Thoughtful Navigation

The ability to navigate is a vital skill for any mountain-goer. Many people tend to rely on GPS systems (either a dedicated unit, or a phone app), but these items are no real substitute for map and compass – and knowing how to use them.  The reasons why map and compass are still the best tools for navigation are many  –  and a discussion on this would turn this post into a very different blog (maybe best kept for another day!) – so I am just going to focus on a rather ‘unusual’ reason why using a map over a GPS is better –  a reason that is perhaps the antithesis of a process that is perceived to be a very much structural and logic based.

Looking gloomy up high – but good for practising navigation!


Navigation can be defined as: ‘the science of determining position, course, and distance travelled during a journey and hence advising on the best course to be steered or taken.’ Put very simply, while out in the mountains we calculate the time taken to travel from one location to the next by working out the distance and the amount of ascent. There are various formulae available to help us to do this, such as the famous Naismith’s rule.  Micronavigation is applied over shorter distances, and we make use of strategies such as pacing distance. As you might expect, close study of features appearing on the map is required. How you make use of those features to get you from A to B and then eventually to your final goal is a fascinating exercise, one that usually has several route options and is a skill that can be developed – and refined –  through experience.  The ultimate test for any mountain navigator is to put these skills to the test in poor visibility or during hours of darkness.

To closely observe the landscape around you and to relate it to what the map shows you is the key to knowing where you are. It takes practice to do this –  particularly while you’re chatting away, to be able to still be making note of what the ground is doing under your feet (‘there was a gradual gradient, then flattening out, and finally a very steep section…’) – and while this sounds like a chore, a distraction from enjoying your day of freedom in the hills, it actually encourages you to relate more intimately to your environment. It helps you to develop a very close understanding of the shape of the mountains, the approaches to them. It helps you to make sense of the landscape and what it really ‘means’. Routes start to make better sense.

And as you become more connected to what is happening under your feet, you develop a better awareness of the many different mountain terrains that exist. You are more aware of the sequence of different sections of the route. The detailed observation of the landscape around you enhances the whole day. It’s almost a ‘mindfulness’ activity. Being in the here and now. Engaging with the landscape as you walk through it. Switching awareness between the far horizon, the mid ground and the foreground (and noting how the scope of horizon, mid ground and foreground is also affected by location and weather).  Noting landmarks that are relevant and personal to you is almost like creating and memorising a secret trail.P1040805

It is this walking with awareness that truly fosters the understanding of the mountain environment and also encourages deeper engagement with it. Once you observe the shape of the land through the medium of your feet (i.e., walking it), the map makes better sense.

The photos that go with this post show that we had a very mixed day for our navigation work back in October. It was windy at first, but the wind speed significantly dropped as the day progressed. There was low cloud sweeping along and hiding the higher tops as we approached the col between Carn an t-Sagairt Beag and Carn an t-Sagairt Mor. Navigation in poor visibility was definitely the order of the day at first, but later the cloud lifted and we enjoyed some wonderful Autumn scenery. It wasn’t quite the full day of navigation in poor visibility that would have been desirable, but the views were more than worth paying the price for lack of low cloud base. After all, there’s always another day….

(Many congratulations to Joan whose careful and accurate navigation took us via some rather featureless terrain up to White Mounth, around the tops and summit and safely back down to Invercauld Bridge. The definition of navigation is taken from The Longman New Universal Dictionary, ed. Paul Procter (1982).)


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