Why should anyone learn to navigate?
Good question. And one that many people ask. After all, there are plenty of signposts out in the hills, we're told. Each footpath has one. The tracks are obvious. There are cairns everywhere. I know these hills like the back of my hand. I've lived here all my life. Sound familiar?
I'll come back to that later, but for me, the reason to learn to navigate is that it opens up a whole new World. It gives me the freedom to walk anywhere I want - and know where I can and cannot walk.
Llyn y Fan Fach, Carmarthen Fans, Brecon Beacons
Map reading allows me to "see" the ground before I even get there. Imagine Google Earth inside your head. Because I know what the map is telling me, I know what kind of a walk I will have. Of course, it isn't completely foolproof. The map can, on occasion, be wrong. If you have an old map, there may be lots of changes. But again, if you can map read, you will be able to get to places, look around, and realise what has come or gone since the map was printed. Field boundaries are a classic. But you can usually see where the boundary was. Or if not, look at the size of the fields - it might make more sense when you put two fields together. And forestry gets cut down - In the picture of the Usk Reservoir below you can see that the surrounding forestry has been cut. A couple of years ago, you would not have been able to see across the reservoir from this position.
Usk Reservoir, Brecon Beacons
When I first learned to navigate, I was very overweight, very unfit, and I'm not exactly a scholar, but I could learn how to do this. (How I started is the subject of another blog!) I could learn how to read a map. How to transpose, if you like, what I see on a map to what is on the ground, and of course, vice versa. And I could learn how to take other people out and ensure that they too, enjoy their adventure. That they have memories to take home with them. Good memories. Ones that make you want to come back again. Because I've been there, done that, bought the tee-shirt. I know what it's like.
To go back to my first paragraph, there is another reason we should all learn to navigate if we venture out into the hills. So often we hear that Mountain Rescue teams are called out for people who are "ill prepared" or "ill equipped". So what is "ill prepared", or, for that matter, what is "prepared"?
One big part of being ill prepared is incorrect equipment. The wrong shoes (flip flops? High Heels?) Not enough clothing, no waterproof clothing, running out of food or water, not having a shelter when the weather changes, no head torch when it gets dark, batteries dying on the GPS or mobile phone. And so on.....
And another part is lack of knowledge. Not "knowing these hills like the back of my hand" knowledge, although knowing your surroundings is always useful. You don't have to be a local to know your surroundings - there is another way.
Knowledge of terrain, weather conditions, how weather can change in an instant, and from low ground to high ground are all important skills, that anyone venturing out into the hills and mountains would be well advised to learn. Mountain skills, in other words.
And how to get yourself from where you are to where you want to be when visibility is poor - Navigation skills.
Nowadays we have very sophisticated GPS units, and apps for our mobile phones. But are they enough? We can draw out a route in the comfort of home, download it to the GPS, and follow it when we get out into the hills. What could be simpler? We can do the same with our mobile apps, and both with tell you exactly where you are. They are the future, map and compass skills are antiquated, a thing of the past, we're in the 21st Century!!
But what happens when you're out and about and you come across something that is not what you expected to see? What if you run out of time, and have to try and find a quicker way back? What if you see something in the distance, and think "That looks interesting, let's go and see that", but it's not in your GPS, and the weather looks a bit iffy - maybe you could go out and back, but that will add time on. Isn't there another way? What if your battery dies on your mobile phone? Have you got an extra battery pack?
GPS and Mobile Phone Apps are great to have as an extra tool in the box. They can track where you have been - have you ever been on a walk when you get to the end and all the GPS holders offer their confirmed distance? How many are the same? You can upload the track to your computer, download tracks from your computer to follow - they are great. They can give you loads of information and are great fun. I have a basic Garmin E-Trex, bought when I first started going out on my own so that if I ended up completely lost, I could find out where I was from a grid reference, look at the map and work out how to get to where I wanted to be.
My partner has a fancy thing. There is a map on the screen and everything. But we've found that this can make you lazy. As soon as you're not sure where you are, you turn to the GPS and the arrow will tell you. Hopefully. If the battery doesn't die. He has a 1:50 map on his GPS, whereas I usually work with a 1:25. Not insurmountable - providing you can mapread - but makes it a little more awkward, as you have to keep converting it in your head.
So, do you really need to learn to navigate? Well, in my opinion, yes you do. As a responsible citizen we should all be aware of what danger we might be placing ourselves in. We do it in our everyday lives, so why not out on the hills? We wouldn't dream of getting in a car and driving it without having the skills to do so. We wouldn't go sailing, kayaking, skydiving, horse riding, motor bike riding, rock climbing, etc. etc. without having the necessary tuition and being equipped for the job. Why would you do it in the hills?
Thanks for reading, see you soon. A.