With hiking season in full stride many British ramblers are blind to the basics of map reading. It’s time for a crash course.
Published in The Telegraph 6 June 2023
“Is it over there?” I said, confidently gesturing into the far distance from the top of Longstone Moor. Our course leader Austin Knott, a retired transport planner from Staffordshire, smiled knowingly. “Have you followed the steps?” he asked patiently. I look down guiltily at my tools: a 1:25000 scale Ordnance Survey Explorer map of the White Peak area and a baseplate compass. I was wrong, and lost, again. Old habits are hard to break.
The day began at 10am in Foolow village hall in the depths of the Peak District, where, in the style of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, I’d sat in a circle of other midlifers to explain why I was there. I’d mentioned that, despite having travelled to 100 countries, I have a tendency to drop into places without much planning. I’ve been lost alone in the wilderness many times – Alaska, Oregon, Nevada – and hitting middle age has underlined my mortality. Whatever navigation rules I learned at school have long since been forgotten and it was time to break the habit.
I was the only woman in our group of six, all aged between 30 and 60 – it would appear map reading has never been so in vogue. According to Peak Navigation Courses’ Jane Livingstone, who runs the courses with her husband Michael Hunt, the majority of their clients are in the mid-life age bracket and take part to learn the skills needed to plan walks without the aid of a guidebook, a partner, hiking leader or – most common – having to rely on their mobile phones for safety.
Indeed, a recent poll by Ordnance Survey found that more than a quarter of Britons had never been taught how to use a map and more than half admitted they’d gone astray because they can’t use one correctly.
Everyone in our group had tales of using Instagram or apps to guide them into the wilderness before subsequently getting stuck. Darren, from Stockport, recalled ascending Helvellyn – one of the Lake District’s most notorious hikes – while the weather was clear without a proper understanding of his route. The mist descended as he reached the top. “It took me 10 hours to get down and I was close to hypothermia,” he revealed.
Austin thinks “traditional tools” should be used to supplement Ordnance Survey apps and cautions against the reliance on tech-based location services such as What Three Words, which depend on a phone’s battery and GPS signal. The increasingly popular app, which claims to be able to identify any location on the surface of Earth to generate a unique three-word locator code, can, according to Austin, “revert to the last known location, which is different to where you actually are, and even if the three words are correct, they can be hard for mountain rescue to understand over the phone.”
Having already instructed us to watch a series of introductory videos in advance of our arrival in Derbyshire, Austin emphasised that deliberate practice with a map and compass was needed to undo our dependence on “distracting” modern technology. Phone tucked away in my backpack, it was a joy to study a physical scale map of the Derbyshire Dales, a slice of the UK’s first official National Park.
It was all there: the exact layout of the villages, the parish boundaries, the shape of each individual field, the dew ponds, farm buildings and bronze age burial sites. The map was both an invitation to explore and a “handrail,” according to Austin, to aid the rambler.
Map reading was the easy bit: within half an hour, I could understand scale, could give a six-digit grid reference, locate different types of footpaths and field boundaries, read contours, measure distance and set my compass to the map itself. I learned that the correct use of the compass is what takes the guesswork out of map reading: while I have a tendency to just act on a hunch, Austin wanted precision.
Austin Knott of Peak Navigation Courses reveals the essentials for confident map reading:
1. Always keep the map pointing north. This is called setting the map.
2. Understand the map symbols, particularly where one can walk – rights of way, permissive paths and access land. The key is on the map or can be downloaded from Ordnance Survey.
3. Once you have learned how to use a compass and measure a bearing, practice using the famous ‘Silva 123’ method – this online tutorial is a great start.
4. Always have some idea of where you are. Take time on a walk to look at the map to spot particular features that you can see in the landscape, such as waterfalls, rivers, walls or bridges.
5. Know how to measure distance on the map – the map has a grid printed on it, these are 1km apart. You can use them to estimate the distance of your walk.
We walked from Foolow to nearby Silly Dale, in the Hope Valley – an apt route for a group of people who have collectively survived a half-lifetime of sketchy decision-making – and were rewarded with picturesque scenery and cheery camaraderie.
After lunch, our lessons went up a grade. We practised taking bearings on nearby Longstone Moor, a tract of access land without clear footpaths and where the incline obscured the view of our target destination. The steps involved setting the map to north, “joining the dots” on the map with the ruled edge of the compass baseplate and turning the dial so that the orienteering lines lined up with the north-facing grid lines on the map, before plotting the direction of travel by aligning the red needle to point north. The final stage was a “penguin waddle” around the compass to orient yourself in the correct direction.
It took more concentration than I expected – especially in an age of digital ease when I’m used to immediate 5G-generated solutions – and I found myself pinning my hopes in the wrong direction.
It was back to the grid and, with practice, I soon pinpointed the correct target. Paper map tucked under my arm, I set off with determination – I’d safely arrived at middle age with a new skill and confidence in finding my next destination.
Need to know
Peak Navigation Courses’ one-day First Steps to Map Reading and Navigation course costs £65 per person (www.peaknavigationcourses.co.uk).
Mountain Skills (www.mountainskillstraining.co.uk) offers courses in the Lake District, Team Walking (www.teamwalking.co.uk) in the Yorkshire Dales, and New Forest Navigation (www.newforestnavigation.co.uk ) offers courses across the south of England and south Wales).