waterproof. Carry the main map as a spare though in case you walk off the laminate sheet by mistake or it blows away.
I use a series of questions when I am navigating to make sure that I don’t get lost, here they are:
1. Where am I now? If I can answer that I am not lost.
2. Where do I want to go? Describe to yourself 3 points that you are trying to find to make sure you know when you get there
3. What will I see along the way? Break the route down into small tick features and tick them off as you go past
4. How long will it take? Use timing or pacing to calculate distance travelled
5. What will I see if I go too far? Have a backstop feature
And don’t forget that the best navigator in the world will get lost of they stop navigating!