(Shopping made easy)
During the coming months, I will be adding my take on the different parts of modern equipment and clothing here.
Hopefully it will help you make a more informed decision on your future purchases. Of course, we are all different, so what suits one person may not necessarily suit the next!
Compasses, Maps and GPS.
NB. This is not a “How to” Guide, but something to hopefully point you in the right direction…
(Pun intended 😉 )
A very simple and reliable instrument, now consisting of a baseplate and housing, with a magnetic needle inside the housing. These are basically two instruments in one…The bit that always points North and a Protractor.
You can buy all sorts of types of compass, thumb compasses for orienteering, sighting compasses for accuracy, and electronic ones in your watch or phone., but for hill use, a standard “Silva Type” is preferable as they are simple to use.
The magnetic needle always points to magnetic north, which is usually the Red end of the needle. The south end is often white, don’t get the two mixed up as you will end up walking 180 degrees in the wrong direction, and that can and does happen, there was a group in the Cairngorms back in 2013 that did just that, a 180 degree error about 2 miles from the car park…It took them 3 days to reappear.
To complicate things a little more, there are several magnetic fields around the planet that affect the needle, so if you are travelling to say Australia, then there is a very good chance that the needle will “dip”, looking like it is completely stuck when holding the compass flat.
The better makes (Silva and Suunto for example) will produce compasses for different locations around the globe.
As you see in the picture to the right, there are many variations in declination (Adding/subtracting degrees from Grid North) depending on where on the planet you are, but our location (The UK) is fortunate to not have to worry too much about magnetism. I haven’t used that for a good 10 years now, but to be honest, I often just use the map alone.
"Only once have I had to use super accurate navigation (Whilst not on Assessment or during teaching), and that was in the back of Glencoe, in the dark, within an inversion, with a client. The mist was that thick I couldn’t see the ground… On open grassy slopes with steep sided ravines either side, using Compass bearings, pacing, slope aspect and dead reckoning, was the order of that day. I did actually quite enjoy the challenge, in a perverse way!!!"
What to look for…
A good quality compass will nearly always be oil filled to aid a settled bearing quickly. Air filled ones tend to take an age to settle down, which makes them hard to follow accurately when walking on a bearing. Be aware that the cheaper Chinese ones are calibrated as best they can for our part of the hemisphere, but they are likely to be up to 5 degrees wrong.. Imagine you are on a long navigation leg on Bleaklow. A 5 degree error could put you out 100m for every 1KM, so after 10KMs, you can be up to 1KM away in either direction! If 1Km takes you 20 minutes to walk, then it can take you up to an hour of messing around before you can work out which way it is to the pub you had the compass set to!
Compasses produced in Europe work best here, with Silva and Sunnto being the most well-known. These are manufactured in Sweden, so are set for our magnetic field, and are oil filled. These settle very quickly and allows for a half degree error…The baseplates do vary, depending on the end use, but a good one for general year round use is in the photo.
The base plate is long for taking accurate bearings.
Roamer scales for measuring distances.
Magnifying glass, very useful, especially if you need to wear glasses.
Luminous points on the north end of the needle and either side of the red arrow in the northing lines in the housing.
The compass is my Silva Type 4.
Maps are great, and we are fortunate enough to have the best mapping in the world here. The database that the Ordnance Survey have is the largest in the world, and did you know that modern map making started in Scotland? Contours were “discovered” on Schiehallion.
Once you understand how the map relates to the ground, you can them see the image in 3D, and it is now very simple to follow. There are many different types of maps available, but I will just concern us with the standard recreation maps that we use in the UK.
The most common that everyone is familiar with is the maps produced by the Ordnance Survey. All of Britain is covered by The Landranger or Explorer Series.
Ordnance Survey Landranger.
These have been around for a very long time. The scale is 1:50,000 (1cm=500m, or 1mm=50m). The contours are every 10m above sea level, with the thicker Index Contours at 50m. All roads and rivers are on them, but only the main foot paths are there. If they put every detail on this map, you wouldn’t see the shape of the ground as it would be so cluttered. These maps are wonderful for longer journeys, like the Pennine Way, or in the winter mountains where things like paths are buried anyway!
Available in paper or laminated.
Ordnance Survey Explorer.
These have been around nearly as long. The scale is 1:25,000 (1cm=250m or 1mm=25m). These are designed for use by everyone, including surveyors.
The contours are still every 10m above sea level, with the thicker Index Contours at 50m intervals. Everything that is on the ground is represented on these maps as there is generally room for the detail. Every established path is there.
Paper or laminated versions.
These marks are fantastic for learning navigation, for harder navigation legs, and route planning. The downside is that if you want to walk in the Central Lake District, you may need all 4 maps!
These are a little different to The OS ones, with the most notable difference being the heights of the contours…Every 15m above sea level, and the thicker Index Contours at 75m. This does unclutter the map, but makes it more fun to workout time needed to ascend slopes using Naismith’s Rule (Add half a minute for each 10m of height gained, or in this case, 45 seconds). One feature that the Harvey maps have over OS is the coloured contours…brown for earth and grass, grey for rock, making it easier to see the 3 dimensions to the untrained eye.
These are also printed on plastic, so they cannot rot…Mine have been in the washing machine too (Inadvertently!)
There are plenty of varieties if these around, but are quite specific. Basically, they are sections from established maps, sold under licence from the OS.
An alternative to these is to cut up a map you already have into manageable sections…No point carrying a huge map, you have enough to carry!!!
Mapping bought from t’Internet.
With the modern age of computers, it is very simple to obtain mapping for pretty much anywhere. This can be more cost effective than buying paper maps, allowing you to print what you need. One thing you can lose home printing is the fine detail that is produced on a bought paper map…Look at the difference through a magnifying glass. A printed one is often blurry, whereas on an OS printed one, each paper fibre can be seen without any blurring.
Tips, in no particular order…
From this 1 Square KM box, you can determine which way is north, and which way the slopes go… The main wording on any map always has the tops of the letters at the top of the map (North), and bottom of the letters on the bottom (South).A similar rule applies to the numbered contours, the top of the numbers is always uphill of the bottom of the number.
Laminated or plastic maps are the way forward in my opinion. Well worth the extra money if it’s an area you go to often. They last a very long time, and you can draw routes on them, which can often be wiped off with the right substance (Not rain, that would be unhelpful!)
If you go to lots of different areas, then get the paper maps, and a good, waterproof map case. Ortleib seem to make the best ones, certainly the most reliable ones I have had. They seal with a few rolls at the top, the plastic is quite malleable, and does not ”yellow” with age. There are cheap map cases around, but they usually leak and/or crack... The most interesting designs I have seen had holes punched through them for a cord, a very clever idea that(?)
Do not store or carry compasses near batteries or magnetic fields. This can reverse the polarity of the compass, making it point in the opposite direction. Mobile phones is the obvious one, but what about the batteries in your lamp, or trying to take a bearing with your walking pole dangling underneath?
If you walk in a group, always have more than one person navigating. If there is any discrepancies between the navigation legs, you have a good chance to work it out before wasting time and energy by walking in the wrong direction!
The National Grid System used for giving coordinates is a useful feature for sharing locations with others, namely in a Mountain Rescue situation. You don’t have to worry too much about the first 2 letters to put you in the right 100 square KM area, just give them your basic Grid Reference and tell them which map you are using.
All OS maps come with cardboard covers, which is only packaging… carefully remove it to make refolding the map much easier, and less of a squeeze getting it into your pocket.
Be aware that the “Right of Way” (The Green line) and the actual “path on the ground” (The black line) sometimes take different routes.
GPS and Phone Apps.
I should imagine there are lots of folks out there that believe a GPS is all you need to be safe navigating… My GPS is a Grass Pointing Stick, used for pointing to an exact location on a map as your finger is 300m across.
The early models gave just a grid reference for you to translate to a map. This works fine if you can plot it. Another issue with the earlier systems is that the US Government (Who developed and own the GPS Satellites) used to switch it off occasionally. This often happened when you needed it the most.
Now the satellite system is on all the time, things have developed, and accuracy has improved to half a metre or less. Accuracy is helped further by including mapping on a small screen, with your location on top. This does give an immediate visual on the location, but you do need to be able to read a map in the first place to understand it fully and know that the device isn’t guessing.
GPS are fabulous at backing up your navigational legs, confirming where you are on the map, especially if you are out on your own in poor conditions. They are also fantastic at recording your route. I used to use mine for a new Fell Run, recording the distance, ascent, average speed, and time moving… It can even tell you the maximum speed travelled, which sometimes came out at 40KMPH!! I think that was when I was leaping off boulders, certainly not running uphill…
The Etrex 10 (Pictured) is enough as a back up to a competent hill navigator. Do you know that the chip inside here is the same one that is used for the navigation system on the A380 passenger aircraft.
The downside of GPS is that they need contact with several satellites to give you an accurate reading. When they don’t, they can start to guess putting you somewhere briefly that you are not. Another problem is that they can lead in a direct line to the next way point. Not a real issue on the open sea or in a desert, but this can lead to severe outcomes in a mountainous environment… Back in January 2018 there was a chap that went missing on Ben Nevis, having walked off into Gardyloo Gully. They found him 6 months later, and it is believed he was using a GPS to get him off the summit in foul conditions. The red line below indicates the poor guy’s likely line of travel.
Another useful back-up to map reading…Some of the apps are great, like the View Ranger, with OS mapping in the background. The biggest problem with using any phone App is the shortened battery life as it’s using it all up keeping tabs with you. Also, most phones are not designed to be used in poor weather, which is likely as you wouldn’t be using it, with iPhones having a particular issue with cold weather. When I am working in places like Ben Nevis, these particular phones seem to lose all battery life about half an hour from the summit and comes back to life when halfway down. There is also the problem that, if you get lost or have a general emergency, your only contact with the world is flat as a pancake…Surely the phone is better off being used for photos and ringing home to let the loved ones know you are still alive!
I think I have managed to get some good information over. This is just basic stuff, and not definitive.
The information I have given is gleaned from 15 years of teaching map and compass work, which I believe is still the most valid form of navigation around…It has worked for thousands of years, and will still be fundamental for the next few thousand years 😊…
Map and compass work alone in this environment is a great skill to have…Munro Bagging with Duncan, Kintail, April 2018
If you are unsure about your ability to navigate in the hills or mountains, then it is worth spending time going on a navigation course with an Instructor, which will breed confidence and competence.
Navigation is 50% ability and 50% confidence. Do you realise that the techniques you use away from the road is the same as what you do since you started walking to School on your own.
I have seen lots of people over the years that have come along because they got badly lost, and don’t want to do that again…
Navigation in winter is a whole different ballgame… The features are often covered up, leaving only contours to navigate by. You must be super-confident to nav on the inside of a ping pong ball!!!
Using Weather Forecasts For Route Planning
Do you enjoy walking into the wind all day? Are you glad you started after a late breakfast just in time to be rained on all day? I bet you are also happy when it goes dark on you and you trip in a shadow straight into a bog….
These are a few scenarios that can be avoided with some careful planning before you start walking. Most of your navigational decisions are made at home just by having access to the map, up to date weather forecasts and a cup of coffee.
Gone are the days of checking the weather in the newspaper…With the Internet available to lots of people away from home, good accurate weather reports can be had in real time whilst your outside, which if used efficiently, will give you a much more comfortable day out. I will list the forecasts I use at the end of this article.
First things first…
You need to work out which walk or climb you want to do. Once you have this there are some factors to consider that can have an impact on your day…
Which direction is it blowing from, how strong, and is it gusting?
This can be problematic for some people. If the wind is consistently blowing, without gusting, up to 40mph, you should be fine, though it’s hard work. 40-60mph then the lighter weight people may have issues. When the wind is gusting considerably (20mph or more than the average wind speed), then lots of people have problems getting knocked off balance, which could be dangerous on a narrow ridge. Avoid crosswinds in these situations. The wind speed also accelerates as it is getting squeezed over saddles, sometimes being near-impossible to pass. If you are not sure that you can cope, do a different route.
I have had one instance with 2 of us working with a group on Ben Nevis. Windy Corner lived up to its name!!!
“ It was impossible for the smaller ladies to get around the corner with the accelerated wind speed, so it took both of us to drag them around the corner, and a fight for us to get back for the next one…After we were all around the Corner, Stuart looked at me, and we both agreed, without saying a word, that we will return a different way.. I’d never been around the old Golf Course route before, it made a nice change from the Ben Track…”
Generally speaking, a wind from the SW is warm and wet, SE is the weather from Europe, often nicer, E and NE is cold and dry, N is very cold straight from the Arctic Circle, and NW and W winds can bring cold and snow in the winter months. In the Summer, South westerlies are dominant, during the Winter months, North and Easterlies take over.
Is it freezing up there and will any snow melt? Or if it’s very hot, will I have access to drinking water?
If you look at a synoptic chart, you will notice a red and a blue line circling the Arctic. This is the front of the North’s influence. Anything above the red line will be cold the higher you get, and anything above the blue line will be sub zero to sea level. Watch the charts through the winter and you’ll spot them.
Is it going to rain, snow or stay dry?
In rain you’ll get cold and damp, in snow you’ll cold and dry, or if it’s dry, you might just be cold…
If it’s raining, rocks can be slippery, bogs can be boggier and streams can be in spate.
Will I be in it at all, which can affect some navigational decisions? Having low cloud will likely mean that you will spend more time using compass bearings, which can slow you down. Plus you need to consider the wind speed. If it's windy, they'll move away or over quickly. If there is no wind, it is likely to linger!
What time is sunrise, and more importantly, what time will it go dark?
Even if you are not expecting to walk in the dark, take a torch anyway, and some spare batteries.
Start in darkness, finish in daylight, not the other way round!!!
The Scottish Avalanche Information service (sais.gov.uk) runs throughout the winter and adds up-to-date information each day. They give a detailed report of the observed snow conditions from December to April.
There is some fantastic information there, it is a MUST READ for anyone that goes out in the UKs Winter Mountains.
It is good to be armed with access to a few different forecasts.
You do have to bear in mind that these are forecasts, and not the gospel truth, so they can and do vary. The only accurate forecast is the one that just happened 5 minutes ago.
The other major thing to remember is that the weather up high is generally magnified, with much stronger winds. A gentle breeze on the valley floor can be a real fight on an exposed ridge!
If you cross reference a few forecasts from differing sources, and they all say the same, then they are quite confident about the weather patterns. If they vary wildly, or come out with phrases such as “There is low confidence in this forecast” , then there is a good chance they don’t have a clue what’s going to happen…In this case, I just pick the nicest sounding one and use that😉. As a rule, for myself, if I expect it to be wet and windy, I am not surprised. If it doesn’t blow or rain, it’s a bonus!
Weather forecasts that are accessible to us are explained a little below. This is not exhaustive, and there are many more sources of information. I know plenty of folks that use the Shipping Forecast, for instance, but there is no point in trying to decipher something you don’t understand. I will list, what I think, is the most common and appropriate types of forecast we need to get us out and about in the hills and mountains of the UK, whether reading or using charts.
These are only correct just before the time of print, so by the time you read it, it is likely to be 24hours out of date, which is quite a long time.
Weather on the TV.
These are good for a general overview of when to put your washing on the line, or to decide which beach to head to, but they are not ideal for use in the hills. The temperatures and winds they give are for sea level, where most people are, so they are not that reliable for our intended use. It is nearly always colder and windier high up. You can see the difference in the winter months when it’s nice in the village, but the high mountains are covered in snow… Take these with a pinch of salt.
These will be the most accurate and reliable as they are often updated in real time, and they are improving. The main ones that I am familiar with are these… The links I have added are all for the same date so you can compare them
MWIS (Mountain Weather Information Service).
These cover the hilly areas of the UK. They do have specific forecasts for altitude and geography, but they can cover quite an extensive area, still leading to a quite vague forecast, though they are fun to read (“Severe buffeting”, “walking will be torturous”, etc). These are handy if you are visiting an area, and want to pick the driest place to go… They give you a 3-day forecast and is often the one you see posted in Outdoor Shop Windows.
Traditionally, these folks have always done good forecasts (Except for that Michael Fish Episode!) for sea level. Now, their website does include forecast for specific locations, for instance, you can get the forecast for the summit of mountains (Ben Nevis, Coniston Old Man, Snowdon, etc) and Ski resorts like Nevis Range and Glencoe Mountain. These reports are extremely localised, but with good information for up to 5 days ahead. The weather for the day is broken down into 1- or 2-hour segments, so you can even see when it is likely to rain, being able to plan your route to avoid it! This is my current favourite website for this use.
The Fleet Numerical Meteorology and Oceanography Center (FNMOC).
This is a US Navy website. The information they give is vast, for every part of the planet, with synoptic Charts for every 6 hours, up to 8 days’ time. This is the one I use for planning a week ahead so I can pick the better days to be on the hills, or if I am out wild camping with clients, I have a good understanding of what to expect, giving ne a more informed choice of the camp location.
To access it, you need to go on the “Meteorology Products”, click on “WXMAPS”. It then says this site is unsafe. If you go to the details section, and “proceed anyway”, you will get onto the world map. You pick you area (Western Europe for us), then it will list hundreds of Synoptic Charts. The ones that concern us is “1000-500 Thickness [dm] and Sea Level Pressure [mb]”, and there you go!!!It is great fun going through all the other charts too. Check out the colourful Oceans temperatures…
So, these are the main forecasts I use, and found they work well.
Route Planning Tips.
Use a few differing forecasts, and if they all say the same, they must be quite accurate.
Forecasts can and do change, especially when there are low pressure systems floating about. Check them regularly especially the night before, and as you leave the door.
Expect it to be wet and windy, and if it does something else, you are pleasantly surprised.
Even if no rain is forecast, it is still worth carrying your full waterproofs, as you might end up travelling slowly for a reason, say a rolled ankle, and you might be glad for the extra layer… Failing that, they make excellent picnic blankets.
If you are planning a linear route, walk with the wind behind you, it’s hard walking into the wind all
If the day is expected to be foul or short daylight hours, plan a route that you can escape from.
Work out your time for the given route, and don’t forget to add to time for stops (Toilet, food, photos, etc). This will ensure you know how much daylight you have at the end of the day, if any.
If your day out does finish in the dark, consider starting earlier. You will travel at half speed in darkness as the shadows are bottomless. It is always best to have the spare daylight at the end of the day. You will feel better for it, and it’ll be much easier to find somewhere still serving food on the way home.
In the Springtime, there may still be extensive patches of old snow lying around, specifically on North and East facing aspects. Cold night-time temperatures will keep this bone hard. If you want to avoid snow, consider this. It is worth carrying an ice axe and possibly crampons if the snow could be a reality and unavoidable.
So, here is what I do when I am planning a route...
Let us say The Ring of Steall, a classic UK hill walk taking in 7 tops, 4 of which are Munros, with some simple scrambling involved. The route is 10 miles long, with 1700m of ascent…Quite a big day for anyone!!!
For this scenario, I’ll use the forecast for 23rd November 2019,
supplied by the Met Office.
Using the navigation tools I have learnt and perfected over the years, I can work out how long the whole route should take.
Generally, the timing for the entire route at my speed (4KMPH) is 4 hours, plus the time needed for ascent (half a minute for each 10m of height gained) and descent (Looking at the map, the start and end of the walk is steep). So for the ascent, I’ll add 85 minutes, and an hour for descent. The total time for the walk is 6 hours 25 minutes.
If I travel at 3KMPH (Which will allow for stops) will take me approx. 7 hours. Darkness is coming about 4pm, so I want to be off the steep ground before then. I will also leave myself and hour and a half of spare day light at the end of the day. I will manage this by starting the walk at 7am.
It is also just above zero Celsius on the summit of Am Bodach, so the snow there will be softer, could be slippery and very slowly melting. I think I will carry my axe and crampons.
The wind is looking quite strong, but not unmanageable for me, so I have-to be careful on Devils Ridge and An Gearanach where the ground is narrow and steep on both sides, with cross-winds. Even though the wind is gusting strongest in the morning (30-40mph), I will do the route anti clockwise, so I am fresher for the more technical section.
The cloud will thicken up around lunchtime, when I should be a large chunk of the way around the route because of my early start. The forecast has stated that visibility will be “Good” most of the day, so that shall help, as long as it’s correct. And a 10% chance of rain…I might just stay dry 😊.
There is 4G along the route, so I can check the forecast for updates as I go.
I can see several escape routes on the South side of The Ring of Steall. I know that if I need to get down, I can there, walk to Kinlochleven, and get a bus back to Fort William, should I need to.
I will check the forecast again when I go to bed, and in the morning too.
Now that I have a Game Plan, I’ll let someone know my intended route, and will ring them during the afternoon, and when I get down, so they know I am safe and well.
There you go, job done😊.
Now time to go for the walk….
See you later
The process remains the same year-round, except in winter, you do have to consider the snow and avalanche conditions that prevail.
This route planning write up took a little while to do, but I think it was worth it.
There is plenty to think about here, but it can all be done over a coffee in the front room at home. Let me know if I missed something, and I’ll add it.
There is no excuse to get caught out ever again….
Written by Rich Pyne, as part of an ongoing series