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Tough, Light, Waterproof maps for Walking, Running & Cycling

Navigation blog

July 2020

July 2020

Navigation research
by Nigel Williams

Lockdown has provided a great opportunity to read and research the inner workings of how we navigate. The 2020 book "Wayfinding" by Michael Bond provided a wonderful synopsis of where research is heading today, some of it linked to Alzheimer's research.

Over the last 60 years geographers, cartographers, psychologists and neurologists have produced hundreds of research papers on how humans navigate. Many acknowledge that it involves a wide range of complex learned skills and that confidence plays a key role in our ability. A wise old navigator once said "navigation is 25% map reading, 25% compass work and 50% confidence in the other two". It is more nuanced than that, of course, but it conveys the importance of confidence because it is entwined with decision making which is a key part of navigation (that also opens up a world of heuristic biases).

Researchers come at it from different viewpoints, from how many symbols can the brain interpret at one time to what are the key cognitive strategies involved, to which areas of the brain influence different elements of navigation and whether reliance on GPS stifles the development of those brain cells, and inevitably, are men or women better navigators?

I'm pleased to say that from what I have observed over the years and read recently there is no definitive answer to that last one. However, maps have traditionally been made by men and some research suggests that maps would be different if women had been at the forefront of their development and symbology, and it questions whether that would influence the perceptions around gender and navigation ability.

Navigation ability may be influenced from soon after we are born, as it is fundamental to human function. Social influences, such as opportunities to play with and do things that develop spatial awareness, also pay their part. Freedom as a child to explore unfamiliar terrain and have outdoor adventures and early engagement with simple plans and maps of familiar environments which build confidence are important. There appear to be 4 main parts of the brain that work in unison to provide spatial awareness and navigation ability. Skills such as map setting, terrain observation, interpreting symbols, map memory etc. are a complex mix of tasks.

Take one simple example, managing conflicting orientation of information on a map between symbols and writing; is it easier to navigate with heads up on written words and mentally rotating symbols or vice versa? This is really fundamental, to use symbols is much more complex (and tiring for the brain) than reading writing so it is natural for many people to be drawn to reading the writing. This is also a very good reason why an orienteering map is invaluable when introducing beginners to map setting skills (there is no writing over the symbols). Using symbols require the comprehension of a bird's eye view, and experience of the environment one is travelling in to enable visualisation of the terrain depicted.

One area that seems to be overlooked in all of this is an apparent disconnect between the cognitive research and how navigation is generally taught in the UK (usually with a focus on numeracy, out of context compass work, and less than ideal cartography and map scales for novices). Simple teaching progressions combining skills with appropriate cartography matched by outdoor terrain and environmental experience are key to developing navigation confidence and decision making.

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March 2020

March 2020

Contours - round or over, how to do a rough calculation
by Nigel Williams

This is sometimes referred to as Bob's Law in mountain marathon circles, but I have no idea who Bob is or was! But it gives us a rough rule of thumb. The premise is that roughly 100m of ascent equates to 1km on the flat.

Firstly, we need a way to quickly estimate how far it is to go from A to B via D compared to going over the end of the ridge A to B via C. A to B via D is approximately the combination of distances A to B (via C) 1km and C to D 0.6km = 1.6km.

Next, we count up the contours we cross going up. 8 = 120m of ascent on a Harvey map (15m contour interval). If we assume a walking speed of 4km per hour, 1.6km around the end of the ridge will take approximately 24 mins.

If we assume, according to Naismith's Rule, that we add 1 minute per 10m of ascent we get 12 minutes to add to the 15 minutes direct route over the ridge, giving a total of 27 minutes. So, in this example we might be quicker going around.

Of course, we all travel and manage hills at different speeds. Steepness and under foot conditions have a varying impact. If this example used a 10m interval for the 8 contours then it might be margin-ally quicker to go over.

On a mountain marathon the cunning route planner starting from A would have a check point at B, and then have the next check point back up on the ridge but several kilometres further along. So those that don't plan beyond the next check point risk climbing the hill twice instead of going around and then enduring the climb just once.

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December 2019

December 2019

Using the 3rd dimension for navigation
by Nigel Williams

The map and the compass are both 2 dimensional tools. Contours give us that 3rd dimension and an amazing amount of information both visually and kinesthetically, (through feeling): The closer the contours the steeper the ground, it is the changes that create significant navigation features.

Direction slope faces (aspect) - If I say my kitchen window has a southerly aspect I mean it faces south e.g. 180 degrees. Which direction a slope faces can be determined by taking a bearing directly looking down the slope. Place the compass on the map and move it around with the northing lines in the capsule and the N on the dial pointing to the top of the map and looking to see where the edge of the compass crosses the contour lines at right angles and pointing downhill. An altimeter would confirm which contour we might be on (1 in diagram).

A slope aspect is an invaluable relocation technique if seriously lost. It helps eliminate large swathes of the map where we cannot possibly be. If one is on a north facing slope (we may have several north facing slope options) we can't be anywhere that the contours indicate an east, south or west aspect.

Contours create line features such as ridges and valleys - but look more closely and even a change in slope steepness (break of slope) creates a line parallel to the contours which it is possible to see and follow. In fact it is possible to take a bearing similar to the slope aspect bearing but across the hill side. We can also see and follow the contour line indicating a change in steepness (2 in diagram).

A ridge or spur are linear features. We can therefore use aiming off techniques if there are changes in steepness along the ridge to find a specific point along it when approaching from a valley below.

Ticking off feature - we can keep track of our progress if we can match the ground we are travelling over to the map. Are we crossing contours at right angles or doing a rising traverse - does the ground flatten out briefly before a short steep climb across the contours? Changes in all 3 dimensions can be related to contours.

Catching feature - What does the ground do just beyond what you are aiming for. If you over shoot it is good to have something to stop you promptly and this could be a change in steepness or aspect, and can often be felt if not seen.

Combining an altimeter into our navigation is a powerful addition especially if one is any line feature. An altimeter will immediately tell us where we are along it and therefore our exact position.

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November 2019

November 2019

Contours - the 3rd Dimension
by Nigel Williams

Contours add at least 30% more information to the navigation decision making process, probably more than 60% in winter.

When we walk with a map we look to see what is around us and then look for it on the map or vice versa. Interpreting contours into something meaningful can seem a challenge but with a little practice it all starts to make sense. Contours are conceptual really and I think we often start with too big a landscape when teaching the subject. Class room models and orienteering scale maps with small hills, cols, spurs and valleys with varied contour spacing enable a better grasp of what they are all about. Look closely at the contour lines on the map - their spacing and therefore steepness of the ground is constantly changing.

There are little v shape bits, small spurs and gullies (often referred to re-entrants), sometimes just involving one or two contour lines. Streams and other features give us the clue as to which is a spur and which is a re-entrant. A circular contour line would indicates the top of a hill. These are sometimes referred to as the rule of Vs and Os.

The contour height numbers are of course a valuable clue as to what is up and down. If you are reading the numbers the right way up on the map you are effectively looking up the hill.
Unique to map information, contours provide a sensory experience as well as a visual one. You can feel ground shape and your relationship to it under your feet. It impacts ankle and leg joints, muscles (and even lungs). It affects our balance and we compensate for it. If we study the contours on our path the changes become tick off features or catching features as we go, eg the steepness of the ground is easing off. Instead of just knowing we are on the path we can identify where we are on it. The same principal works if we are walking on a bearing with a compass in poor visibility or at night.

Other sensory information helping us keep track of our direction of travel comes from things like changes to the feeling of the wind on our face, changing where the sun is in relation to our direction of travel, hearing running water - must be near a stream etc.

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