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There is no doubt that mountains and wild country can become threatening when you find yourself out in bad weather, when the mist rolls in, when you walk up into the cloud or when the footpath suddenly disappears! A map reading or mountain navigation course could be the answer ...

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Map reading and mountain navigation courses

Do you long to go mountain walking but lack the skills to find your way around? There are two ways you can deal with this, either go with a guide – and there are no shortage of guided walking trips available; or learn about map reading and mountain navigation so that you can take to the hills when ever you fancy. We joined Wild-Wales on one of their 'Map reading and mountain navigation' courses to find out how easy it is to learn.

If you have visions of spending a day or so sitting in a classroom with an Ordinance Survey map spread out in front of you, think again. The Wild Wales map reading course turned out to be a couple of very pleasant days walking in the Welsh hills while we learnt the skills needed for map reading, using a compass and finding our own way in the future.

Map reading and mountain navigation basics
True, the day started with an hour or so around the log burning stove in comfy armchairs and with mugs of coffee in hand, while our instructor, Rob, talked us through the differences between maps, showed us how to take a bearing and whetted our appetites for really reading the map by explaining how those unintelligible squiggles related to the shape of the hills and those mysterious symbols were – amongst other things – clues that told the history of the landscape we were about to walk into. But it wasn't long before we were putting on our walking boots and folding our maps in readiness for some 'hands on' experience.

The group was mixed, slightly more male than female and with ages from late teens to 'getting on a bit'. Experience ranged from complete map reading novices to the people who could read a map pretty well in normal circumstances but who wanted to hone their map reading skills in some of the trickier aspects of mountain navigation.

Mountain navigation in North Wales
We were in Snowdonia, in North Wales, but from our base in the North East we avoided the very popular busy routes and the blissfully quiet hills of the Carneddau became our classroom for the weekend.

Pacing techniques
Our first walk started along footpaths, using them to practice pacing techniques. Pacing is simply a means of measuring distance by counting paces and is a surprisingly accurate measure once you've calculated your own 'paces per 100m' and learnt how to adjust that for the terrain – your paces will shorten as you go uphill for example.

So we walked and counted and then stopped to compare notes; pacing does require some concentration and conversation and counting don't go together. We discovered that it can be an extremely useful and accurate technique over short distances when there are no other 'signposts', such as path or wall junctions or forks in the river, to guide you.

We had already covered the 'rules' for calculating longer distances as we sat around the stove that morning and we also put these into practice, using timing combined with adjustments for the type of terrain and amounts of accent and decent to calculate how long a given section of the route should take.

Using bearings
We were blessed with fine weather and good visibility so enjoyed some splendid views across the Snowdonia National Park. These were put to good use to practice the taking and using of bearings, bringing our compasses into play. We learnt how to take and walk on a bearing, how to use a back bearing and how to adjust our readings to account for 'magnetic variation'. And if this is all beginning to sound too technical for you then don't worry, it really isn't; besides Rob presented it all in such a relaxed and patient manner that it all just slotted into place.

Think of Wales and you think of sheep. Snowdonia is great sheep farming country and as a consequence the landscape is littered with sheepfolds. As they were all marked on the maps, sheepfolds made excellent teaching tools as we split off into pairs and Rob gave each pair a short route of landmarks to navigate between. Sheepfolds made ideal landmarks as it's hard to mistake one for anything else. Mind you we also discovered that it's easy to mistake one sheepfold for another and it taught us to look hard at the maps to ensure that we found 'our' sheepfold and not the one a few meters away belonging to another pair.

It was a bit like some sort of treasure hunt as the group split into pairs and headed off in lots of different directions, to then reform in another location having 'bagged' our assigned landmarks and prove that we didn't actually need footpaths to guide our routes.

A final map reading exercise
One of the most satisfying aspects for me was the extension of this exercise we did on our second day. As our final exercise we were required to devise our own routes to a small hill top that couldn't be seen from the start point and which was to be reached by an indirect route across largely featureless terrain. There were no sheepfolds to help us this time, so we were left with timing, pacing, reading the differences in the landscape from the contours on the map and the use of bearings.

We each planned a route and were set off at timed intervals. In the spirit of the exercise everyone kept to their own slightly different routes even when we could see other members of the party and when the target came into view. It was incredibly satisfying to see the whole group converging at the hill top from many different directions. Everyone's route was valid and we'd proved that we could navigate with very little to go on, something that would probably have seemed impossible to many of us at the start of the course.

Recommended map reading courses
I'd certainly recommend a map reading or mountain navigation course if you want to start exploring the back country on your own. Even if you prefer to walk with guided groups once you can read the map yourself it adds a whole extra dimension to the walk. You can get a real feel for the route before you set out, identify the landscape around you, avoid the boggy bits, pick out the ancient hut circles, work out where the forest used to end and calculate how long it will really take to reach the pub!

I'd recommend the Wild Wales map reading and mountain navigation course in particular because of their relaxed, friendly, easy going teaching methods with well respected and very experienced mountain guides.

Chris Davey

© Text and photos travel-quest 2003

Wild-Wales run map reading and mountain navigation courses in North Wales as well as general guided walking holidays and weekends on which they will be happy to give informal hints on mountain navigation. If you have an interested group they can arrange tailor made courses. They also run climbing and scrambling courses in Snowdonia.
     Rob Collister, our guide on the course described above is an international mountain guide, who also offers his own guiding services and works, on a freelance basis, for well respected organizations like the National Mountain Centre, Plas Y Brenin.

Related travel-quest sections:
navigation / orienteering – for map reading and mountain navigation courses in other parts of the world
walking / trekking / hiking – including guidedwalking

Recommended books:
The Long Routes: Mountaineering Rock Climbs in Snowdonia and the Lake District Climbing routes in Snowdonia – see review
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