Improving our navigation skills - Pentlands May 2013

On the afternoon on Thursday, 16 May, I left work early.  Carrying my boots and hillwalking gear in my rucksack, I headed for the bus stop in Lothian Road.   A number 15 bus took me to Lothianburn and after crossing the busy road I made my way up to the car park at Hillend ski centre where I met up with Robert, Jennifer and Carolyn and our instructor, Stephen Fallon.

Ironically, on the one occasion when we would have welcomed the challenge of some low cloud and restricted visibility, it was a fine sunny evening with clear views in all directions.

We started in Steven’s mobile classroom.  We introduced ourselves and gave him a brief idea of our experience – varying from novice with brand new map and little knowledge of navigation to experienced but in need of a refresher. 

Steven talked about a number of different maps and their uses; he explained about scales, symbols and contours, and how to identify various geographical features on the map.   He reminded us about how to give a grid reference.  For most areas in Scotland he advised us that the 1:50000 maps are fine for use on the hills.

Steven showed us a number of compasses, including some we definitely would have avoided using: one had completely reversed polarity, another had a large air bubble which affected the swing of the needle, one contained no fluid and another had no scale on the base plate. 

Then we looked at how to set the map and Steven mentioned the effect of magnetic variation (which is currently very small).   He showed us how to use the compass to work out the direction of travel and take a bearing, how to measure distances and how to work out how long it should take to travel from one point to another. He provided a ready-reckoner card to calculate journey times over distances from 100m to 1000m, at different walking speeds, and explained about adding an allowance for height gained.

Outside, we paced out a measured 100 metre track and noted out how many double paces each of us took to cover the distance.

Then we set out, armed with map, compass, stop watch and card, to put the theory into practice.   We started by working out our exact location outside the ski centre, using landmarks to orientate ourselves.  Then we navigated between set points on the map, calculating the distance and timing or pacing it out.   We took bearings and checked whether the features on the map – boundaries, woodland, buildings – matched up with our surroundings.   Oops, my 1991 map didn’t have the path marked – swap with Steven; Jennifer’s compass had no fluid and was pronounced ‘goosed’ – swap with Steven; and then we were off again: orientating, measuring and comparing bearings and calculations with each other; pacing, timing, correcting and checking as we went.   The stream marked on the map was surprisingly insignificant on the ground, but the lie of the land helped us identify its course; off again steeply up the hill, picking up hints as we went.  

The time flew past and when Steven called a halt we were such a short distance away from the top of Allermuir that we decided to continue to navigate our way to the trig point.  I was surprised to learn that I was the only member of the party who had been there before.  I remarked on the missing view indicator – cue for Steven to demonstrate a wonderful App – My View – which helped us identify everything from Corstorphine Hill to East Lomond, from North Berwick Law to Ben Lomond – all ranged in front of us at 9pm on a fine spring evening.

Sorry, no pictures of us using map and compass as we were all much too busy concentrating to worry about taking photos, but here we are at the top of the hill. 


Then it was a quick tramp back to the carpark where we returned borrowed equipment and thanked Steven for a most interesting and informative session.  


This training is recommended to anyone looking for an introduction to navigation or an opportunity to refresh their skills.   


Now we are looking forward to putting our newly acquired skills into practice – map, compass and stopwatch in hand - Direction, Distance, Duration – are we all agreed?   Right, let’s do it!


Thanks to Fraser for arranging our evening with Steven.