Why navigation skills should not be ignored and everyone should learn how to read a map

It’s raining. Again. The steady downpour lashing against the windows is enough to put anyone off venturing outside, although the forecast is good for the weekend. Very good, in fact –not that you’d think it from the rain now.

I’m planning routes. Lying on top of my OS map in the middle of the living room floor, I trace paths with my finger, assessing the landscape, comparing options, formulating plans… This is something I love to do. It’s something that gives me great pleasure, even when I might not have immediate opportunity to walk the routes I plan.

There are many ways up Kirk Fell, my objective for Saturday. There are at least three routes from Wasdale – via Black Sail Pass or Gable Beck or the direct slog up the front. There’s Styhead and Windy Gap or alternatively I could make my approach from Ennerdale: a long, flat walk up the valley before the final steep pull. But which route to choose? After consulting the map and my Fellranger guide, I make my decision: I’ll start from Honister. This gives me the advantage of a high start, and by skirting between Haystacks and Grey Knotts/Brandreth on the Moses Trod, I’ll avoid the more popular routes and make a gradual ascent up to the hause between Kirk Fell and Great Gable.

And as I stride out along the clear trod on a bright Saturday morning, I know I have made the right decision. My route crosses the head of three valleys, affording majestic views of Buttermere and Crummock, Ennerdale and Wasdale. I scarcely see another soul until I come to Stone Cove and so I can enjoy the beauty in complete solitude. I have my map to keep me right, a firm path beneath my feet and the magnificent scenery of the northwestern Lakes all around me…

Natalie with her OS map on Allen Crags
Natalie with her OS map on Allen Crags

The benefits of maps

Maps form an intrinsic part of my enjoyment of the outdoors: I use them to plan my trips and I take one with me on nearly every walk. There’s no doubt that my ability to read a map has benefited me – and not just on the fells. There are many advantages of being able to read a map:

Finding your way

I think it’s fair to say that the primary function of walking maps is as a navigation aid. I am hugely grateful that I learned navigation with my school orienteering club, as it is something that has stood me in good stead when it comes to finding my way on the fells and elsewhere. There are different levels of navigation: even fairly basic skills can prove of benefit on a walk. The more you invest in developing your abilities, the better you’ll understand how features on the map relate to the physical reality and how what you see on the map equates to what you see around you.

Natalie in her orienteering days. Scottish Relays, Anagach Woods
Natalie in her orienteering days. Scottish Relays, Anagach Woods

The first thing to learn is how to properly orientate your map, so that the north lines on the map line up with the north arrow on your compass. Once your map is correctly orientated, if you stand at the bottom of the page, features that appear to the right of your location on the map will be on your right, those on the left will be on your left, those higher on the page will be in front of you and those lower on the page behind.

When it comes to route-finding, you’ll start by learning to follow linear features – primarily roads, tracks and paths, but possibly walls and streams as well. You’ll know which way to go when you come to a junction and have a vague concept of how far away things are in relation to one another.

As you get a bit more competent, you’ll start to develop a better understanding of distances, you’ll look at the contour lines to see how steep or flat your route is (closer contours mean steeper terrain), and you may start to identify ‘catching features’ which will let you know if you miss your turn or go too far.

Once you’ve mastered the fundamentals, you can move on to more advanced techniques, which will allow you to navigate pathless ground. Compass bearings can prove very helpful in keeping you on the right trajectory and other marked features can be used as waymarkers so that you can keep track of your progress.

Finally, after all of this, you’ll be ready to tackle micro-navigation. Highly technical terrain, reduced visibility or snow will necessitate extra care when navigating. You may have to count your steps to ensure greater accuracy when estimating distances, and you’ll need to pay special attention to the map, compass and your surroundings.

Many routes do not require advanced navigation skills. In fact, a few are so straightforward that you scarcely need look at the map at all. Nonetheless, it’s still a good idea to keep an eye on the map: when it comes to getting lost, prevention is endlessly better (and easier!) than cure! Certain terrain and conditions will require special care.

Navigation becomes especially important in poor visibility. You should pay particular attention to the map should visibility start to deteriorate so that you know exactly where you are and where you are going. Compass-work comes to the fore, as fog or low cloud will obscure the features you’d otherwise use as waymarkers. Fog and snow is the worst combination, since the fog obscures surrounding features and the snow covers up paths and other detail on the ground.

Navigation, like most skills, requires practice to develop and more practice to maintain. My micro-navigation has undoubtedly deteriorated since my orienteering days as I don’t use it nearly so often. However, once you have learnt the techniques, it is easy to build your skills, progressing little by little onto more and more technical situations.

Navigation skills keep you safe

Navigation can play an important role in keeping you safe. If you can read a map, you’ll be able to use it to identify escape routes should you need to get down off the hills quickly and safely, due to injury or a change in the weather. You’ll be able to locate dangers and obstacles – crags, mines, bogs – and take steps to avoid them.

If the worst comes to the worst, and you or one of your party falls ill or gets injured, you will need to let the emergency services know where you are. A grid reference is an ideal way of allowing them to pinpoint your location. The BBC Bitesize website demonstrates how to give a six-figure grid reference (accurate to 100m), using the grid numbers on your walking map.

A GPS device will be able to give an even more accurate reading, to ten (or more) figures.

Buttermere And Crummock Water
Buttermere and Crummock Water

Choosing the best route

Once you can read a map, you can use it to weigh up the advantages and disadvantages of different routes options. The direct route or a detour to visit the waterfall? The short steep ascent or the longer, more gentle approach? Far from the madding crowds or via the pub? (silly question?)

I find contours particularly useful when planning routes. Since my knees aren’t too good on the downhills, I usually opt for a steep ascent and then seek out a gentler gradient on the descent.

Getting to know the landscape

The map tells you a great deal about the landscape: the lie of the land; the names of its summits, lakes, towns and rivers; the course of tracks and roads…

I’ve spent hours poring over maps of the Lake District, planning routes and ticking off hills and – perhaps unsurprisingly – I’ve started to remember some of the detail. I can remember where the hills are and how they link up. I can remember their names and rough shape. Part of this, of course, comes from having walked them, but I find I can recall details (albeit to a lesser degree) even on routes I haven’t walked or areas I’m less familiar with. This means that a) I can complete the ‘Mazzle’ map jigsaw I got for Christmas without looking at the box and b) I can easily identify neighbouring summits, lakes and towns when out walking, without looking at the map.

But that’s not all. I feel that using a map regularly has developed my sense of direction and sense of place. Although I can’t claim to have conducted any scientific study, I’ve noticed that among the friends I regularly walk with, those who can navigate have a stronger general sense of direction and are better at identifying neighbouring features, consistently outperforming non-mapreaders who have an equal (if not better) level of experience on the fells.

As with books, if you spend time with maps, you eventually begin to internalise the information. Map-users come to learn what lies where and how features link up and relate to one another. Just as music and languages help develop the brain’s ability to identify patterns, map-reading stimulates visual processing and visual memory. And who could turn down better visual memory – or the ability to show off to your mates as you proclaim that yes, that is Helvellyn and that’s Nethermost Pike and Dollywaggon and Fairfield…

A map is for life – not just walking!

A few of Natalie's maps.
A few of Natalie's maps.

Map-reading skills can prove of major benefit in many situations, not just walking. I had my first proper introduction to navigation in my early teens, when I took up orienteering at secondary school. I really enjoyed competing in the various events up and down the country but at that time, I had little appreciation of just how valuable those map-reading skills would prove throughout my life. These days, I primarily use maps to plan walking routes, but I also consult road atlases or Google maps when I’m driving and urban maps when visiting new towns or cities. And then there are other maps – public transport, piste maps on ski holidays, the map of Middle Earth at the beginning of The Hobbit

The basic concept of a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional reality has other applications as well. If you can read a map, it’s highly likely you’ll find it easier to interpret other types of plan, such as floor plans, garden designs and electrical and technical diagrams. Which could come in handy if you’re planning any home improvements…

Maps are beautiful!

I may be slightly biased, but I think there is something special about maps that you just don’t get with a GPS device. Maps are beautiful. There’s an art to them. Whether it’s the simple clarity of OS and Harvey maps or the craftship of early examples, I’ve always fallen for the magic of maps and over the years I’ve built up quite a collection. I’ve countless maps of my local area but also a good few of places I’ve never been but hope to visit someday.

Maps shape our interaction with the landscape, letting us visualise the lie of the land. They’re great for planning routes and getting to know an area. But maps do so much more than just help us plot a physical course: my favourite thing about them is the way they inspire journeys of the imagination. They invite you to discover new places, new routes and new worlds.

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