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May 2021 - Beginner's Guide to Navigation - Introduction

by Nigel Williams

The last week of May is National Map Reading Week. It ought to be called National Navigation Week though, so as we come into summer and the Covid lockdown eases, here is a series of blogs for beginner navigators.

The phrase "map reading" brings back memories of school days, sat in the classroom, learning about grid references, different norths, angles and compass bearings with no relation to the ground. What we actually need to be able to do is to "navigate" outside following a route by combining map and ground information. It is a lot more fun and healthy, and requires decision making with consequences attached.

Grid references are for communicating a position on a map and have nothing to do with navigation or finding our way. On a mapped path we can generally describe a rough position. The use of a compass beyond orientating the map is generally only relevant for going cross country in remote terrain and poor weather when the implications of being lost can be serious.

The novice navigator should keep to paths and tracks that are well marked on the map and the ground. Focus on 3 simple navigation skills; Firstly keeping the map "orientated" or "set" to match the ground. It is the symbols on the map that are important and they can be read anyway up. Try to ignore the words, they are only useful at a sign post. Secondly, observing the ground around and comparing obvious landmarks, (other paths/roads, streams, woods, buildings, hills, etc) to the map symbols. Lastly, developing an appreciation of the map scale which helps develop an awareness of time and distance covered. Those 3 elements help us track progress along the path and provide a reasonably good idea of where we are on the map and ground.

We do need to learn to use a paper map which importantly helps train the brain in the skills of navigation. Consider Stone Age navigation before maps. The brain learnt to create mental maps based around observations of landmarks and their relation to each other and we still need to develop that mental process today. The map enables us to speed up the mental process and visit places we have never been to and yet still know roughly where we are.

Using GPS mapping on a phone may seem an easy option, however it can have some serious drawbacks as many a rescue team will testify to, and neuroscience has demonstrated that it uses completely different areas of the brain and fails to develop the cognitive functions of navigation.

There are a number of free phone apps such as OS Locate that, used in conjunction with a map, will give your precise location should you need to confirm it. So it is useful to have the phone as an occasional back up.

It takes time to develop navigation confidence. The route and terrain chosen impacts the navigation skills required. Exploring further afield, keep to well mapped routes and keep it simple, (see the February 2021 route planning blogs). It can be helpful to go solo or with someone also interested in understanding the map to reduce distractions from practicing navigation.

Whilst the basic skills are easy enough to pick up, confidence can be a key element in navigation so it may be worth investing in a beginner's navigation course such as the National Navigation Award Scheme (NNAS) bronze level.

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