It started off as a wonderful day out. This morning you woke up in your tent, pitched in a remote corner of Dartmoor, and strode off under blue skies for a good, long walk. You weren't worried when you had your lunch atop Cut Hill even though the wind had freshened and the sky was darkening; after all, you're pretty good with a map and compass. It took less than an hour for that to change. The cloud descended all around you, the air turned cold and the wind blew stinging drizzle into your face. Without a hilltop to guide you, navigation became difficult, and soon you were floundering from bog to bog without much of a clue where to go next. You started to shiver and panic in equal measures, but luck was on your side. You stumbled on a footpath and after what felt like an eternity made it back to a warm fire in the local pub. As for your tent, still out there somewhere; well, you'll go and retrieve it tomorrow. You made it - just.
Most walkers will be quite confident of their navigation skills on a warm, clear summer's day or while following a well-marked footpath. The problem is that these scenarios often do not last long. On Britain's uplands the weather can change in an alarmingly brief time and sheep-tracks intersect footpaths; veering from the right route is surprisingly easy.
There is only one way to be really confident in navigating in all conditions, and that is to learn the techniques of micronavigation1. Similar to the techniques used in orienteering, it is used by hill- and mountain-walkers but can also be an interesting way of spending an afternoon as an activity on its own. With practice, you'll be able to navigate to all sorts of tiny features on the map - even the smallest kink in a contour line - in fog and in total darkness. Micronavigation is a key part of all professional outdoor hillwalking courses, including the Walking Group Leader and Mountain Leader awards.
The Basics of Micronavigation
To begin to learn micronavigation skills, you'll need to know a bit about navigation already. If you can't read a map or use a compass to take a bearing competently, go and learn the basics first. You'll certainly need to be able to read a 1:25,000 map competently, be able to walk on a bearing within 1° of accuracy and be comfortable in taking backbearings and relocation.
Essentially, learning to micronavigate means learning a few key techniques and being able to choose which one suits the situation you are in. Deciding on a 'tactic' is half the battle. Each technique aims to minimise the extent of errors rather than removing the risk of making them in the first place; in fact, it could be argued that accepting the fact that humans make mistakes regularly is as important as the techniques themselves.
This is, for many, the most difficult skill to master. It is a great benefit to know exactly how far you have to walk and how far you have actually travelled. If you expect to cross a bridge after 300m but meet one after only 100m, you might want to stop to think. Are you on the right route, did you just not spot the bridge on your map, or is it not marked on it at all? In short, it gives you an extra piece of information you can use.
For short distances, you can rely on pacing. Quite simply, you count your steps until you've walked the required distance. Rather than count each individual step, it's easier to count your strides; every time your left foot hits the ground. To work this out, either find a 100m running track or ask a more experienced walker who you trust to pace a distance out for you on the ground. Most people will do about 65 - 70 strides per 100m on the level.
This technique becomes less accurate if you're walking distances over 500m; if you are, you should work on timing instead. This takes less concentration but a more accurate watch; you'll need to be able to time to the nearest ten seconds or so. Over most ground, you'll be walking at 3 - 5km per hour, and you can work out how far you've travelled quite easily by timing how long you've been walking for. Many walkers carry a card with walking speeds and distances marked on it in case of emergencies, saving valuable time in working out how long it's likely to take to walk 650m at 3km/h. The trick with timing is in judging how fast you are walking, and this only really comes with experience. Walkers will cover 1km in:
- 20 minutes at 3km/h - when carrying a heavy load or over rocky or boggy ground.
- 15 minutes at 4km/h - a good average walking speed for adults.
- 12 minutes at 5km/h - on very good paths with little weight to carry.
- If you're walking uphill, you'll go more slowly, so add a minute for each 10m contour line crossed. This forms part of Naismith's Rule.
There are other factors, of course; for example, with a headwind you might add 10% to your time, and some say that you should add or subtract from your timing depending on the terrain and whether you are walking up or downhill. Visibility can also play a part, as walkers tend to naturally slow down in fog or darkness. Timing demands practice in all sorts of conditions to be perfected.
Tactics are very simple and effective. Using one or more of these techniques will make your navigation as easy as possible; they might not provide the quickest or most direct way of getting from A to B, but with practice you can virtually guarantee that you will arrive at your destination without too much hardship.
The concept of attack points is crucial. These are specific, clearly identifiable places from which you can easily navigate onwards to your destination. For example, a wall bordering a field would not, on its own, be a good attack point as it is not an exact spot. The north-eastern corner of the same wall would be, as you would be able to look at a map and say exactly where you were.
A good attack point should be:
- Easy to navigate to.
- Identifiable when you arrive.
- Close enough to your final destination that you will be able to walk across open country to it if necessary.
In most micronavigation, you will use at least one attack point at some stage in your route.
A handrail is a linear feature such as a stream or wall that you can follow. That's really all there is to it, in essence. It is such a useful tactic because you can use it with a variety of features; with practice and good map-reading skills, you could use a ridge or even a contour line as a handrail. You don't necessarily need to be walking right alongside a handrail for it to work, though it should always be in your line of sight and within easy walking distance.
These are linear features that are often used in conjunction with handrails, usually when there is a good chance that you will make a large navigational error. For example, if you were walking across open country for a long distance to a junction of two streams, it wouldn't matter too much which one you ended up at. The two create a kind of funnel, and you can just follow the stream you arrive at until you meet the other.
Catching features are also very useful if you think there is a chance of you overshooting your objective. If you're trying to find a particular point in open country and there is a wall 100m beyond it, you may miss the point, but you know you can't miss the wall; if you hit the wall, you've gone too far and can easily go back a bit.
If you're trying to find a particular point on a linear feature, this is an extremely useful technique. Imagine you need to cross a particular bridge over a river. You take a bearing directly to it, but on the way make a small error; you find the river, but no bridge. Do you walk up or down stream to find it?
Micronavigators will 'aim off', taking a bearing not to the bridge but to a point off to one side. Then, although they will not arrive at the bridge itself, they will know for certain whether it lies to the left or to the right.
This is very handy if you come to an impassable feature on your route. Let's say you arrive at a cliff on your walk. Checking your map, you can see that you'll have to go 100m off course to get around it. This is where boxing comes in. You've been walking due north so far, so you turn 90° to your right and walk 100m due east, then 100m due north, then 100m due west. You'll now be back on the same bearing as you were before, but 100m further north.
This technique requires great care, however, as the changes in direction can easily lead to errors. It is best used over short distances, and you will need to check your bearings and pace your distances very carefully.
Taking Bearings From Features
If a feature has a curved shape, you can often use a particular point on it as an attack point. If you're following a road that curves around a hillside, for example, you might decide that you'd like to use the point at which it runs directly east as your attack point; you set your compass to 270° and walk. Now, when your compass shows you are facing that direction, you've arrived at that point.
Putting Them Together
You'll frequently use more than one of these skills in any leg of a walk. For example, you might walk uphill to use a ridge as a catching feature, handrail off it until it swings round to the north, then aim off down the other side onto a road to get back to the car park. Being able to break down your route into manageable steps and use the right tactic at the right time is a skill that only gets better with experience and practice.
Walking The Route
So you've decided on your tactics, know how far you have to walk and are about to set off. Before you do, though, it's very useful to take a final look at your map and find some tick points. These are places you will pass on the way that you can 'tick off'; so if you think you should pass a grove of trees on your left after 300m and haven't seen it when you get to 400m, you have the opportunity to check your map and correct the mistake. It's well worth having a tick point every few hundred metres if possible, just in case.
A Word of Warning
Stone crosses fall down. Streams dry up. Footpaths change course. Not everything you expect to find from looking at the map will actually be there on the ground, so it's very important to learn to read contour lines. After all, the biggest features you're going to encounter are hills and valleys, so getting used to visualising their shape from looking at a map is extremely useful. With practice, you'll even be able to navigate to them and use them in your tactics - for example, ridges make excellent catching features and with practice you can use a contour line as a handrail! If you're planning to undertake any of the British Mountaineering Qualifications that involve walking, you'll have to show that you can find a kink in a contour line at night.