Skills sessions – walking abroad

By Pete Hawkins
6 minute read

In a series of five features, Cicerone author and walking guide Pete Hawkins shares his knowledge and experience on how to successfully and safely navigate at home and abroad. Here, he explains how to go walking when you're overseas.

It’s been a privilege writing for Cicerone, renowned as a publisher of high-quality, well-researched guidebooks that cover the globe in their extent. They are written by authors who know their subject inside out and who have spent, in some cases, decades researching their chosen country before they put fingers to keyboard. I feel quite humble in their collective presence.

I’ve never had the patience to write a guidebook but when it comes to walking, in particular abroad, I’ve done my bit. For more than 25 years I led walking holidays in some of the most iconic locations around the world – Nepal, New Zealand, Peru, Iceland, New England, California… I could go on.

Walking abroad is not without its challenges – a different language, attitudes to walking and countryside access, but especially the availability of suitable mapping. In the UK we are blessed with some of the best mapping in the world with the coverage that the OS and Harvey Maps offer us.

Figure 2
This map of part of the Appalachian Way leaves a great deal to be desired. I only really knew where I was when I hit a road!

Sadly, the same standards are not universal. I’ve walked with some pretty indifferent maps in dozens of locations. And that, my friends, is the challenge we all face, when heading away from these shores.So how can you ensure that you can enjoy your trip abroad without worrying that you’re going to get lost all the time? It should come as no surprise, I hope, if I say do your research before you leave home.

Buy the Cicerone guide for the area you’re visiting and study it thoroughly. This should give suggestions of the walks and places you might like to visit.Fire up your browser and search for your intended destination; there are numerous blogs out there by people who have walked where you have (always treat them with caution).

Track down the mapping and give it a thorough going over.

Check your compass is suitable for the area you’re heading to.

Guidebooks

Cicerone Guidebooks are an essential first step, especially if you’re going somewhere for the first time. They put an area in context for you and allow you to narrow down where you plan to visit and what is and what isn’t achievable. I was once asked by an author to help update a non-Cicerone guidebook. A pretty straightforward process except when it came to distances. The author was ex-army and walked at a pace that most, normal, humans couldn’t possibly match!

Local knowledge

Second to guidebooks comes local knowledge. If you’re heading to a popular walking destination, there will be lots of web resources to help you; other places less so but keep searching. My wife and I backpacked around Lysefjord in Norway a few years ago. Apart from a broad description of the intended walk online, there was little information out there. The Norwegians are very organised, as you’d expect, and have local hiking associations, yet even their website didn’t help much in giving us a true picture of what we were planning.

Figure 3a French
The French and Spanish equivalent maps (French)
Figure 3b Spanish
The French and Spanish equivalent maps (Spanish)

We had fun, despite the first two days being the hardest walking I’ve done in my life, but on my return, as well as writing the trip up for a magazine, I wrote a more detailed account on my website. I am still getting emails from people planning to do the same walk.

Maps

The map step is crucial. These will be your daily companions while you’re away. How good are they? Do they look dependable or not? When you arrive, give the map a thorough testing. Carefully match the map with the ground. How accurately does it portray what you can see in front of you. Do this near to civilisation to minimise the chance of getting lost on day one of your holiday! Take the map further afield and continue the scrutiny. If the map stands up, you can relax a bit more. If not, don’t abandon it entirely, just treat the information you get from it cautiously.

Match it with careful observation on the ground (you may need to retrace your steps if you get waylaid) and an appreciation of how far, and for how long, you’ve been walking.

I recall the first time I walked in the Pyrenees, when I was young and naïve. We had French and Spanish maps with us, as we intended to cross over the border. Starting in France we enjoyed the fine quality and detail that the IGN maps gave us. Expecting the same once in Spain we were sorely disappointed. There were roads marked that didn’t, and probably couldn’t ever, exist, paths were missing or marked incorrectly. We learnt to be very cautious when using the Spanish maps. Don’t be afraid to ask, either; we were accompanied by a lovely Nepalese farmer earlier this year for about 2km when we checked that we were on the right path.

Compass

The final piece in your armoury against becoming locationally challenged is your compass. If you were to walk around the world with a bar magnet on a piece of string, there wouldn’t be many places where it would lie horizontally due to the way the earth’s magnetic field ‘emerges’ from the ground. Your compass needle is a bar magnet and must be able to swing unhindered in order to give you an accurate reading.

Different compass manufacturers approach this in different ways. Silva have divided the globe into three zones (See below) and make compasses to suit those zones. So a Magnetic North balanced compass wouldn’t work in the Magnetic South zone (I tried it in New Zealand once – they’re right! The compass needle was scaring round the housing and unable to swing properly). Silva and Suunto, also produce global compasses where the needle is plastic and a small magnetic bar is used that can settle horizontally no matter where on earth it’s used.

Compass zonesGlobal Compass

Check you know what the magnetic variation is, too. In the UK it is so minimal it can be ignored but in San Francisco it is 13o East of grid north (and in Yosemite it is 5o West!). Ignore this at your peril. The British Geological Survey has a world magnetic calculator on their website but I prefer the US one.

If you are a GPS-wielding walker it is also not a simple case of taking it abroad and expecting it to work perfectly for you. You’ll need to set the unit for the grid system you’re in and if you have one that can display maps, can you buy maps for your destination? And if you’re going remote for a few days, have you the capability of keeping the batteries charged for that duration. Your phone? Remember its primary purpose is as a phone; you might need to use it!

Preparation is, as they say, everything. The more prepared you are before your trip, the less time you’ll spend faffing about when you’re away. And the less time you spend faffing makes for a far more enjoyable trip abroad.

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