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

Blog archive

July 1 2019

July 1 2019

Contours Part 1 - some historical anecdotes
by Nigel Williams

I have just spent the past 4 days wandering around and up Schiehallion near Aberfeldy. It is here that contours were "invented" in 1774 by Charles Hutton where he was assisting the Astronomer Royal, Nevil Maskelyne, by gathering evidence to prove Newton’s theories of gravitation. He divided up the mountain into segments in order to calculate its weight which could then be scaled up to estimate the weight of the earth, its volume and its density. He plotted the heights of around 500 points on the mountain and essentially joined the dots thus creating contours.

More than 50 years earlier the concept of lines linking equal elevation values helped create underwater bathymetric charts such as the English Channel in 1737. In those days, with so many ships and men being lost at sea, mapping under water was probably perceived as a priority over land mapping. It is also a lot simpler to make a chart of a channel plotting depth readings using a plumb line, at a series of crossing points, than joining the dots running parallel to the shore giving the shape and steepness of the channel floor. Once on the beach though it was impossible to measure up the way with a plumb line. The first general map with contours appeared in 1791, the French engineer J.L. Dupain-Triel used a mix of contour lines at 20m intervals, hachures and spot heights on a map of France. Contours became established on Ordnance Survey maps in about 1843. All the contours on UK maps were originally drawn by hand from aerial photographs in the first half on the 1900s.

Harvey maps have added to the basic contour information with auxiliary or form line contours, height colouring and contour colouring (grey) to indicate underfoot conditions such as "predominantly rocky ground". They offer the best possible interpretation of the terrain as viewed by the hill walker, mountain biker, or runner on the ground.

Contours offer the most trustworthy information on maps and provide the 3rd dimension to help us make navigational decisions. Ignore contours and you are automatically cutting out around 30% of valuable information. In winter in the mountains they probably account for over 60% of the information and also have a safety element in terms of reading avalanche terrain.

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May 2019

May 2019

National Map Reading Week
by Nigel Williams

My first thought is why do we need a National Map Reading Week? Is it perhaps because there is no established teaching methodology for the subject in the UK. The focus of what is taught seems to be map reading based on numeracy and static plotting e.g. grid references and bearings. What we really need is a "National Navigation Week" and focus on the navigation skills required to walk with a map.
 
These skills are simple and don’t require numeracy. The skills required should match our walking experience. If that is achieved confidence levels will rise and perhaps more people will want to explore the countryside more often. Accept that everyone makes navigation errors but the skills improve with practice. Even if you are not responsible for navigating, have a map to hand and follow the progress identifying features and the distance covered.

Plan progressive walks
Build confidence with the map symbols and scale. Start by choosing routes that keep to large, simple handrail features e.g. tracks and paths. This will reduce the chance of navigation errors.

A second stage would be a mix of handrails and short cross country sections to another handrail (cutting corners) or big, obvious point feature (hill top). The third progression would be going cross country between smaller points features without handrails, probably requiring a good range of strategies and technical compass work and relocation skills.

Planning your route
Spend time studying the map and planning the route, to create a handrail to follow. Try to visualise the ground and know what to expect and see.

Timing a journey
Estimate the likely speed of travel over the day. Almost all walking maps are 1km across a grid square, 1.5km diagonally. We all walk at different speeds but estimating the day based on 3kph (20 minutes across a grid square) allows for regular stops. If walking uphill add a minute for each contour crossed going uphill. Treat downhill the same as being on the flat.

Setting up to navigate
Have the map and compass readily available and easy to use, ideally waterproof and in a pocket. Fold the map to the area being walked (about A5 size) and have the compass available to be held on the map with one hand so the two items are used as one.
Map and compass hung around the neck compromise the core skill of map setting. Be able to hold them in a comfortable position for ease of reading and so that they can be held up near arms length at eye level to accurately align features on the ground with the map and vice versa.

Re-tie the loop of cord that often comes with the compass as a single cord with one end tied to the compass and tie a loop big enough to thread the compass through at the other end. Attach to a belt loop or pocket zip.

Map setting
The single most important navigation skill is setting or orientating the map. Either by the features around you or by simply ensuring the red end of the compass needle points to the top of the map where the title is. The needle should be aligning accurately with the north south grid lines.

Observation
Look around and take in information. Think about the relationship between objects you see. This helps set the map and follow progress using tick off features.

Tick off features
Be curious to identify features on the map and on the ground whilst you are walking. Bends in the path, crossing streams, edge of woods, fence bends etc. Tick off features as you travel along the route.
 
Catching features
Recognise “Catching features” - identify things beyond the decision making points on your route. It is very easy if you don’t see what you expect, to keep on walking. A catching feature might be a stream crossing the path beyond the turning you should have taken. Using timing or pacing can also act as mental catching features.

Contours
Contours provide about a third of the map information available to the walker. They portray the shape of the terrain around you. Learn to include this third dimension when navigating.

GPS
As a back up to the map and compass, download a free app to your mobile phone that can give you a grid reference of your location (no signal required). It won’t drain the battery like digital mapping does and it is free. Also useful if you need help.

Practice for confidence
A wise navigator once said that "Navigation is 25% map work, 25% compass work and 50% confidence in the other two". The individual skills of navigation are easy and practice builds confidence.

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March 2019

March 2019

Global warming
by Nigel Williams

Today (Friday 15th March, 2019) there will be a "Global Climate Strike for the future - The beginning of great change". Greta Thunberg, the remarkable 16 year old Swedish schoolgirl, spoke at the Davos conference urging the world's most powerful, influential and wealthy people to act on climate change and the IPCC report is worth a read.

Predictions of warming are impacting, and will further impact, topography and mapping, so here is a parochial view of a few aspects that might affect the walker.

If temperatures rise by as much as 2 degrees over the next 30-50 years, sea levels around the UK could rise by over a metre.

The impact on mapping is obvious in Alpine and Arctic regions where glaciers and ice fields are shrinking and disappearing altogether. Around the UK the coastline would be the most obvious area to change as it is the lowest lying land.

On all Harvey maps, the High Water Mark or the high tide line is shown as a thin blue line. The line can be used as a safety aid for walkers to help them choose when to access coastal areas on long distance paths that integrate beach and coastal rock (such as the Anglesey Coastal Path – see image) or when to use an inland alternative route.

Mapping these lines has never been an easy task as it can often depend on the time of day the aerial photos used for photogrammetry were taken. However, there are several clues to assist in the interpretation of the images and photogrammetrists look for a mixture of natural signs to plot the high tide line. These can range from change in beach slope, drift lines on the beach and the change in colour of coastal rock. There is a significant skill involved in looking for these signs that requires years of practise. During the ground survey stage, these lines are checked and altered accordingly to give the clearest picture to the end user.

Should sea levels rise then not only would those lines need to be recalculated and re-drawn but every black dot (ground survey) spot height on our maps would need to be changed. Whilst contour lines would remain as they are all the contour numbering on every map would have to be adjusted.

Could Ben Vane become a Corbett? Will the Munro, Corbett, Donald and Marilyn tables all have to be re written? Could there be pre and post global warming rounds, the earlier ones being harder with cumulatively several hundred metres more height climbed?

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February 2019

February 2019

Winter clothing tips
by Nigel Williams

Let’s start with a good pair of stiff soled walking boots. If you can twist the sole they are likely to be too soft for winter. A small amount of toe flex is to be expected in a walking boot but the key issue is having crampons that are compatible with the boot sole. Boots are graded for flex from B0 lightweight trail shoes unsuitable for crampons through to B3 for a rigid winter climbing boot. Crampons are graded from C1 to C3 according to their flexibility and attachment method. The crampons should match the boot. Take your boots to the retailer when you want to buy a pair.

A good quality rucsac around 35 - 40 litres with a traditional lid pocket works well. Line it with a separate dry bag or water proof liner. (Rucsac covers in winter tend to get blown away or collect blown snow).

Gaiters are good in winter to stop snow going into your boots. I wear mine under waterproof trousers as any snow has to go up inside the trouser before it can travel down into the boots and melt. Wearing them outside trousers allows rain and snow to travel straight down into your boots.

Take your walking boots with you when buying a pair of walking trousers. Nothing worse than finding you can’t get your new trousers on over your boots in pouring rain or snow and have to remove them. Longer side zipped trousers are more expensive but they are quick to put on without needing bare hands to fiddle with boot laces.

“Cotton kills” is an old adage, a good thermal base layer is a must. A buff is also a simple light and versatile piece of clothing that around the neck is almost worth another thin layer.

As an extra warm layer many mountaineers carry a synthetic duvet type jacket referred to as a belay jacket which will keep you warm even if wet. Down is for dry cold weather which is not the norm in Scotland.

A good pair of outer mittens or gloves that are waterproof is also an essential piece of kit for me. Gloves are very difficult to make waterproof with so many seams. Mittens are easier and warmer but tricky if manipulating a compass.

No piece of winter kit works in isolation. It is the sum of the whole set of clothing and equipment and one weak link can often expose others on a bad day.

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January 2019

January 2019

Winter Munroing kit
by Nigel Williams

I’m often asked, what is the most important piece of kit to carry for a winter hill day? My answer is ski goggles! Strong wind with snow and ice particles blasting your face hinders navigation skills from route finding and avoiding hazards to basic map and compass work. They’re awkward to carry, but can be a life saver. Tinted ski goggles are good for seeing the terrain, clear lenses make the map easier to read. It’s really worth paying more for anti fogging goggles. Condensation often freezes on the inside and is almost impossible to sort until back in a warm environment. Also check compatibility with wearing reading glasses if required.

Having the kit, ice axe & crampons etc. and the skills to use them is often talked about. Making the decision to use or change equipment before things get fraught however seems to be all too often overlooked. Spare warm layers, hat, gloves and/ or mittens in waterproof bags and accessible doesn’t require knowledge of use, but once hands are cold and wet it is difficult to carry out the simplest of tasks. It also impacts one’s ability to make sound decisions and use the skills.

Walking poles (ideally a pair) with a large snow basket are invaluable on soft snow in easy terrain, BUT the timely decision to put them away and replace with an ice axe is critical.

GPS as a quick location confirmation tool rather than a navigation tool. However touch screens rarely work in poor conditions or wearing gloves.

Head torch for an early start, although errors in planning and decision making often lead to it being used at the end of the day.

“Group shelter” a useful item not just for emergencies, it is a light wind proof (not waterproof) nylon bag that can be pulled over the top of a group. With everyone huddled inside it soon warms up and enables people to sort equipment, take on food and check the navigation.

A 4-6 person size is probably most useful. A 4 person one works for 2 people but not the other way around. If you can’t get the whole party inside even split between several shelters there may be a reluctance to use it and leave someone stood outside in the cold. However not having one leaves no option of shelter for anyone.

This piece may appear to be about safety kit for a winter mountain day, but it is also about planning and timely decision making.

Example of Winter Munroing Kit:
1. Rucksack
2. Warm and waterproof layers (plus spares)
3. Head torch
4. First Aid Kit
5. Gloves or Mittens (plus spare)
6. Hat (plus spare)
7. Ski goggles
8. GPS device
9. Map & Compass!
10. Watch
11. Emergency Shelter
12. Ice Axe
13. Walking Poles
14. Crampons
15. Dry bags (for keeping spare kit dry)
16. Warm drink/food

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December 2018

December 2018

Be Avalanche Aware
by Nigel Williams

The Scottish Avalanche Forecast started at the weekend as storm Deirdre arrived, and now it looks like we are going into a period of warmer weather. But that gives us time to think about the realities of travelling in the hills safely at this time of year. There is sometimes a view that it is climbers that get avalanched. Look more closely at the statistics and it becomes evident that “climbers” tend to get avalanched on the approach to their climbs or on their descent, often on ground around 30 - 45 degrees (the most common angle for avalanches to occur). Whilst those sorts of angles are steep for many walkers they often appear attractive with the ground being smooth and presenting the option of a shorter route in ascent or descent.

Avalanche education over the years has changed. In the 1970s and 1980s it was all about the (existing at that time) science of snow. In the 1990s and early 2000s this changed more to a testing of the snow pack approach. In the past 15 years it has moved to avoiding the avalanche terrain through proper planning and thought processes before and during our journey and an understanding of heuristic biases. It is amazing how many people who have survived an avalanche will say that they thought the slope might be suspect yet still carried on. So why do we do this? Heuristic bias; a short cut decision making process our brain makes which overrides our critical risk management thinking. For example, you see fresh footprints up a slope that in your planning you had identified as a potential avalanche risk. But now on the ground, knowing it would shorten your route, you decide it must be safe.

The problem we all face with the subject is that 99% of the time the feedback we receive is that we made the right judgement when we have fallen into these biases - unless we actually get avalanched! Heuristic biases are fascinating and there are at least half a dozen more identified in relation to avalanche incidents and even experts are prone to them. In reality today we employ a range of all of this knowledge and practical skills which complement each other.

Gone are the days of stopping at a phone box and trying to get a recorded weather forecast when you are already on your way to the hill. Planning has changed hugely in the last couple of decades with improved weather forecasting and the existence of the Scottish Avalanche Information Service (SAIS) which enable us to start the process several days ahead of our trip. It is worth remembering though that these are forecasts and on the rare occasions that the weather forecast is inaccurate then it is likely that the avalanche forecast reflect this. The Scottish Government, largely through sportscotland, is actually investing a lot of money into trying to keep us safe in the mountains in winter.

Check out the SAIS website www.SAIS.gov.uk and spend time learning about the subject. Planning and avoidance (which may mean higher than summer navigation skills) is the key. There is also a Be Avalanche Aware mobile app.

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November 2 2018

November 2 2018

Altimeters
by Nigel Williams

An increasing number of devices carried in the hills have an altimeter mode. Maps are designed to replicate a 3D reality on a 2D surface. Contours probably account for a 3rd of the information we can get from a map, double that in winter, which is why they can be such a useful navigation tool. A compass similarly provides 2D information and an altimeter the 3rd dimension offering that extra 30% of information. Digital mapping however is reducing their use as a stand alone device.

There are two types of altimeter. The traditional barometric altimeter which measures air pressure, and the GPS satellite based system. Some GPS devices have both systems. GPS readings can be inaccurate close under cliffs or on steep ground. Barometric altimeters can be inaccurate on ridges and cols where the wind creates a vortex or is funneled, creating pockets of low and high pressure. Both rely on battery power for a digital reading, although traditional barometric altimeters are analogue.

The higher we go the less the air pressure. This is how the barometric altimeter works. However, the device needs to be calibrated at regular intervals.

A synoptic weather chart uses isobar lines similar to contours. These are lines of equal pressure. A typical Low pressure series of concentric circles crossing the Atlantic and passing over the UK travels at about 25mph regardless of the wind speed. Those lines would pass overhead if we stayed in the same place on the ground. As the centre of the Low comes towards us the pressure decreases giving a higher altitude reading. As the centre of the Low moves away the pressure rises giving a lower reading. 3 Isobars passing over will change an altitude reading by about 100m. Therefore a manual adjustment is required every 30 or so minutes at known heights on the map. The car park, path junction, hill top etc. It also means that they are not super accurate but will be within 10 metres or so.

On multi day journeys barometric altimeters provide a weather forecasting tool. When waking in the morning, if you find that the altimeter suggests you have slid downhill 100m you know the weather is improving - high pressure is developing. If you have been elevated then low pressure, probably poor weather is on the way.

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November 1 2018

November 1 2018

It's Getting Dark!
by Nigel Williams

As the nights close in rescue teams are being called out to search for people in difficulty. Often this is a confidence as much as a navigation issue.

Preparation is key before it gets dark. Walking poles are helpful across difficult ground at night, but they can be a distraction from using the tools of navigation which need full concentration. With reduced vision other senses can kick in. Contours, feeling the ground and listening for running water can be key to navigation.

Prior to darkness, stop, have a snack break and make sure navigation tools are easily accessible. Moving at night can be slow and the temperature may drop. Keep hats, gloves etc. handy and put the head torch on your head (switched off). If need be, call friends to let them know you are running late. There is often a better signal on the tops. Set the first or a key bearing on your compass. If using the phone gps function to back up map and compass, turn to airplane mode to extend battery life and try to use it just for checking your position.

Study the route in detail and plan to follow linear features such as paths, streams, fences and ridges all the way, even on a longer route. Whilst following linear features don’t ignore the third dimension. Note the angle you expect to cross the contour lines and changes in contour spacing identifying steepening and shallowing of the slope. Recognise other features along the route such as stream crossings. These all provide non visual tick off features. Keep a rough check on the direction of travel with the compass needle. If a star on the horizon aligns with the route it can be used for 20 -30 minutes but they all move except the North Star.

Try to keep the torch off for as long as possible. Night vision will develop as it gets dark. Head torch beams tend to focus our vision. Turning off all lights, wait a few minutes for night vision to develop then squat down to silhouette the landscape around for an improved view of the terrain.

Lastly, to help keep an element of night vision, close one eye when there is a group discussion around the map and headtorches are dazzling.

Night navigation is not difficult but does need concentration and a bit of confidence.

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October 2018

October 2018

The psychology of getting lost
by Nigel Williams

Being lost, "temporarily geographically embarrassed" or "cartographically challenged" happens to all of us at some time in the outdoors. It is only a temporary state but can be stressful, frustrating and even embarrassing.

Most people have vivid memories of being lost. They can recall the situation in remarkable detail because of the fear and stress of the situation. But why should it create these emotions? It may go back to the Stone Age when there were real threats out in the woods. However, common modern day experiences may also have a part to play.

Ask any group to recall the very first time they had a frightening experience of feeling lost. In a supermarket as a toddler and separated from a parent is a common response.

So first we have a state of high anxiety and a feeling of isolation and the unknown. There are a number of common responses to the situation at that age. Standing crying is the most common, but “fright and flight” can kick in sending adrenaline to the legs resulting in a frantic running around the aisles (more likely to be the parent).

When found we may witness facial cues and expressions of relief, even tears, the like of which we have not seen on the parent before, making us subconsciously aware that this has been a big event. (Decades on people often remember detail such as the dress their mother was wearing.) Lastly we often get a serious telling off just to compound the awfulness of the whole episode. Then for the next decade of our lives we are exposed to fairy tales about being lost in the woods.

It seems hardly surprising that all this sets off high levels of anxiety and emotion which interferes with rational thought and actions. It is embedded in us at an early age. Unfortunately in the outdoors it may be backed up with limited or unpracticed navigation skills.

In reality we are usually misplaced rather than lost. We generally know we are somewhere on the map and not in genuine danger. Getting lost might result in being late or a long walk back to the car but the only harm done is usually to our ego.

From personal experience though, getting lost seems to help practice the skills and diminish the anxiety, unless you are leading a group!

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