I do a fair amount of walking in poor visibility or at night at this time of the year. I host peer-led night navigation evenings for other members of the Mountain Training Association as well as guiding on dark skies events with Adventures for the Soul.
It is rewarding. It gives you confidence. It means you're not getting stressed that your walk has taken longer than expected, or the weather has turned unexpectedly foul on you, or the mist has come down. You have the skills able to deal with poor/no visibility.
It opens this time of year up to big days out in the hills that can keep your fitness levels up, give you the escapism from the real world and stave off seasonal affective disorder (the winter blues).
Unless you are heading to the higher mountains of Snowdonia, the Lakes or the Highlands of Scotland, pretty much anywhere is still an option that won't require additional tools such as an ice axe, crampons and a good understanding of snowpack and avalanche risk.
But why do i intentionally go out after dark (or at dusk) in winter at night?
For me, it literally gives me twice the options of routes. Even if you know a route or area relatively well during the daytime where it’s relatively straightforward to find your way around provided there’s good visibility, that very same location can provide a completely different experience at night. It can test every element of your navigation skills.
Once you’ve mastered those skills though, it can open up a whole new world of adventure where you can have places that are busy during the day all to yourself at night. On a clear night it’s wonderful to see the arc of the Milky Way running overhead. But even on a cloudy starless evening there’s something thrilling and mysterious about being out after dark.
Ben Chonzie is reportedly the dullest and most boring Munro. The last time I climbed this mountain in the South Eastern Highlands it became an evening I will remember until I take my last breath. I set off as the sun was setting in late November 2017. There were a few groups returning to their cars quickly before the last of the light went. I received a fair share of odd looks as I was heading toward the ascent path! That evening I had a whole mountain to myself. The thrill of being out on a winter mountain having it all to myself was immense.
The setting sun and rising moon produced a performance of pink, orange, blue, purple all around me reflecting off the snow of the surrounding hills. It was magical. That 'boring' Munro is an evening I'll never forget for the sheer beauty all around me. It was only for the final few hundred metres getting back to the car that I needed to put my headtorch on. My eyes were fully adjusted to the low light. The wind had been howling and I'd had a full on adventure.
So how is night navigation different from day navigation? The simple answer is it is no different. You just can't see as far or big features around you. It's the same as being in a cloud. You can't see much around you. On a moonlit evening, there can be as much light to make out different hill forms and that can aid navigation - it's sometimes almost no different from day navigation. But when it's truly dark, when the milky way comes out of the blackness, when the galaxy is lit up, when the meteors are on display - that's when you want the darkness.
There are a few tools that I'll use at night. We cover them on Bronze and Silver Navigator Award courses. But whereas during the day, a navigation stretch can be quite a long distance, at night it becomes micro navigation - very short sections to identifiable landscape features. The tools are:
Orientating the map using the compass (always - whenever you get the map out or to check the direction of a handrail)
Accurate compass bearing
And that's it. Sounds simple? Well, like all things to do with navigation, the tools are easy to learn but takes practice. I've included a video outlining how we orientate the map. We cover this at Bronze Navigator Courses. I absolutely hammer this skill home on Bronze (and Silver) courses. Getting the basics right will help later on when you are needing a bearing and to (hopefully) avoid the dreaded 180... I'll explain this on a course...
However, often the features we're using to orientate to aren't nice big summit cairns, big rivers etc. Locally to me we have the Pennines and North York Moors. Huge areas where for the most part higher up there is almost nothing to aim for but slight clinks or bends in contours. There's nothing placed there to tell you you're there. You have to be confident and well practiced with your timing and pacing to get there as well as sighting when following a bearing.
Sighting? What's that about? It's something we cover on a Silver Navigator Award course but it's a means to accurately follow a compass bearing in poor/no visibility. If I walk off track in the pitch dark with only my headtorch while staring at the compass, I'll get about 3 paces in and trip over something. So this is a tool to enable us to follow a bearing accurately without needing to stare at a compass. I've included a video of taking a bearing and sighting is included. It's nearly 20 mins long...
Although this can sound simple, they are not an easy set of tools to use accurately or with confidence. Indeed - as Mountain Leaders we spend a lot of time on peer-led evenings working together to look at strategy, practice, practice, practice and learn new tricks and ideas from each other. I run Night Navigation Masterclasses and will be putting these on in 2021 again (with the higher Covid tiers this winter, I've largely removed these).
We will always try and aim for something identifiable both on the map and the landscape, but often we really are using kinks on contours. This high accuracy for contour interpretation in proper open land away from human detritus we cover on Gold Navigator Award courses.
OK so those are the skills and tools. Get in touch if you want to get yourself up-skilled.
Almost nothing beats the thrill of being out in the hills at night. Your hearing becomes tuned in to the night chorus, the run and chase of animals, the crack of a twig, the rustle of the wind in the trees. It is a mindfulness experience as well as an adventure. You notice different things at night. When you are still and the headtorch gets turned off, the entire galaxy comes into view on a clear night. It opens up a whole same world to a new experience!