Why you should know how to read a map and compass

Skyrunner and fell running expert Keri Wallace explains why map and compass skills are vital for outdoor enthusiasts.

Written by Keri Wallace, 28 November 2018

Whether you are a skier, boarder, climber or runner, if you love getting high up in the mountains, then you’re going to need to know your way around. In this age of digital technology, stand-alone GPS devices and smart phones with GPS technology are increasingly people’s go-to navigational aids. But over-reliance on these devices is increasing the number of mountain rescue call-outs in the UK. While it’s sensible to carry a GPS device with you, strong map and compass skills are also essential. Here’s why.

1.Battery life can be very short in cold weather

Although the advertised battery life of modern GPS devices can be days long, actual hours vary depending on usage and conditions. In very cold weather, battery life can be severely compromised – particularly in smartphones. Most mobile phones aren’t waterproof or shock-proof, either, so if your phone becomes damaged, you’re going to need some navigational back-up. Pronto.

2. Your GPS skills might not be as sharp as you think

Many people head out into the mountains ‘safe in the knowledge’ that they have their GPS device with them. Although modern technology is increasingly reliable and accurate, users still need to be very proficient at using their chosen technology in order to rely on it in poor weather. And if the bad weather sets in, the last thing you want is to be left scratching your head, wishing you’d bothered to read the manual (especially if you can’t read a map!).

3. GPS devices can result in overconfidence in poor conditions

Putting all your faith in a GPS device and wandering further and further into unknown territory is all well and good until the GPS fails – then you are firmly up a certain creek without a paddle. Be wary of pushing on in challenging conditions or terrain if you don’t have the basic map and compass skills as a back up if things go wrong. For Skyrunner Es Tresidder, who sits on the 2018 UK Skyrunning Team, these skills allow him to train in the mountains, even when the weather is poor. He says: “Knowing I am competent with a map and compass gives me the confidence to head out in less than ideal weather, and to get back in time and in one piece.”

4. GPS devices don’t interpret the terrain

In the mountains, you need to be able to understand what the terrain will be like by reading the map, in order to make informed route choices. Many people use GPS devices to plot a track from A to B in low visibility, but this will often result in a linear route, irrespective of the terrain that lies between, e.g. cornices, crevasses or precipitous ground.

5. You can better plan escape routes

Learning to navigate using an electronic device involves reading an instruction manual, whereas map and compass skills are learned via a gradual process of trial and error, putting theory into practice in the mountain environment. By default, this practice helps develop an appreciation of mountainous terrain, making mountaineers more proficient, adaptable and able to self-rescue if necessary.

For climber and member of the GB Ice Climbing team Anna Wells, these skills are essential. “Some of the best walls for rock climbing are situated in remote mountainous areas, and getting to the base of a route can be an adventure in itself,” she says. “Even then, the rock climb is only half the battle. I have often arrived at the top of a climb in poor visibility or darkness, leaving me fully dependent on my navigational skills for a safe decent.”

6. You can avoid avalanche-prone slopes

Ninety percent of avalanche deaths are caused by the victim or someone in their party. But in most cases, it is possible to plan a route that avoids avalanche-prone slopes (as identified by avalanche forecasts/past conditions). This involves being able to interpret the map and identify unsafe aspect of slopes in the planning stage. Freeskier and Red Bull athlete Paddy Graham says this sort of planning is essential. He says: “Know your route, your options, always plan ahead and also share these plans with someone.”

Whether you are using a GPS with map display or an old-fashioned map and compass, it is the ability to map read on the hill that will enable you to avoid straying onto unstable aspects of slope or into terrain traps. “Sometimes the best method is the oldest; a map and compass never runs out of battery or service,” says Paddy.

7. You will be able to conserve your phone battery for emergencies

In the event of an accident in the mountains, you will need your mobile phone to communicate with Mountain Rescue. If you use your mobile phone as a navigation aid, it will drain the battery and increase the chance of being unable to call for help. If you have a smart phone with power, then there is a chance that the mountain rescue service will be able to locate your position remotely (using SARLOC/similar), and you should be able to send an emergency text message, even when there is insufficient signal to make a call (for EmergencySMS just text the word ‘register’ to 999). That said, as back up, you should know how to give your location (grid reference) using your paper map.

8. You never know when you might need them

It is a good idea to take a GPS with you into the mountains if you have one, but be able to navigate with a map and compass should you need to. However, if you forget to practise with your map and compass now and then, you might find these skills have deserted you just when you really need them…

Where to learn

There are hundreds of providers out there offering navigation courses, ranging from introductory level to advanced skills and refreshers. They are inexpensive and available all over the country – just look for providers with Mountain Training recognised qualifications. The Map Reading Co delivers a practical 2 day outdoor navigation course during the summer which is a great way to put theory to practice and pick up some valuable experience.

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