How to Navigate Like a Pro

Using line features (paths, streams, walls, etc) as a primary source of info when navigating in the mountains is very common, but in reality they are more useful as a secondary source of info, and this is why:

  • Water courses can change according to the weather. Ever noticed all those extra little streams that appear after heavy rain? These won’t be shown on the map.
  • Paths can change course over time.
  • Walls can fall down and fences can be removed.
  • Forest boundaries change as trees are planted and felled.
  • In winter many features can be buried under a blanket of snow.
  • Not all of the commonly used maps show walls/fences – eg the OS Landranger 1:50000 series

Basing all your navigation on something that might not be exactly as the map suggests won’t always give you 100% reliability. Sometimes it might cause you a real problem. The cloud comes down, the path you have been relying on becomes indistinct, and you lose it in the mist. You press on, confident that you will pick up the path again soon, but you don’t. You’re not sure where you are, and you’re not sure how to relocate.

So what’s the answer? The difference between OK navigation and excellent navigation lies in the ability to read and make sense of contours, both on the map and on the ground. Contours are those wiggly lines drawn on the map connecting points of equal height above sea level. “Contour” comes from the Italian contorno meaning "to draw a line". In the UK we have one of the most accurate mapping systems in the world (thank you, Ordnance Survey), and our maps use contours to show the shape of the ground in incredible detail.

Navigating using primarily contours  can bring a whole new level of discovery to a walk in the mountains. You look at the map, and build a mental picture of what the ground should look like. You then find the exact place that matches your mental picture. Or you choose a tiny feature on your map, and then work out where it is, just by using the contours on the map and relating them to the shape of the ground.

Sounds like fun? Want to spend a day in the mountains learning how to navigate like a pro? Join us on our Contour Masterclass on Friday 7th October, where you will use contour-only maps alongside regular maps to hone your navigational skills.