Updated: Jul 17, 2020
I absolutely love nav. It's problem solving when in the extreme. But it's also something that gives me great pleasure and pride in knowing that I can look at a map, interpret it and create my own routes and follow them.
I can truly be free in the hills and mountains. The phone can get turned off (OK it doesn't, I'm usually strava'ing) but I'm not dependent on pre-programmed routes, guide books and the like.
The most magical moment for me was when I first took a bearing, followed it and arrived exactly where I wanted to get to through a really dense cloud on Fionn Bheinn in Torridon. I'd spent years envious of people who could navigate. I was always a group member, never a leader.
But it was over new year 2004 when I finally "understood" it. We were on a uni mountaineering trip to Kinlochewe and the weather was vile. After a few too many beers in the pub I was sat down by one of the "climbers" (as oppose to us "baggers") and had it explained to me.
And it was this simple explanation that did it. No grid references, no knowing the difference between a church with a steeple and one without... Just using the map as a tool.
1. Where are you?
2. Where do you want to get to?
3. Line the edge of the compass between the points
4. Turn the dial so red is in the shed
5. Off you go.
The next day I was to try out my new skill with two others and we succeeded in our quest to the summit of Fionn Bheinn (though every decision and compass twiddle was watched closely by our Gear Secretary - as subtly as he could!)
Of course navigation is more than that. It's skills, experience, a few more tricks and tools and a lot of confidence that makes a good Navigator. These days we also have really accurate GPS. But these can fail. Batteries die when cold, phones don't tend to mix well with water. GPX routes can be lethal in winter as the route doesn't know where potential avalanche hazards are that day.
To be able to navigate well takes time. And in this day and age we want everything instantly. I often think of nav courses as akin to a trip to the physio. I can teach you the tools, but unless you go off and practice them it's a waste of time. Skill fade sets in and you'll forget what I taught you. You'll come on another course and frustration at lack of progress sets in.
But why should you not go out and practice? It's a day out in the hills! It's what you want to be doing anyhow! And the more wet, grey and minging the weather is the more you'll get to use your new nav skills and get good at them. And above all, confident.
Do I use GPS? Well yes. It exists. It's a tool. It's there. But I don't use pre-set routes. I will only use GPS to give me my location from time to time. Then I'll return to traditional nav. If I get a bit geographically challenged when working, a GPS grid ref tells me where I am in seconds. Otherwise I have to use lengthy techniques to re-find myself. And meanwhile my group are getting cold and miserable. But if all electronics fail, I'm not necessarily needing a mountain rescue call out.
I was already a qualified summer mountain leader when I first heard about the National Navigation Award Scheme . At once I was blown away by the simplicity of their Navigator awards: progressive, in stages, practical, and concentrating on what outdoorsy folks actually need to get around the hills. I could have done with this myself during my apprenticeship - but it's been around for 25 years now!
It's a brilliant scheme and I'm proud not only to be able to teach the courses, but to be able to sit on the Board of Directors to help such an amazing charity organisation develop.
The Bronze Award is about relating this 2D map to the 3D landscape. Understanding paths and how they are represented on maps, how to confirm you're on the right one, and ensuring you know where you are at all times. We start looking at what happens if things go wrong and you can plot a route to follow!
The Silver Award is a big step up as this one introduces compass bearings - going off paths and trails for short distances and really understanding contours rather than man made features as markets in the landscape. This award sees that "hallelujah" moment I experienced all those years ago - and I love being there to see that look of glee in others when they make that step!
The Gold Award is taking you into the realm of Summer Mountain Leader level navigation. Where you are off paths for long distances and using the range of tools in different strategies. This really opens up a whole new world of adventure!
All courses are two days. This allows folks time to process info after day 1 and ask questions or repeat sections on day 2. There's nothing worse than leaving a course only for that nagging question to pop into your head. And trying to get an email explanation never seems to cut it.
So get out there. Gain confidence. Who knows where you will go! Back in 2004 I was a PhD uni postdoc research scientist. Who would have thought I'd become a professional mountain guide. Certainly not me!
If you are interested in a course please see the course page . Who knows where this life skill will take you (sorry - that was really corny 😂)
And I still don't know the different symbols for a church with or without a steeple. Because when it comes to nav, it really doesn't matter.