Gain Skills

Outdoor Navigation

The most essential skill for most HAWOG members is outdoor navigation. Many of our events involve following routes, often in countryside, hilly or mountainous terrain, which necessitate the ability to understand and apply at least basic map and compass skills. With this in mind, members agreed at our 72nd AGM in October 2008 that "all members should gain, demonstrate and maintain sufficient outdoor navigation competence".

It should be noted that most of our walking, cycling and mountain biking events occur in very safe locations. Getting lost or arriving at the wrong place in the Chiltern Hills is at most inconvenient; unlikely to be life threatening. Hence most of our 100+ members who engage in these activities should be able to plan, and if not, certainly lead, an activity involving rural, countryside paths, after 12 months with our group.

The reason most members should gain and maintain outdoor navigation competence is to increase confidence and choice. More members will be able to choose what terrain and distances they cover on our walking, cycling and mountain biking activities. Members who have a map and compass, and know how to use them, can change routes (shorten, lengthen, make easier/harder) to suit their interest rather than be dependent on one or two others. This empowerment is particularly useful on our numerous weekends and weeks away, when often there will be 20+ attendees and unlikely that all will want the same activity. Having the skills and tools to amend a route, even part way through, to better suit is a great feeling.

Getting Started: Basic navigation only really involves knowing three things, two of which are easy:

  1. Destination. Easy. A leader should know where they do or might want to go.
  2. North. Easy. Align the compass (magnetic) north with the map (grid) north.
  3. Location. The only thing that is sometimes unknown or uncertain. Exactly where are you on the map?

Uncertainty in location should be the only hard part of outdoor navigation. All leaders experience this on occasions; practice reduces it. Some of the 'clues' to location are very tacit and subtle: the distance between various woods, the shape of hills, the leader's ability to relate what they see with the map. With experience, the ability to better read the 'clues' improves, as does the ability to recognise uncertainty (i.e. knowing when to take more time to confirm location or proceed with caution, rather than confidently marching on).

Practice requires getting outside and following some routes using a map and compass. The routes can be from books, magazines, websites or homemade (see below). In addition our group offers lots of opportunities and support to everyone new to outdoor navigation. Each year we organise a number of training days (theory and practice) and there are always opportunities for members to lead walks with support (before or on the day). Please email the Programme Planner for more information. Below are three categories of routes by terrain type. Novices should consider gaining practice with a few green, urban routes before rural/countryside routes.

Green Urban Routes: For outdoor navigation novices, activities involving green urban routes, around North-West London for example, or along rivers and canals, are good and acceptable first or second leading opportunities for anyone new. Don't just follow a route using a narrative or abstract drawing alone - no matter how easy and tempting - as these will not improve outdoor navigation. Instead bring and use a map and compass. Practice aligning the compass with the map (aligning the north's and direction or travel arrow) and relating what you see with the map (identifying key terrain features - contours, roads/tracks/paths, churches etc) to ensure the direction of travel (your bearing) is consistent with the map and compass.

Rural/Countryside Routes: After using a map and compass in a few green urban routes, the first real challenge for most novices will be to lead a route in the countryside. This involves exactly the same map and compass technical skills but is more challenging because there will be less visual information (clues). Fewer distinct features (buildings, landmarks etc), more similar features (fields, roads and sheep can all look the same) and probably the route and area will be unfamiliar. The challenge presents the opportunity though to really use and apply the technical skills of relating the map and compass to the terrain. More and better judgement will be required on a few occasions to determine a location. Remember even experienced leaders feel uncertain and arrive somewhere unintended on occasions; with practice though recognition and correction becomes quicker and easier. All members should aim and expect to achieve this level of competence within 12 months.

Open/Mountainous Routes: For those who engage or aspire towards our more challenging outdoor activities - in monotone terrain like bog land and moors, mountain climbing, forest walking and more remote locations - we offer and encourage opportunities to experience and lead routes. The challenge here is having the confidence and competence to take and follow a bearing with little or no differential visual information. These could be areas where there is little or no path to follow, few or no clear features to take a bearing with, meaning reliance on the compass for direction of travel to a destination, fine if you are where you think you are... Weather, terrain, clothing, equipment, fitness, skills, experience, judgement etc, as well as navigation, are all important to ensure safety on these more challenging routes.

Maps: Ordnance Survey (OS) maps for most parts of the UK can be borrowed from most libraries - join your local library now if you're not already a member - or can be bought online or at outdoor shops like Blacks or Millets. For shorter routes, beginners or more challenging terrain, consider using the higher detail 1:25000 scale. For longer routes and experienced leaders, the 1:50000 is often fine; each sheet covers four times the area of the 1:25000, the compromise is less detail. Look at the symbol index to know what features (church, village, junction etc) should be along a particular route. The contour lines represent terrain at the same height; so lines close together represent steeper terrain. Compare the shape presented by the contour lines around the route with what can be seen; see that hill?

Compass: A compass costs between £5 and £15 from outdoor shops like Cotswold Outdoor and is an essential tool for anyone leading a route. The red arrow points towards magnetic north and when used should be lined up with the grid north on the map. Whilst there is a difference between these two north and a third north (true north), the difference only matters over distant or featureless/pathless/monotone terrain when the compass is the main source of direction of travel (bearing).

Top Outdoor Navigation Links: Below are some very useful websites with good advice and tips about using a map and compass. Alternatively get a book from the library or a bookshop.

Route Planning: Prepared routes for walks and cycle rides are available in books, magazines (Trail, TGO, Country Walking, Walk, Triangle etc) from bookshops, libraries and other groups (top tip for non local/familiar destinations is to contact a group in that area, tell them the sort of distance/terrain you want, and they will often quickly suggest something). Our group and some of our members also have routes which can be borrowed or copied - just ask. The web also offers the following:

Why not make your own route from an OS map (available in bookshops, libraries and online)? OS maps vary in fidelity: 1:25k gives 4 times detail to 1:50k. Both are adequate, but use 1:25k if you are new or unsure. Or make your own A4 1:50k map here. This will produce 1/6 of an A4 page; put 6 blocks together to make an A4 page. Simply decide starting point, save block, move arrow twice in required direction to next block. Will need to decide whether 2 columns * 3 rows or vice versa. Repeat 5 times until 6 blocks saved. Open Word, select Page Setup Orientation (Landscape or profile), insert blocks in sequence, will need to increase page margins and/or reduce block sizes. Insert into plastic sleeve, fits in pocket, ideal for when weather dry (ink may run!).

Maps and Guides