Here’s a standard piece of advice for those who head out into the hills and mountains – always take a map and compass. These basic tools of navigation are felt to be so important that they are included in the kit requirements for any fell race of decent length where runners head off into remote countryside.
This advice is repeated endlessly by all sorts of authoritative sources. Try this from TGO website: “GPS or suitable smartphone app can be very useful supplemental tools with major benefits in bad weather, but they aren’t essential. Always carry a map and compass when you venture into the hills“.
It seems reasonable enough advice. Navigating digitally using maps on your smartphone or other similar GPS device is all well and good and we all use it, but your technology might go wrong, get broken or run out of battery. By comparison, there’s not a lot that can go wrong with a map and compass is there?
Except, of course, that things can go wrong. If your map is made of paper and it’s pouring with rain, then your map will soon turn to mulch. A plastic map is a better idea but if you’re in a very strong wind then you’ll need to open it carefully on some flat ground or maybe behind some big rocks otherwise it could be torn out of your grasp and whisked away.
Oh, and if you’re in the Cuillin mountains on Skye then your compass might give inaccurate readings because of the high iron content in the rocks. Or it might not, depending on whereabouts in those mountains you are. Reading around the subject the advice I have encountered can be distilled as follows: only trust your compass when you know it’s going to be accurate. Say what?
Digital is better
There are many reasons why digital navigation is superior to the old-fashioned map and compass. Your smartphone or GPS device can pinpoint your exact location for you – even at night or in thick cloud – and it can also tell you which direction you’re heading in.
Not only that but you can upload routes to it so that you can follow a trace and ensure that you’re always going the right way. It doesn’t even have to be on your phone. There are loads of watches that can now guide you along a route and warn you when you take a wrong turning. As well as being quicker and easier than map and compass this is also more convenient.
Superior navigation is only one reason why the smartphone beats the map and compass. If you get into trouble on the hills then you can call for help. Technologies such as SARLOC can provide very accurate locations of those in trouble on the mountains enabling rescue teams to find and assist them much more quickly.
And if you don’t need rescuing then you may be grateful for other features that your phone can provide – like a torch and weather forecasts. All in all, your phone is a fantastic piece of kit – we don’t call them smart for nothing.
It’s also worth remembering that smartphone technology is a lot less flaky than it used to be. Most phones these days are at least vaguely water resistant, don’t shatter when you drop them and don’t crash just for fun.
The elephant in the room
But the real reason why digital technology is better than map and compass is because it is easy to use. By comparison, a lot of people can’t use a map and compass sufficiently well. When you’re on a group hike or run there are always plenty of people fussing over maps or smartphones, discussing route options and generally taking an interest in the whole navigation business. But there’s another group who carefully avoid all this.
The usual result is that navigation gets done by the most confident navigators while our lesser navigators tend just to tag along. Letting other people do the navigation for them does nothing to improve their skills.
There are all sorts of reasons why we end up with such a divergence in skillset but it’s more difficult to find a remedy. The weaker navigators could have a turn but it would be slower and more awkward socially and so we tend not to bother. It’s just how human beings work.
It’s not that weaker navigators are incapable of reading maps. While that may be true for a few, most people who have given it a try are capable of following a route on a map. However, being able to follow a route on a map may not be sufficient expertise to help them on those occasions when they really need it most. Insisting that lesser navigators carry maps and compasses in races may be doing them no favours.
You’ve lost me there
Imagine this scenario: You’re taking part in a long race over mountains. You’ve run the route before so it’s not unfamiliar and, while you’re not the best navigator around, you do know how to use the map and compass that’s in your bumbag. But you don’t need to use them right now because you can see where you’re going, you’re confident about the route and there are other runners not so far ahead of you.
The clouds come down and you can no longer see anyone else, but the route is still fairly obvious so you carry on. Well, not quite so obvious, because you’re no longer actually on a path as such. In the mist things look different and you can’t recall whether you should be on a recognised path at this point or not. It’s time to get the map out…
The trouble is that the map doesn’t help much because you’re not certain where you are. You decide that the best course of action is to keep a cool head. Talking of heads, it’s probably time to put a hat on. Standing around in a chilly wind, trying to work out your location, is letting you get cold.
Your plan is to retrace your steps until you’re back on familiar ground and from then on you’ll keep the map handy. You set off but, odd though this might sound, retracing your steps doesn’t take you back to where you were before. You’re now in a new wrong place. You might be very close to where you should be but, on the other hand, you might not. Talking of hands, it’s probably time to put on your gloves on too.
You take out your compass and check what it says. It doesn’t help much because not only do you not know where you are but the compass is pointing in the wrong direction – it’s about 90 degrees out. Are there some magnetic rocks round here? Or has your compass been demagnetised by getting too close to the car engine on your journey to the start of the race or something? Can that really happen? You’re not sure.
At this stage survival is the main priority as you’re getting cold. Competing in the race is no longer important and you’ll quite happily jack it in. Talking of jackets, it’s probably time to put that on too.
What would a good navigator do in this situation?
If you’re confident that you can get out of this hypothetical situation easily and safely then having map and compass as essential items of race kit makes sense. But if that’s not you, then maybe you’re not being well served by race regulations.
It’s very easy to get lost in poor visibility and we’ve all done it (several times in my case). The real skill is in being able to find your way again. It can take a few minutes to go from cheerfully taking part in an event to being worried about what you should do next. Throw in an injury at this stage and you could be in serious trouble. It would be very different if you had a suitably equipped smartphone with you.
(My answer to what you should do in this situation is at the bottom of the page.)
A box ticking exercise?
The problem is that while most people can navigate to some extent, those navigation skills vary enormously. This makes me wonder what the real benefits are of insisting that competitors carry a map and compass in a race.
You could argue that it’s up to the individual to make sure that they’re competent using a map to navigate and many will insist that it’s a key part of the sport. Those who do this sort of insisting inevitably often turn out to be those who are particularly good at navigating.
In my mind a lot of people who venture into the mountains aren’t being recommended the equipment that is best for them. In fell races many runners are being asked to carry equipment that is going to be of little benefit to them when they need it most. It may even be giving all of us a false sense of security.
It’s easy to see how we’ve got into this situation. Who is going to be responsible for drawing up the rules and recommendations around navigation – those who are good at it, or those who aren’t?
If we want competitors in a fell race to be safe – and that is the whole purpose of making a map and compass essential items of kit – then we should also insist that they carry with them the single most useful piece of safety equipment – a smartphone.
So far, it is not mandatory kit on any fell race that I’m aware of (let me know if you know otherwise). I think this needs to change. Any fell that race has map and compass as essential items on the kit list should also add a smartphone to that list. If it’s a particularly long race, then a spare battery pack for the phone would be a good idea too.
It is tempting to say that smartphones are expensive and making them mandatory would exclude less well off members of society from entering races. But I don’t think there can be many people who are capable of getting themselves to the start of a fell race with all the other kit they need who aren’t also capable of borrowing a smartphone for the day.
The advice from mountain rescue teams, walking guides, route-finding websites, the FRA and so on needs to be updated for the digital age. Yes, take a map and compass with you but, more importantly, always take your smartphone with you when you go out on the hills.
What would a good navigator do in this situation?
Sorry. There isn’t a quick solution to the scenario I described above about getting lost in the mountains during a race. Well done if you recognised that it was a bit of a trick question.
It is probably unhelpful and unfair to point out that a good navigator wouldn’t have got into this situation in the first place. Just because their map and compass is in their bumbag doesn’t mean that a good navigator isn’t navigating. They’re reading the map in their head as they go along, ticking off features as they do so. This map may only be a rough outline of the terrain but, not only will they know where they are, they will also be aware of the relative position of a lot of the landmarks around them.
They will also be alert to the problems of navigating in the mist and will have map and compass out in time. Oh, and the bit about the compass being wrong? That’s really unlikely, you need to trust it.
The bit about the other race competitors? A good navigator will have confidence in their own route and won’t be interested in where anyone else is going, except maybe to shout out help to them if they’re really going wrong. I know this because twice I have been in the situation in a race where I’ve followed a group of other people who I knew weren’t taking the best route. If you’re good enough, you’ll trust your own judgement. Finally a good navigator will also carry a GPS device with them.
Trick question aside, your solution should include slope aspect, handrails, pacing and walking on a bearing.