Maps at the Ready

For anyone who enjoys spending time outdoors, navigation is a key skill. It’s the most reliable way of keeping safe; whether you’re up a mountain, on the moors, in glorious sunshine or battling the elements – navigation skills will keep you on track. Recently I had the great fortune of spending a weekend with some fellow Ordnance Survey #GetOutside Champions in the Peak District on a course with the Ultimate Navigation School.

Ultimate Navigation School (UNS) was founded to provide a standardised, high level of navigation training. Set up as charity, all profits go to organisations that maintain the outdoors we all love. The courses offered are based around the Ultimate Navigation Manual and are led by instructors with a range of experiences and skills. There’s something for everyone, whether you’re after learning the basics or want to refine and test your advanced skills.

The weekend began just outside of Glossop with tea and biscuits (always a good start!) I hadn’t seen any of the OS Champs since our launch event in January so it was a lovely opportunity to catch up with everyone, hear about their recent adventures and upcoming plans. It’s always so nice to spend time with people who share your passions and conversation is always free flowing with this lot. Once we’d all caught up, we were sat down for a briefing with the UNS instructors and split into our groups. I booked onto the intermediate course – there’s a useful self assessment guide on their website which you can find here – as despite spending a lot of time walking the fells, I hadn’t done any proper navigation since my DofE days and knew I needed a refresher. Maps collected, groups sorted and instructors met, off we went to the start point of our walk.

Grey skies to start

As usual, the weather wasn’t in our favour. Grey skies, a chilly breeze and the forecast of rain was looming, but thanks to the recent poor weather in the UK we were all kitted out for the worst. Our instructor, Stuart, made sure we had the essentials for nav training – a map, a compass and a stopwatch. Our first task was to find “our number.” Pacing is an important part of navigation and requires you to know how many double paces you take over a 100m stretch. Cue 5 of us taking it in turns to walk down a road counting under our breath, and you arrive at a number – 72 was to be engrained into my memory!

Over the course of the morning, Stuart covered basics with us and this included the 5 D’s of navigation:

  • Direction – left, right, North, South, compass bearings – which way are you heading?
  • Distance – how far are you travelling? Use a compass to measure accurately and check the scale of your map!
  • Duration – how long is that duration going to take you? Also consider the terrain you are walking on, any height gained or lost and (if you’ve already measured your pace) calculate the time. Use your stopwatch to check your timing is correct.
  • Description – what features are along your route that will help you distinguish where you are. These may include buildings, fence lines, terrain changes, height changes – you get the gist.
  • Destination – what is your end point? Identify what you will see there and what you may see that will suggest you have gone too far – this is known as a catching feature.

Alongside these 5 principles we used compass bearings and aiming off techniques to navigate through the day. Stuart also showed us how to use contour lines to navigate parts of our route, and at various points challenged us by asking us to use features of the valley below to find our exact location and grid reference – chocolate for the closest! The Peak District can be very plain with few distinguishing features, and sometimes the terrain isn’t easy to pace over – all these factors had to be taken into account when calculating our location, duration and destination.

Using a bearing to walk to an attack point across the heather – ending up pretty close!

As if I couldn’t recommend this course enough – Stuart also comes stocked with Jelly Babies!

Despite the poor weather, we kept smiling and trucking on and day 1 was a success. The opportunity to take part in nigh nav taster was also available so I jumped on. It was amazing to see how different navigating in the dark can be, and at times so much harder. You take for granted the ability to see features when it’s light but once the sun has gone down, it’s so easy to miss these. Fence lines and objects shown on maps sometimes can’t be seen until you’re less than a metre away. It was great to be able to put the skills we learnt during the day to the test, and walking with a bigger group meant we could also try skills like leap frogging to follow a bearing. There was a lot of snow left and sometimes this was covering holes in the ground. Cue lots of falling over – OS champs apparently have a hard time staying on their feet!

Clowning around in the snow

Day 2 arrived with blue skies and sunshine ready for our assessment day. We had been set the task to complete a route card over the evening for the parts of the route we had been given to lead. The word assessment automatically puts dread into people’s minds, but UNS make it very clear that it’s not an exam. They want to see you utilising your skills, working as a team and correcting any problems that may arise.

Blue skies and some completely candid map reading….

The route planned by UNS took us over some really beautiful parts of the Peaks and the weather really allowed for us to enjoy it. It was still very boggy underfoot and this made some parts difficult to walk and pace, but it meant we could demonstrate the skills we had learnt to cross re-entrants, follow bearings and time our distances.

This map stuff can be puzzling….!

Lunch at the site of a crashed WW2 US Airforce plane.

The day went really well and what I loved so much was that we all had a great time. In amongst the serious stuff there were so many opportunities to chat, get to know each other better and lots of laughter. I came away from the weekend feeling much more confident having topped up my navigation skills. I go walking alone quite often and I know that what I have learnt will ensure I stay on track or can find my way out of a situation. For anyone interested in learning some more nav skills, I would highly recommend Ultimate Navigation School. You’re guaranteed:

  • Friendly, highly qualified instructors who will teach at a pace you can work to
  • A well structured course with informative and useful content
  • Great opportunities to put your skills to practice on the hills
  • Courses available in various places in the UK
  • Opportunity for accreditation after you’ve completed a course
  • A fun and light hearted atmosphere and a great opportunity to meet like minded people
  • If Stuart’s about – jelly babies!

In all, a great weekend catching up with other champs who I’m so lucky to call my friends and an awesome experience out on the hills. Many thanks to Ordnance Survey and Ultimate Navigation School. I’m now really looking forward to my next nav adventure.

Photo credits: David Mellor, Stuart Gregory, Lisa Wells, Mairi Oliver and Emma Frampton. Thank you.

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