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Why Navigation Skills

Compass on Orienteering map

Why Navigation Skills? Pete Hawkins

Twenty-eight years  – it’s a long time and over the past 28 a great deal has happened. The internet, mass computer ownership, mobile phones to name just three.  Twenty-eight years ago I was a twenty-nine year old newish dad, had some hair and worked for the Peak National Park teaching amongst others things, Navigation Skills.  I was already an old hack by that stage, having started to teach folk the dark arts of map and compass work 5 years earlier.  

1990 stands out because that was the first time I had had a long article published in a national magazine, Country Walking.  That article was trying to explain why one should have Navigation Skills; why learn how to read a Map and a Compass.

That first article obviously hit the spot and since then I have written dozens of pieces for a host of magazines all extolling the virtues of navigation skills for walkers and other outdoor enthusiasts and two books on the subject.  And despite the passage of 28 long years, and all the changes that have happened over the years, one thing hasn’t changed; that to properly enjoy the outdoors safely, knowledge of map reading and some basic compass skills is still essential.

To be honest, it is probably more important today, than it was then.  There are more people out in the hills and many surround themselves with technology in the hope that that will keep them safe.  That is despite the regular news articles about some outdoor adventurers getting themselves lost due to the over-reliance on their GPS or worse still, mobile phone.

The more we rely on screens, the more removed we are from actually looking at the landscape and understanding it. This means we are less likely take that simple bit of kit, the map, out and use it. The more you use a map and compare it with the ground, the more familiar you will become with it and the more useful it will become to you.  

The same goes for a compass.  They look complicated but if all you do with it, is to put it on your map and turn yourself and the map (and compass) so the red end of the needle points to the top of the map, then you have cut down on the likelihood of getting lost.  What you have just done is to orientate the map.  Turn it so the direction you are facing on the ground is the same that you are looking at the map.  

Use your navigation skills to set the map

I meet many people on my navigation skills courses who think that navigation is difficult, It isn’t.  Read a good book and/or go on a course and practice for yourself,  you’ll soon see the benefits.  You’ll enjoy your walking more, you’ll get lost far fewer times (if ever) and you’ll not be tempted to rely on technology.  Avoiding tech will also mean that you won’t have to keep up with the next 28 years of changes that come along!

Book on a Navigation Skills Course Today
Browse our navigation courses, and end your over-reliance on technology. Pete Hawkins is an experienced and Qualified Navigator. Find out More

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Visit an Orienteering Course – ready made for practice

Like any skills, it’s important you go out and practice them regularly.  Not everyone can get out into the hills on a regular basis but there is one resource on most people’s doorstep – your local permanent Orienteering Course.  These make ideal places to fine tune those new found navigation skills.

First find your orienteering course

Permanent Orienteering Courses are usually maintained by a nearby orienteering club and consist of a series of marked posts and a regularly updated map with the course variations marked on.  Many courses are in country parks or similar who often make the maps available from the on-site shop or café.  You can find out where your nearest orienteering course is by visiting the British Orienteering Federation website

Find your Orienteering course
Find your Orienteering course

Short Course first

So you’ve found your course so what next.  If you’re new to this lark, then start easy.  Choose a shorter course and using just the map navigate your way round the course, from marker to marker.  (You can of course use your compass to orientate the map, i.e. make sure the north(top) of the map is facing north.)

Once you’ve successfully negotiated round that, reward yourself with a cup of tea and a scone, then head out again, this time using your compass to navigate either round the same course (it’s good to get reassurance that you’re heading in the right direction) or another short course.  Place the edge of the compass between two markers and turn yourself and map round until the red end of the needle points to the top of the map; walk in the direction indicated by the direction of travel arrow.   You might need a few goes at this to get it right but practice does, of course, make perfect.

Compass on Orienteering map

As your confidence grows try longer, more elaborate routes and the whole process of navigation should become easier.  You’ll make mistakes of course, but just make sure you check why you went wrong, then try it again.  Learning from your own mistakes, and understanding why you made it, is one of the best ways of learning after all.

If you find this sort of navigation fun, you might even like to try an organised orienteering event.  Again the British Orienteering Federation can point you in the right direction!

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Looking After Your Map – Basic Map Care

A map is a tremendous resource, packed with lots of details about the landscape and invaluable for anyone wanting to successfully navigate a walk.  Maps aren’t cheap however so it is important to look after them. Even on a dry day, walking with some form of map cover will reduce the wear (and probably tear) to your map, especially around the folds.

Using a Map Case

Many people use a map case and there are some excellent makes, particularly the big cases that allow more than just two map segments to be shown at once. There is, however, a tendency to hang the case around your neck and read the map from that position. This is not good for “setting” the map. We’ll talk about setting or orientating a map in another blog, but to briefly explain the term, it means holding the map up so that the features on the map coincide with the way they appear on the ground.

If the map case is slung around your neck, then you won’t be doing this, not to mention that you risk death from strangulation! Removing the strap or string from the map case will help by stopping you hanging it round you neck.

The great news about map cases is that they aren’t really expensive. Like all products, they come in a range of sizes and prices.  But you can get a simple map case for under £5.

The map case above is one of the cheap ones, it allows you to see two panels of your map at once, and uses velcro fasteners, as opposed to zips. More expensive map cases have additional pockets to carry other items.

map care- map cases
Should you use a map case or laminated map?
Cheap map case
You can get small map cases for relatively little cost- if you must!

Laminated Maps versus Map Cases

People who have enjoyed one of my map and compass courses will know of my opposition to map cases however.  The lack of map setting is one reason but the other is the difficulty of taking your map in and out of the map case to see a hidden part of the map for the key.  There are a multitude of reasons why having easy access to the rest of the map is a good idea suffice it say that if you’ve already spent ten minutes cramming your map into your map case, you aren’t going to want to keep taking it in and out again.

My preference is to use a laminated map. They last much longer than the paper ones and they are even great for sheltering underneath when it’s raining.  They are also useful for sitting on, thus preventing DWB (damp walkers bottom)!  Joking aside, a laminated map will last considerably longer than a paper one, even in a map case.  My laminated maps get very heavy use, but last a good 18 months to two years before I have to replace them.

Harvey Maps, an excellent mapping series that cover the more popular walking areas and routes,  are all printed on waterproof paper which is more robust than the standard paper used by the Ordnance Survey.

Now that we’ve covered the basics of map care, it’s time to think about how to get the best use out of your map. Sign up for one of our Map and Compass courses today.

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Choose your map scale

 One of the regular questions I’m asked is what map scale should one practice with?  Well it every much horses for courses really; if you want to pursue orienteering as a sport, then you need to get used to large map scale (1:5000 or 1:10000 typically although others are used).  If exploring the wilds of the Scottish Highlands is your thing, then many seasoned veterans would suggest a 1:50000 map.

Most of  us, however, fall between these two extremes and on the Silva Navigation School courses we tend to concentrate on 1:25000 map scale, where 1 cm on the map is the equivalent of 25,000 cm (or 250m) on the ground.  In the UK we are lucky in that we have excellent mapping at our disposal from the Ordnance Survey to Harvey Maps, and whilst their maps look different from each other, both are well mapped and contain masses of detail that we as outdoor users can use to safely navigate by.

Get familiar with your map

OS maps, of course, cover the whole of the country whilst Harvey maps tend to be restricted to major outdoor areas and long distance and recreational routes.  If you find yourself in an area covered by both, I would certainly advise you go out and practice on both.  Familiarity with different maps is always useful especially if you ever walk abroad.  The quicker you can get used to a different looking map the better, and you can spend your time working out how accurate the map and therefore how much you can trust it!

OS 1:25000 map scale
OS 1:25000 map and its equivalent Harvey map below
Harvey 1:25000 map scale

Maps are only as good as the last time they were surveyed and printed and although the OS are said to effect over 10,000 changes to their mapping every week, errors inevitably creep in.  I know of houses that have been up for over 40 years that are still missing from maps whilst the neighbouring housing estate built eight years ago is on.  

You’ll find lost of inconsistencies on maps the more you begin to look at the detail.  One error on the map won’t get you lost, however –  check the detail around it to see if the rest of the map in this area is correct or if you’re if you’re in the right place!

At the Silva Navigation School, we teach you how to choose the right map scale and how to get the most from your map.  We show you how much useful navigational details there is and how you can use it to your advantage.  Why not look through the dates now, and book a course.  

In the meantime Happy Map reading.

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Buying a compass

Compasses come in many shapes and sizes, some good, some bad and some very bad. It is important to know what to look for when you’re buying a compass.

what to look for in a compass - buying a compass
What to look for in a compass

The diagram on this page shows the essential elements that a compass should have. There are compasses which have more than this but if you buy a compass which has these as a minimum, then you are on the right track.

You Get What You Pay For When Buying a Compass

However, there is a world of difference between a £5 compass and a £25 compass and you really do get what you pay for! Spend wisely and you’ll have a compass that will last for years, will be reliable and won’t let you down. Buy a cheap compass and you’re heading for trouble.

Silva has built up a deserved reputation for the quality and accuracy of their compasses. From their Field compass up to the splendid Expedition 54  you can be assured you have a compass made to high standards.

You can buy a range of Silva Compass perfectly suited for all outdoor enthusiasts from the Silva Navigation School Shop.

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Silva Navigation School 2018

silva navigation school 2018

The diary has been checked and double checked and so I’m pleased to announce that the Silva Navigation School 2018 dates are now official and available to book.  There is something for everyone again this year, from one day map and compass courses aimed at beginners to two day weekend courses for those who want to really spend time honing their navigation skills.

Don’t forget there is also the famous, or infamous, Contour only day too, a course designed to help you really get to grips with contours and how useful they can be to navigate with.

What is more, the two day course price has stayed the same as this year too; even more reason to buy now.

With Christmas coming up, why not buy a loved one a course, a compass, one of my navigation books or even a compass.  You know you’ll make their day.

Pete, Silva Navigation School