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.


12 Of The Best Things To Do In Birmingham, England.

Perched in the heart of England, Birmingham is the country’s second largest city after London and one that’s great to explore… especially on a first time trip! With a handful of museums, country houses, parks and some incredible shopping spots, there really are so many amazing things to do in Birmingham.

Whilst growing up in rural Wales, Birmingham was often the biggest city to visit (about 3 hours away) and times I have such fond memories of! It’s a great city for exploring

That being said, a trip to a new city can be tough to plan, especially one that’s pretty large. That’s why I wanted to share some of my favourite things to do in Birmingham on your first ever visit.

1.) Visit St Philip’s Cathedral

St Philip’s Cathedral is an architectural wonder for it is one of the few English baroque style churches in addition to being one of the countries smallest cathedrals. It’s just a short distance from the Jewelry Quarter so when you finish buying what attracts you there you can stroll over to this attraction.

Inside you should look up to the ceiling and you will discover 2000 soul boats hanging from above. Remember to take your camera.

2.)The Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

The Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery is one of the best things to do in Birmingham, especially if the weather takes a turn for the worse. 

Once here, make sure to explore the rooms for Anglo-Saxon gold, Indian bronze statues and European culture while the big kids amongst us will enjoy the dinosaur exhibits and the Egyptian mummies in their coffins.

If you’re looking for a typical English brekkie in the city, pop over to the Grand Central Kitchen. It’s a no-frills kinda spot that really serves a hearty breakfast that’ll keep you full past lunch! It’s amazing.

3.) Explore Aston Hall

Exploring Aston Hall is possibly one of the best things to do in Birmingham and probably one of the most significant to see. As one of the final Jacobean houses to be built, it has a history that’s just so great to explore.

Once here, make sure to visit the display rooms (including one featuring the role the house played during the Civil War) and the symmetrical gardens that are perfect for a little stroll.

After all that exploring, pop into The Wilderness (on Warstone Lane). The whole experience of getting into the dining area to the food served is just incredible.  Just make sure to book ahead, they’re nearly always full.

4.) Visit the Birmingham Symphony Hall 

The Birmingham Symphony Hall is one of England’s finest concert halls with world-class acoustics in the stunning architecturally beautiful auditorium. In addition to listening to internationally renowned orchestras, you can also visit here to watch rock concerts, jazz musicians and even comedy shows. It really has something for everyone and productions are on a show almost every day throughout the year.

You should look at their website to see what is available when planning your trip. It’s a great way to end (or start) and evening in Birmingham. 

If you’re looking for a bite to eat before heading over to Symphony Hall, pop into The Meat Shack (on Thorp Street) that serves up some tasty baskets of burgers, ribs and loads of loaded fries. It’s the kinda place where you tuck in with your hands without any judgement. I love it!

5.) See the National Motorcycle Museum

Now, heads up…if you’re not a motorcycle fan, you’ll probably hate this spot. But, if you are you’ll probably be itching to visit one of the UK’s larges motorcycle museums.

Featuring more than 1000 motorcycles from around the world that have all been restored to their original specifications. The oldest machine on display dates from 1898 and sits alongside some of the most powerful superbikes on the road today.

Just make sure you’ve got a passion for bikes before you visit!

6.) Spend the evening at the Gas Street Basin

The Gas Street Basin is the area of Birmingham that was at the centre of England’s canal system. You can take a walk alongside these canals that are just five minutes away from the city centre. Today, all of the industry has been replaced by some pretty cool bars and restaurants, making a perfect place for you to take a stroll.

For a taste of fine dining, pop into Carters of Moseley who serve up the best Orkney scallops and red mullet in all of Birmingham.

7.) Ride the Shakespeare Express

The Shakespeare Express is a steam train operating from Birmingham to Stratford upon Avon helping to keep alive one of Britain’s institutions. Now, currently, the trains have stopped for this year and the team are renewing their passenger license (which will hopefully be ready for next year).

Make sure to check their website to see once this has been approved – it really is one of the best things to do in Birmingham.

There are only a few steam trains still in operation in the country and they help to captivate tourists with this return to the past. You can join them when you visit Birmingham and take a relaxing trip through the Warwickshire countryside while being served a delicious meal.

8.) Wander around Winterbourne House

Winterbourne House and Gardens is located just a few miles from Birmingham and a great spot to experience a little history of this area.

Once here, make sure to stop off to see the art and crafts on display or wander through the house and observe the collection of antiques. When you have finished in the house take a stroll around the gardens with over 6000 plant species on display collected from all over the world. It really is one of the best things to do in Birmingham if you love beautiful gardens.

If all that exploring gets you hungry, pop into Adam’s on Waterloo Street. They serve up some of the best Michelin Star food in the city. Just make sure to book before heading over.

9.) Ramble through Sheldon Country Park

Sheldon Country Park is an ideal setting for some proper rambling in the countryside, there are several trails differing in length from 2 to 5km or you can combine some interconnecting trails to make a long walk. Close to the park entrance you will find the Old Rectory Farm, this dairy farm dates from the 17th century and has been fully restored.

Now, for any pane spotters our there, Sheldon Park is located right next to the Airport, which means there are ample opportunities to spot some planes landing and taking off.

10.) Shop at the Bullring

Now, the Bullring is the centre of Birmingham and always a hive of activity. Once here, make sure to visit the iconic Selfridges store (with all the bubble-esque architecture), wander through the shopping areas and explore St. Martin’s Square.

That being said, if you want a less shiny experience, pop over to the Bullring Rag Market that hosts hundreds of temporary stalls selling everything from fruit and veg to clothing.

If all that shopping gets you hungry, stop off at Viceroy Tandoori that conjures up some of the tastiest curries in the city.

11.) Gorge at the Great Western Arcade

Built within Victorian-era, the Great Western Arcade has a long history in Birmingham. Nowadays, the arcade is still a thrive of activity where you’ll get a few high-street brands mixed in with independent boutiques.

Once here, make sure to stop off at Sushi Passion for, you guessed it, sushi. Also, chocolate lovers unite at Chouchoute Chocolaterie where you can totally gorge! It’s one of the best spots and things to do in Birmingham… every chocolate lover will surely agree?

12.) Chillout at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens

The Birmingham Botanical Gardens is one of the totally stunning things to do in Birmingham… especially if you love nature!

There are four glasshouses that are surrounded by large lawns and beds of flowers and shrubberies, whilst Inside the beautiful glasshouses are tropical plants from all over the world.

Depending on the season, the gardens also host a number of gigs and shows that you can book tickets for. Take a look at their website for the latest events.

Lloyd, Hand Luggage Only, https://handluggageonly.co.uk

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