Lessons From Map Reading and Navigating
When someone decides that they want to spend time exploring mountains and uplands, it is invariably the case that they soon realise that if they want to stay safe, or go off the beaten track, they need to learn how to map read and to navigate. There is nothing scarier than finding yourself up in a mountain range when the mist comes down and the track you were following begins to disappear as it fades into a confusion of boulders and a barren mountainside.
Being in an environment you’re not confident in and lacking the basic tools and skills to locate where you are and understand how to move towards your destination can be both frightening and off putting. I have seen many individuals announce that mountain walking is a silly pastime, and far too dangerous, based on a couple of small forays into an environment they don’t understand. However, it is easy enough to become confident mountain walkers if you’re prepared to take out time to learn how to read a map and how to use a compass. The other big ingredient to becoming confident in such environments is time – time to practice, to understand and to develop a level of confidence. GPSs are often seen as a quick fix now, why bother learning to read a map if a computer can tell you where to go? This is true, most of the time, but what happens if it breaks? A map and a compass are pretty fundamental in these cases – and only useful if you know how to use them. There is a big difference between someone who can turn on a computer and someone who can navigate!
Over the years I’ve helped people become confident in map reading and navigation. But learning these skills is a journey in its own right. There are a number of things individuals need to do to become confident in an unfamiliar mountain environment. Firstly, they need to understand the basic tools for navigation. This includes reading maps and understanding how to use a compass. There is no shortcut here, time needs to be spent working with someone more experienced, and then much more time alone, getting use to the symbols, working out how they fit together to show the complexity of an area, and how the map image relates to the real ground which it illustrates. The only way of understanding these basics and making these links is to practice. An important fact that many novice map readers need to be reminded is that map reading is no-one’s first language, it has to be learned and tried out regularly if you are to become fluent; everyone has to put in this practice at some point – even really experienced navigators were rubbish once upon a time!
At a point where the budding map reader appears to be getting the hang of the process, a compass can be added to the tools to use. This brings with it a whole new set of skills, introducing true and magnetic north, orientating a map, aiming off, and for those getting more confident and expert, using maps and compasses at night. Again, this takes a lot of regular practice, with a lot of support and teaching from a more experienced navigator. Once again, as the flourishing navigator begins to become more confident and shows an ability in map reading and compass work, the experienced navigator begins to play less and less of a part, allowing them to explore further afield, with less reference to their expertise. Indeed, over time there are some mountain ranges, some harsh environments that the less experienced navigator gets to know better than their mentor!
But, navigating and map reading are in some ways skills that never come to an endpoint. Even really experienced navigators get into trouble sometimes. They may get lost or may decide that a route they have planned somehow doesn’t work for them any longer – they have the experience and confidence to withdraw and to start again, finding a better, more direct route, or a more interesting path to follow. This willingness to change direction, to reassess comes from many, many hours spent in the mountains learning, reflecting and honing their skills.
To become an expert navigator requires time, a willingness to fail, a willingness to live with being confused as the new skills and understanding begin to develop. It also takes lots of practice, an openness to admit problems and ask for help at the point it is needed, rather than stumbling on becoming ever more lost, before panic sets in. But once these skills begin to develop and the emerging navigator gains in confidence, then the mountain environments which are rarely visited by many become places to enjoy and to explore. For many, it also helps them open up these environments to others who also want to explore.