Ultimate Navigation Part 1: Armchair Navigation

Need to improve your skills but can’t get to the hills? Navigation supremo Lyle Brotherton shows you how in Part 1 of a new series...

"Even the most adventurous of us are inevitably sometimes confined to staying at home. When you can escape, safe and competent navigation sets you free to explore the hills – and you can practise much of it while stuck inside! Here are three simple skills you can try indoors that really will improve your outdoor nav."

Orientating the map

On fine days this can be the only technique you need to use to navigate. In bad weather it can make the difference between getting off the hill and needing to call for help. There are two different ways to perform this technique: one using your environment around you, and the other using your compass.

Using your environment

Draw a simple plan of your home. Mark items of furniture on it, such as the settee and TV in the lounge, your cooker and fridge in the kitchen, and all windows and doors throughout the house. You could even do this at work, marking desks, photocopiers and the ubiquitous coat stand, plus again all windows and doors.

Start to walk around your home or office (in your lunch break, of course!) with your map held in front of you. As you move, orientate the map in relation to the items that you have marked on your plan. In other words, if your settee is on your left, then it should be on the left of your map. Be prepared for quizzical looks from your family, friends and colleagues – it’s all part of being an outdoors person.

To transfer this skill to the outdoors, you simply use the features that are in your surrounding landscape and are marked on your map – such as cliffs, paths, walls and streams. Really proficient navigators can orientate the map using just the shape of the land alone, and once you have the basics you can advance to doing this too.

Using your compass

All maps – no matter where you are in the world – have been drafted with north at the top. Simply place your compass on the map, look at where the compass needle (red end) is pointing, and rotate the map until the needle is parallel to the vertical grid lines on your map (usually blue). It doesn’t matter which way the body of the compass is pointing; only the needle counts!

Be aware that in your home there may be items that can deviate a compass needle, so try the technique in a few different rooms and you will soon have knowledge of where north is. While walking around your gaff, keep looking at the map and always keep the red needle pointing to the north of the map. You are now orientating the map!

Drawing map symbols

Come on, let’s be candid – how many of us can tell at a glance the difference between loose rock, scree, an outcrop and a vertical cliff face? Get them wrong and you can end up falling instead of scrambling down the mountain side.

For some people, simply studying the map legend (the list of features detailed, usually on the right-hand side of OS Landranger & Explorer maps) is enough. A more powerful way to commit them to memory is to draw them yourself. Grab a pen and paper, and write down the names of the features you find difficult to remember on the left-hand side of the sheet. Next to them, copy the illustrations of these features from the legend of your map (you can also find the legends online at www.livefortheoutdoors.com/mapsymbols).

Cover the left side of your paper with the explanations, and test yourself by naming each of the features you have drawn; you’ll be surprised how easy it becomes to commit these features to memory. Ordnance Survey even produces a series of flashcards that you can download to test and improve your mapreading skills – useful, but not quite as effective as drawing your own.

Visualising the azimuth

This has nothing to do with maths and it’s not a musical instrument! We can all easily make errors when transferring compass bearings either to or from a map. Plus, when we then set off to walk on a particular bearing it’s easy to do so in the wrong direction, usually by 180 degrees! The reason for this is because we have not visualised where this will be in relation to us and where we are. Can you honestly say that you instantly ‘see’ that a bearing of 210 degrees is 7 o’ clock in relation to you, therefore behind you to your left?

If, however, when you have either been given a bearing or taken a bearing from a map or a compass, you know roughly in which direction it is, you will automatically look at this area of the landscape or map, and therefore be much less likely to make a mistake.

It is so easy to put into practice: all bearings between 1 and 179 are to your RIGHT, and between 181 and 359 are to your LEFT. Just remembering this simple fact will help stop you making simple errors; but to get really smart (and skilled) you can use the following visualisation and recall learning method. Grab your pen and paper again, and using the template above as a guide, write on the bearings in 30 degree increments, then add the corresponding numbers of a clock face around the ring on the outside (we’ve done the first few as an example):

Now cut out the centre circle and the outer ring, and separate them. Place the two apart and, looking at either one, try to guess either the corresponding time or the number of degrees. When you next check the time, just pause for a moment to think what the hour hand would represent in degrees – because doing this will help you develop a spatial awareness for the bearings of the compass in relation to you; this is navigating at its best!