Navigation for Fellrunners

The Artform of not Getting Lost

Author: Chris Maylor

The freedom of running on the hills without the burden of heavy packs and being able to skip uncluttered amongst the tussocks and dance freely from rock to rock is the beauty of fell running. Fell runners carry lightweight equipment allowing them to move freely and quickly across the hills. However, all responsible fell runners carry appropriate equipment for the terrain and weather conditions, as detailed in the equipment section. Two items of equipment which should always be carried on the hill are the map and compass.

In fine weather and on familiar ground it is likely that these two essential pieces of equipment will never have to be used, unless you are trying to reach a difficult to find, remote location. However, when the weather closes in or darkness falls it is easy to become disorientated, even on the most familiar of terrain. There are endless stories of walkers and even fell runners who have been caught out on familiar hills when the conditions have changed and have become lost. Had they carried the essential items and had a working knowledge of mountain navigation they would have avoided a long uncomfortable night out on the hill. For some the end result was worse.

Because fellrunners are free spirits and are not weighted down by heavy burdens they are not restricted to staying on paths and tracks. They can venture from point to point, by virtually any route they choose,and enjoy the full unrestricted freedom of the countryside. As a result it is essential that you are always aware of where you have been and where you are going to and that you can relocate yourself when required.

The Map

In simple terms a map is a bird’s eye view of the ground which is drawn to scale. There are different types of maps drawn at different scales for a variety of uses. These different types of maps use different scales, symbols and styles of mapping to represent and depict the ground. Ordnance Survey maps are produced in two scales, 1:50,000 and 1:25,000. The 1:50,000 Landranger series covers the whole of the United Kingdom. Whilst the 1:25,000 Leisure series covers popular countryside areas.

The art of good map reading is to be able to look at the map and picture the ground in your mind. This is a skill that can only be obtained by getting out and practicing the art of map reading.

It is essential that a map is kept waterproof in some sort of clear waterproof bag and can still be read whilst protected from the elements. A map will fall to pieces in a matter of only a few minutes when wet. OS 1:25,000 maps can now be obtained pre-laminated which does help to prolong their lifetime.

The Compass

There a vast array of compasses on the market. However a good quality ‘Silva’ type compass is still the best model available for effective mountain navigation. Essential features on the compass are:

  • A transparent base plate
  • Easily viewable direction of travel arrow
  • Orienting lines in the compass housing
  • Romer

Other useful features are:

  • Magnifying lens
  • Scales
  • Luminous markings for night navigation

Learning techniques

Navigation is a practical skill. Whilst the basic principles can be obtained from books and other useful sources it is important that time is spent ‘on the ground’ practising and consolidating the array of techniques that are required for effective navigation in the hills.

Suggested reading

Mountain navigation by Peter Cliff – ISBN 1-871890-55-1

A very informative and easy to understand reference book that teaches both basic and more advanced navigation skills.

Mountain Navigation for Runners by Martin Bagness – ISBN 0-9521005-0-9

A small book aimed at navigation for fell and mountain runners.

The Mountaineering Council of Scotland has a very good navigation section with step by step instructions covering a range of navigation skills & techniques.