Before being able to take a compass bearing it is essential to understand the relationship between True North, Grid North and Magnetic North. (Part II, walking on a compass bearing, will follow next month).
The Three Norths
Grid North is the navigational term for the northward projection of the north-south gridlines on a map. In Ireland it lies to the east of both True and Magnetic North.
True or Geographic North is aligned with the Earth’s axis and points to the geographic North Pole, the axis on which the Earth is spinning. In Ireland it lies west of Grid North and east of Magnetic North.
Magnetic North is defined as the direction toward which the north-seeking, (red) arrow of a compass points. Magnetic North is the northern pole of the Earth’s magnetic field and it deviates from True North over time because the earth’s magnetic poles are not fixed in relation to its axis. The current magnetic north pole is located in the Arctic Islands of Canada and is moving very slowly eastwards. In Ireland it currently lies west of both Grid North and True North.
The relative positions of Grid, True and Magnetic North will vary, depending on where you are in the world.
For the purposes of mountain navigation in Ireland and the UK, True North can be ignored.
Magnetic variation is the difference in angle (in degrees), between Magnetic North and Grid North. It varies from place to place, and with time.
In those countries that do not use a grid system, magnetic variation is the difference in angle between Magnetic North and True North.
When taking a bearing from the map, we initially align the compass with the north-south grid lines, or Grid North. However, the red end of the compass needle is pointing to Magnetic North, and we must make a small adjustment to the bearing for this.
Information on the magnetic variation for a particular area can be found in the margins of the map. To calculate the Magnetic Variation we need three pieces of information from the map. 1) Year of map update. 2) The rate of decrease (or increase) of magnetic variation. 3) The current year.
From this information it is possible to calculate the adjustment applied to the compass bearing.
At the present time in Ireland the magnetic variation should be added when taking a bearing from the map to follow on the ground.
In The Wicklow mountains the current magnetic variation (2017) is 4.0 °
Taking a Bearing
Place the compass on the map so that one of the long lines on the base plate, (or the compass edge, though this is less accurate), is touching both your starting point and target point. Ensure that the ‘direction of travel arrow’ is pointing towards your target point. (diagram 1)
Hold the compass firmly on the map and rotate the compass housing until the orienting lines in the base of the housing are lined up with, (running parallel to), the north-south grid lines on the map; and the orienting arrow is pointing north. (diagram 2)
Take the compass off the map and read the bearing at the index line on the compass housing. This is the Grid Bearing. (diagram 3)
Calculate the magnetic variation for your location and add or subtract this from the grid bearing. Adjust the bearing at the index line accordingly. This is the Magnetic Bearing.
Hold the compass in front of you with the direction of travel arrow pointing directly away from you. Turn your whole body until the north end of the needle lines up with the orienting arrow (put red in the shed). The direction of travel arrow is now pointing you towards your target.
To learn more about mountain navigation, or to join one of our very popular Mountain Skills courses, go to:
It’s a cliché to say we have become reliant on technology, and we certainly need a map and compass, and perhaps a GPS system, to find our way around unfamiliar hills.
But how did our ancestors find their way around, and what natural features did they use to navigate across the land in times gone by?
Here are 5 ways in which our forebears may have navigated around the landscape; and though we don’t suggest you leave your map and compass at home, it might be fun to try these out sometime, and see if you can navigate like the ancients!
Navigate by the Sun
We all know the sun rises in the east, but in reality, due to the complicated relationship between the Earth and the Sun, this only happens on the equinoxes, in March and September. In the middle of June it will rise in the northeast, and in December in the southeast.
However, it is possible to use the sun to determine the cardinal points (North, South, East, West) by using a ‘shadow stick’. To do this you need a stick around a metre long a handful of pebbles and a sunny day.
Push the stick upright into the ground and mark the end of its shadow with a pebble, now hang around. Every 15 minutes or so mark the end of the sticks shadow with a pebble, and after an hour a distinct line of pebbles will become apparent. The first position of the shadow is the western end of the line, and this line is aligned west to east, allowing you to determine the cardinal points for East and West, and those at right angles to that line, North and South.
Navigate by the Moon
It is possible, when in the northern hemisphere, to find south by observing the Moon. Look up at the Moon when it is waxing or waning, (this does not work when there is a full Moon), and draw an imaginary line between the ‘horns’ of the crescent of the Moon. Continue that line down to the horizon, either by eye or by holding a straight object up to it.
The position on the horizon where this line falls is South.
Navigate by the stars
The details of how our ancestors navigated by the stars may seem complex to us now, but perhaps the easiest piece of stellar navigation is this method of locating North.
Many of us in the northern hemisphere can recognise the constellation Ursa Major, or the Plough, it’s the one with the distinct saucepan outline.
By locating the outer edge of the ‘pan’ we can draw a straight line, about 5 times the distance between these outer stars, and here we will find Polaris aka the North Star.
The North Star sits directly above the North Pole on Earth, and so enables us to find the direction of North.
Navigate by using plants
Plants will always grow towards the sun, and a tree will always have heavier and more luxuriant growth on its southern side rather than its northern side. To see this effectively you need to find an isolated tree growing alone, in a wood the trees are crowded for space and this effect is overshadowed by the need to compete with each other.
Certain lichens and mosses prefer sun to shade, and can often be seen growing on the southern side of large tree trunks, this can be quite reliable when seen on a number of trees growing together.
Navigate by the wind
The prevailing wind, (the direction the wind predominantly blows in), can be determined for your location. In Ireland the winds are generally westerlies, and in exposed areas trees will be ‘raked’ by the wind and will grow bent and downwind. By observing the shapes of these trees it is possible to estimate where West is.
The wind does not change its direction a great deal during the course of a day, unless a frontal system passes though, and this is usually easy to spot. So it could be possible to navigate using the feel of the wind on your face, or the direction it is blowing the grass and other vegetation. However, in hilly areas the wind can swirl around the peaks and saddles, so this may not be so reliable in the mountains.
Russ Mills runs Mountaintrails, a guided hiking and navigation training business based in Dublin, Ireland.
You may wish to learn to navigate using the more familiar methods of map and compass. If so, check out the navigation courses on our website: Mountaintrails Navigation Courses
I was recently asked to produce a list of essential kit that you should pack for a day out in the mountains, (outside of winter), and I have reproduced it here, with some expanded explanations:
A pack of 30 – 35 litres capacity is best, and would be sufficient for carrying what you would need for the day.
Rucksack liner or cover
My preference is always for a liner, a waterproof bag that sits in the main compartment of your pack and helps to keep the contents dry in wet weather. Rucksack covers have a tendency to come off in high winds and can be awkward to manage.
Put those items that you want to ensure stay dry into drybags for extra protection form the weather.
Waterproof Jacket & Pants
Invest in a good waterproof jacket and waterproof pants. These are essential items to ward off both rain and cold winds. Inadequate protection from either can make you uncomfortable at best, and at worst can lead to hypothermia, as the chilling effects of wet clothes and high winds are greatly increased.
Choose one with a breathable membrane to reduce moisture building up inside, and ensure it has either waterproof zips or storm flaps to cover the zip, this will prevent water ingress through the front. Make sure it has a good hood too, with plenty of volume, and that this is adjustable.
Take several pairs. I am often finding lost gloves and hats in the hills, so take spares to use in case you lose one. It’s also great to change into dry gloves half way through a wet day. Fleece type gloves are ideal for most conditions, but be prepared to upgrade to insulated and waterproof gloves in the colder months.
Brightly coloured beanies are the order of the day here!
Map and compass
Essential items for all hillwalkers, do not rely on smartphone apps as they can get wet and cold and then fail. Carrying a map and compass is not enough on its’ own, you need to be confident and competent in their use. If you are not sure how to navigate yourself around the mountains with a map and compass then go on a course to learn how to master these essential skills.
Warm spare layer
You may have an enforced stop in the mountains, maybe a colleague has an injury, or perhaps you are stopping for lunch in an exposed spot. In this scenario a spare warm layer is ideal. A synthetic insulated jacket is best, it can be put over your existing clothing, including wet waterproofs, and will warm you up straight away. A fleece jacket could be an alternative, but they are not windproof, so you would need to put it on under your windproof layer.
Food and Drink
Always ensure you have plenty of high calorie food available, and bring extra in case you are delayed and have to spend more time outdoors, a 75kg person with a day pack can burn around 450-500 calories an hour when hiking.
There is no rule concerning how much liquid you should take, though 1.5 litres is a good guide. Take more in hot weather, and take a hot drink in a flask when it is going to be cold. My favourite is a hot fruit tea with honey.
First Aid Kit
A bare minimum would be an ‘ouch-pouch’, this could consist of sticking plaster, antiseptic wipes and blister plasters, such as Compeed. You may feel you want a more comprehensive kit, but do get training in this case, and do not carry what you are not competent to use. REC (Rescue and Emergency Care) courses are very suitable and widely available. If you are part of a group then a larger, ‘group first aid kit’ should be carried between you.
This is rather like a plastic sleeping bag, bright orange, lightweight and cheap, and everyone should carry one in their pack. In emergency situations you can climb into this bag and it will protect you from the worst of the weather. They have often been attributed with saving lives in the mountains.
A group shelter
Also known as an emergency or survival shelter, this is a plastic tent-like cover that a group of people can get into to give protection from the elements. They come in various sizes from 2 to 10 person, and would be used to protect a casualty or as a shelter on an exposed lunch stop. If you are hiking as part of a group then a larger one could be carried between you.
Essential in winter, and a good idea all year round, a head torch will provide you with light to get off the mountain should you be caught out in the dark, it can also be used for signalling for help. It’s a good idea to carry extra batteries, or a spare torch in addition.)
Many rucksacks now come with an integral whistle in the chest strap. Six one second blasts on the whistle, repeated after a short break, is the internationally recognised emergency signal. The reply from the rescuers is three blasts. It makes sense to carry one.
This amazing versatile tape has a myriad of uses, from repairing torn waterproofs to temporary boot repairs, it can also be used in a first aid context with proper training. Wrap some round your water bottle or walking pole).
Russ Mills owns and runs Mountaintrails, a guided hiking and navigation training business based in Dublin, Ireland
A grid reference is a series of letters and numbers that defines a unique square on a map, the more digits used the greater the accuracy and the smaller the square. Every country has its own unique grid, the lines are aligned north-south and east-west, forming a series of squares.
In Ireland the grid is divided into squares 100 kilometres x 100 kilometres (1 kilometre is a thousand meters).
There is a datum point set off the south west coast, which defines the 0 point, and each 100 km square is measured from here. The Irish grid is 500 km x 500 km and gives 25 squares in total.
Each square is represented by a one letter code, with the exception of I, which could be mistaken for a 1. See Fig. 1.
These 100 km squares are then subdivided further into smaller squares, each one being 1 kilometre across.
These 1 km squares are depicted on maps as blue numbered lines running north-south and east-west respectively. They are individually labelled using the ascending numbers 00, 01, 02, 03 etc… all the way up to 99.
The numbers along the bottom of the map, which increase towards the east are called Eastings , those numbers that are running up the side of the map and increase towards the north are called Northings.
When writing down a grid reference we first quote the Eastings then the Northings.
This can be more easily remembered by the saying ‘along the hall and up the stairs’.
We can define a given 1km square by first giving the 100km square box letter and then the 2 numbers for the Eastings followed by the 2 numbers for the Northings.
In the example in Fig. 2 the highlighted square is in the Slieve Mish mountains of Dingle, in the 100km grid square Q (see Fig. 1), the Eastings are 79 and the northings 09. It is written Q 79 09 and is known as a 4 figure grid reference.
The 1 km box can be further subdivided into one hundred 100 metre x 100 metres squares, ( these squares are not shown on the map).
This now allows us to define an area of land 100 meters square, (see red box in Figure 3), and is called a six figure grid reference.
The extra numbers needed are not shown on the map and must either be estimated or obtained more accurately using a Romer, (found in the top right hand corner of your compass).
The corner of the Romer is placed on the point to be identified and the numbers are read off where the Romer intercepts with the grid.
In the example in Fig. 4 the red dot has an easting of 5 and a northing of 7.
Grid references can be further used to accurately define a point on a map down to a 10 metre square, these are eight figure grid references.
A grid reference is important information, it allows you to inform others of where you are, (for example Mountain Rescue), and also allows you to locate features or a position on a map when given to you by someone else.
This article was written by Russ Mills of Mountaintrails, who provide navigation training and Mountain Skills courses in Ireland.
Setting the map is a fundamental navigational skill that all competent mountain navigators should be familiar with.
When you open out a map, you intuitively hold it rather like a newspaper, so the writing can be read the correct way up. The straight lines you see running up and down the map are the north/south grid lines and the top of the map points to grid north.
But north on the map is not necessarily lined up with north on the ground, in the landscape around you. By lining up, or orienting, north on the map with north on the ground you are setting the map.
But why do we want to do this?
When the map and ground are aligned together, then a hill to your right will be also be to the right of your position on the map; and a river to your left will be seen as a river to your left on the map. As long as your current position is known, this enables you to transfer your intended direction of travel on the map to a direction of travel on the ground, and can avoid costly errors and confusion.
It should be the first thing you do when looking to start a new navigation leg.
Setting the map can be done in one of two ways.
By aligning it with the features you see around you and can recognise on the map, such as hills, rivers, buildings and forests.
By using your compass, this method is useful when there are few visible features; if you are in a forest for example, or visibility is very low.
Setting the map using features
Stand with the map held in front of you and rotate your map and yourself together until features you see in the landscape line up with features you can identify on the map; a hilltop in the landscape with the corresponding hill on the map, or a lake with the corresponding lake on the map. You should be able to draw an imaginary straight line between you, the feature on the map and the feature in the landscape.
Your map is now set, and if you know your current position, you can identify your direction of travel on the ground.
If you are not sure of your position setting the map will also help you find your approximate location; by identifying several features on the ground and their distance from you, and translating that onto the map. This is a simple, but effective, re-location technique.
Setting the map using a compass
If there are no suitable visible features to align with the map, if you are in a forest or visibility is poor, then it is possible to set the map using a compass.
The red end of your compass needle points to magnetic north, and by lining this up with the north/south grid lines on the map you will have set the map to a reasonable degree of accuracy.
For complete accuracy you would need to take account of the magnetic variation, the difference between grid north and magnetic north at your location. It will change with time, and depending on where you are. The magnetic variation for your location will be found in the margins of your map, usually with the legend, and should be added or subtracted from the 0° bearing accordingly.
Setting the map in this way can be done in three straightforward steps.
Rotate the housing (dial) of the compass until the red orienting arrow in the housing is aligned with the direction of travel arrow on the compass baseplate. The bearing should read 0°, or north, adjust for magnetic variation at this point if you feel it necessary.
Place the compass on the map and line up the edge of the baseplate with the north/south gridlines on the map.
Carefully holding the map and compass together, and keeping them horizontal, rotate them together until the red end of the magnetic needle is aligned with the red orienting arrow in the compass housing, (also called putting red in the shed!).
The map is now set, (facing north), and by taking away the compass and holding the map steady you can now determine your direction of travel on the ground.
Mountaintrails are a guided hiking and mountain skills training business in Dublin, Ireland.
Accurate mountain navigation in misty conditions is one of the most important skills you can learn as a hillwalker. Mountain Rescue teams are regularly called out to hikers who have become disorientated by poor visibility in the mountains. Always carry a map and compass, and have the skills to use them.
However, even the best navigators can make mistakes. By following the tips given below you can avoid making some of the common navigation errors and minimise the chances of becoming disorientated in the mountains.
In poor visibility, always take a bearing from a summit to determine your direction of onward travel. You may think you know the right direction to go, but a short distraction for a photograph or a rummage in your pack and you can quickly become disorientated and head off the wrong way. Taking a bearing from the map will ensure you leave the summit in the direction you intended to.
Always estimate your bearing first. For example, if your intended direction of travel is approximately due east, then the bearing will be in the region of 270°. If it is not then you know you have made an error, and need to check it again.
Remember to allow for magnetic variation, this usually means a small adjustment by adding a few degrees to your bearing. The magnetic variation differs depending on your location, you can find it somewhere in the margins of your map, usually in the legend. Check it out before you leave home and remember it, or write it down on your route card.
Write down any important bearings that might be needed during the day. This will avoid fiddly compass work in a possibly wet and windy location, and will reduce the chance of errors. You can write them into your route card. This is your overall route for the day, broken down into a series of ‘navigation legs’, with the essential information such as distance, bearings, height gain and escape routes, written down in the form of a chart.
Make sure you keep your compass away from magnetic and metallic objects at all times, and especially when taking and walking on a bearing. They will deflect the needle in the compass and lead to navigational errors you won’t be able to correct later. Long term exposure of your compass to a magnetic source, such as your mobile phone, can result in permanent damage and reversed polarity of the needle, so store your compass in a location well away from your phone and other electronic devices.
When placing the compass on the map to take a bearing, remember to face the direction of travel arrow on the base plate AWAY from your current position and TOWARDS your target. This will avoid the classic error of the bearing being 180° out.
Accuracy is everything when taking a bearing, a small error in your measurement can lead to you missing your target completely in poor visibility. This is especially true over longer distance ‘legs’ as the error margin increases the further you travel.
Keep your map and compass flat (horizontal) when taking your bearing. Better still, go down on one knee for a more stable position with some protection from the wind and rain, rest your map on the none kneeling leg.
To ensure you are not wandering off your bearing it can be useful, while your start point is still in view, to take a back bearing. Turn to face your start point and line up the white end of the needle with the orienting arrow, rather than the red The direction of travel arrow should now be pointing at the start point. If it is not move sideways until it does, you are now on the right bearing and can turn back to face your travel direction.
Remember to measure the distance from your start point to the target. You can now pace this distance, or time it with your watch, to know when you should be at the target point.
It’s a good idea to keep a timing card in your pocket or somewhere handy. This has written on it the time it takes to walk over a range of distances at a variety of walking speeds. It will speed up your calculations and help eliminate errors when you might be cold and tired on the mountain.
Make sure the orientation arrow of the compass is pointing north when you are taking a bearing, have the top of the map, which always points to grid north, facing away from you. If you inadvertently line up the orienting arrow pointing south, the bearing will again be 180° out, an estimation of the bearing as above will soon pick this up.
If you struggle to manipulate the compass housing when wearing bulky gloves, try wearing lightweight liner gloves underneath. You can then remove the outer gloves and use your compass while still giving your hands some protection from the weather.
You should try to have up to three features of your target location that you can identify to help you confirm you are in the right place. A further feature, called a ‘catching feature’ should be identified from the map, and will tell you when you have overshot the target.
If things don’t look right and you are entirely unsure about your position, you can line up the white end of the needle with the orienting arrow. The direction of travel arrow on the compass housing will now point back the way you have just come. You can follow this back to your starting point, (your last known position), and begin the process over again.
If you want know more about poor visibility navigation, you can join one of our navigation courses for novices and improvers. Held at weekends throughout the year you can find out more on our website at: Mountaintrails Navigation Courses.
Russ Mills owns and runs Mountaintrials, he will be giving a talk on avoiding navigational errors on Wednesday 30th March at 7.00pm, at Basecamp Outdoor Store on Abbey St. in Dublin.
Accurate navigation is all the more imperative in winter.
With the shorter daylight hours comes the increased likelihood of you having to descend in the dark. There is the increased risk of poor visibility, or even white out conditions when windblown snow particles can blur the boundaries between earth and sky, (known as the ‘white room’). Paths, streams, boundaries and even lakes can disappear under a blanket of snow. Once, on Aonach Mor in the Scottish Highlands I was searching for the summit cairn only to be told it was under my feet, buried by the snow.
Good navigators know where they are at all times, and can follow their progress on a map. This is so important in winter conditions, when icy snow slopes and corniced edges can increase the hazards you face.
The essential tools for winter navigation are the map and compass, an altimeter can be useful too, (more of which later).
Keep your map in a soft plastic map case, folded so the area you are hiking in is shown. This should be kept handy, inside your jacket or in a secure pocket, it’s no use to you in the bottom of your rucksack, get it out and use it.
Your compass should be of a high quality, the mountaineering bodies in Ireland and the UK recommend the Silva 4 Expedition model. Use the lanyard to fix it to your rucksack strap or a toggle on your jacket, so you won’t lose it, and remember to keep it away from electronic devices, as these will deflect the needle and give inaccurate readings. In the windy conditions often experienced in winter maps and compasses can easily be blown away and lost, so practice good map management, (and carry a spare just in case).
Don’t be tempted to rely on GPS or phone app systems for your navigation, they can be a useful back up, but cold kills batteries and your unit may fail, leaving you stranded.
Preparation is the key. It is important to check the weather forecast several days before you go, if there is a risk of snow check out any available avalanche forecasts too. Do not try to take on too much, progress is slow in winter and daylight hours are few. Plan your ascent and descent routes taking into account potential hazards and plan an escape route in the event of abandonment. Draw up a route card and break down your journey into a number of navigation legs, try to keep the legs short to reduce inaccuracies when navigating in poor visibility.
When beginning any navigation leg, or trying to determine your position, the first thing to do is to orientate the map. This is also called setting, and involves lining the north south grid lines on the map with north on the ground. In good visibility this can be achieved by sighting features in the landscape and lining them up with the corresponding feature on the map. In poor visibility you may need to orientate the north south grid lines with north by using the north (red) end of the compass needle.
Sometimes this may be all you need to do to determine your direction of travel and to identify your objective, but in poor visibility it may be necessary to walk on a bearing.
When navigating in poor visibility consider the 4 D’s before each leg; Distance, Direction, Duration, Destination.
Measure the distance to your next target using either the compass romer or the measuring scale on the edge of the housing. To know how far to walk you should use either pacing or timing, or both. Pacing is the technique of counting the number of double paces to your objective. Knowing how many paces you take to walk 100 metres in different conditions and terrain, you can then count out the multiples of 100 metres until you reach the distance measured. Pacing works best over shorter distances of several hundred metres, for greater distances timing is often used. Timing relies on knowing how fast you are walking, say 4 km/hr, and doing a calculation to determine how long it will take you to reach the objective.
These techniques may sound complicated, but they are one of the cornerstones of good navigation, and become easier with practice.
To determine which direction to walk in you must take a bearing from the map with your compass. Estimate it first, this will help avoid errors, particularly the often made 180 degree error, where south is mistaken for north on the map, or you have the compass pointing from the objective to your current position instead of the other way round.
Once you have your bearing you must adjust it to take account of the magnetic variation between magnetic and grid north, check the map before you set out as the information you need is in the legend. Sight along the compass to an object in line with the bearing and walk to it, repeat this process until you reach the objective.
If visibility is so poor you cannot see anything ahead, send a companion ahead of you and adjust their position until they are in line with the bearing, walk toward them and repeat the process.
Taking and walking on bearings can seem daunting, and requires training and practice, but there are a number of online resources to help, some useful sources are listed at the end of this article.
What do you expect to see when you reach the objective? You should have at least 3 features or characteristics of the target to enable you to confirm you have arrived in the right place. When you reach the objective ask yourself the question, ‘Do I see what I expect to see?’
To avoid overshooting, determine what feature will tell you that you have gone too far, this is a catching feature, and could be a stream, a change of slope, or a boundary.
It is a good idea to identify features you might see or cross on route, by noting these features as you pass them you can confirm your position. These are called tick features as you ‘tick’ them off as you go, they also give a good deal of confidence that things are going according to plan!
How long will it take to reach the objective? This is linked to the timing mentioned earlier, and again you need to know how fast you walk and the distance to the objective.
Altimeters are a very useful tool in winter navigation. It can be important to know how far up or down a slope you are, particularly if you have to make a change of direction when descending a spur. By reading the contour height from the map and relating it to the altimeter reading it is possible to accurately determine your position. Remember to calibrate the altimeter regularly at spot heights and summits, as they often rely on barometer readings, which can change rapidly in winter.
Finally, if it all goes horribly wrong and you can’t recognise anything in the landscape, don’t panic. Take a breather, have a warm drink or a sugary snack. As long as you have been walking on your bearing and know how far and how long you have been walking, you can always turn your compass by 180 degrees and return to your last know position, the beginning of the navigational leg. This is a back bearing and can return you to a place you can identify on the map, from here you can re-calculate the 4 D’s and begin the leg again.
Navigating in winter will test the skill of the best navigators, and requires all the above techniques and a lot of practice to become completely proficient. However, when you have learned the skills and gained the experience the winter mountains are open to you in all their magical beauty.
This is the time of year for crisp clean air, far reaching views and stunning sunsets, it’s a great time to go hiking in the mountains of Ireland and Britain. The days may be shorter, but the quality of the light and the golden russet colours of autumn draw us like magnets into the hills.
As autumn turns to winter the weather in the mountains becomes a lot more unpredictable, a cool autumn day in the valley can turn into an icy and windy blizzard on higher ground.
It gets considerably colder as you gain height, at a rate of approximately 1.5C per 100 metres of ascent. 5C in the valley can become -3C on the higher mountain tops, couple this with a stiff wind and the effect can be bone chilling.
Be well prepared, and in addition to your usual hiking gear be sure to pack the following important and possibly life saving kit:
Hat and Gloves
It’s a no brainer, right?
You’ve got your fleece gloves and warm hat at the ready, but remember to take spares of both as gloves are easily lost, (I am forever finding odd gloves lost in the hills). If your hands get really cold and numb you will lose dexterity and be unable to perform basic tasks, which can lead to potentially life threatening situations.
Consider taking a pair of insulated and waterproof winter gloves as well, they are a great help when the weather turns really cold.
My favourite combo would be a pair of light liner gloves coupled with fleece over gloves, and a pair of winter gloves in the pack just in case. With spares of the first two that makes five pairs of gloves in my kit! (I don’t like cold hands).
It can quickly turn wintry on higher ground, be prepared for snow!
Spare warm layer
Assuming you have adopted a three layer clothing system, you will be wearing a base layer, insulating mid layer such as a fleece, and a windproof outer layer, such as a soft shell jacket or waterproof shell.
It is a good idea to pack an extra warm layer to put on if there is an enforced or prolonged stop. This might occur if there is an injury to one of your party or if you are forced to rest in an exposed position.
This could take the form of a fleece jacket that could be put on under your shell. Most basic fleeces offer great insulation but are not windproof, so the heat you are generating may quickly be blown away by the wind.
Instead I prefer a lightweight insulated jacket with a windproof outer layer. In the wet winter climate of western Europe a down jacket will soon wet out and lose it’s insulating properties, so best to go for a jacket with a synthetic fill, such as primaloft. This works just as well when wet as it does dry, and can be put on over your existing wet jacket if necessary.
Some essential kit for safe and comfortable hiking in the colder weather
Waterproof shell clothing
Another no brainer. A waterproof jacket and pants are a must have item all year round, but are particularly important at this time of year. Make sure they are cleaned and reproofed ready for the hammering they will get.
Good quality shell clothing is a must to keep you dry in the autumn/winter as wet clothing is one of the major causes of hypothermia in the mountains.
The wetter weather of autumn/winter can take a heavy toll on your boots, make sure yours are up to the task.
Ideally you will have full leather boots and have put the fabric boots away until the spring, but either way ensure your boots are cleaned and treated with a waterproofing wax regularly, to keep them supple and watertight.
Wearing gaiters to cover the boot uppers is a good idea as it protects the boot and helps prevent water and debris getting into your feet over the ankle cuff.
Remember, in these islands daylight saving time kicks in at this time of year and the clocks go back one hour, as a result it gets dark earlier, at around 17.00 in late October. Every year this catches out unwary hillwalkers who don’t seem to realise that it gets dark so early!
Being caught out in the mountains in the gathering darkness can be frightening for the inexperienced. Don’t be the one surprised by the shorter daylight hours and be sure to carry a headtorch, with spare batteries, when out hiking.
Benign weather in the valley can turn icy and cold near the summit
Map and compass
You always carry a map and compass with you, right?
The chance of cloud free summits at this time of year is much reduced, and poor visibility at height should be expected, so carrying a map and compass is a must, even if you are familiar with the route.
It’s a good idea to take a spare map with you, in case it gets blown away when opened on that windy ridge. Ensure your maps are laminated, or keep them in a soft plastic map case, as protection against the weather.
I carry a second compass as well, as a precaution against dropping or losing it.
Be sure you know how to use them and practice those navigation skills before you need them in earnest.
If you are not confident in your map and compass skills, attend one of our mountain navigation courses, held regularly through the year.
Don’t rely on technology, GPS and phone apps have a place, but can and do fail when they get wet, too cold, or when the batteries fade.
A mountain shelter is like a big orange, pole-less tent. You throw it over your heads and sit on the ‘hem’, this keeps it stable.
Inside you can keep warm and dry, out of the wind and rain, eat your lunch, take a break, or attend to an injury.
They are a great addition to your cold weather kit, and come in various sizes for different sized parties. A ‘must carry’ item for those guiding in the mountains.
Head torches and mountain shelter deployed on this early morning ascent of Lugnaquilla mountain.
The extra gear above doesn’t weigh as much as you might think, and will keep you safe and comfortable when hiking in the autumn/winter mountains.
The reassurance gained from knowing you have prepared for the worst will make it all worthwhile!
We learn in navigation training that it’s vital to keep our paper maps dry and legible, this can be done in one of two ways; by putting our map in a waterproof case or by buying a map that has been pre-laminated.
Laminated maps are popular with outdoor centres and training providers as they are durable and will withstand a lot of rough handling, as well as being very weatherproof. These are the maps we use on our navigation courses.
Laminated OSI 1:50 000 map
The disadvantages are that they are more expensive than their paper counterparts, are not always available for your chosen area, can be heavy to carry, and are harder to fold to show a specific part of the map.
Like all maps, when opened out they have a tendency to catch the wind and blow around, making it hard to read and increasing the risk of damage and loss. Fold the map to show your chosen route for the day and secure with a large rubber band.
Though initially more expensive, map cases can be a better option as you can use them time and again with paper maps of different areas, and un-laminated maps can be less than half the price of the laminated version.
Fold the paper map to show your selected route, or simply photocopy the part that you need, then slip this into your map case to give a lightweight, easy to manage and weatherproof map.
Paper maps are not as durable as the laminated versions, but with care they can still last a long time.
Soft plastic map cases are easier to use
When looking for a map case for hiking avoid the heavy, stiff, board like plastic ones with a neck lanyard, these are both cumbersome and likely to throttle you in a stiff breeze.
Instead, buy a soft plastic one, like the Ortleib model pictured, and remove any cords. Fold the map to show the area you intend hiking in and slide it into the map case, expel any air and seal. There is now no need to open it again all day and your map is easily accessible and completely waterproof. It will fit neatly into a large pocket or into the top of your rucksack when not needed.
Love your compass
Your compass is a very important bit of kit and in a crisis it could well save your life. Keep it clean and secure but storing it in your pack in a soft spectacles case. They are very inexpensive and can be picked up at many opticians.
A bit of TLC for your precious compass!
Try to avoid exposing your compass to extremes of temperature as this may cause a bubble to form in the housing, which can affect the accuracy of the instrument.
Never stow your compass near your mobile phone, GPS or other electronic devices, as the magnets in these instruments can permanently affect the polarity of the needle and render the compass useless.
When in use, attach the compass cord to a zip-pull or rucksack strap and keep it in a pocket, don’t hang it around your neck as this makes it hard to use and it can swing around when you lean forward. Inadvertently dropping, or knocking the compass can damage it.
When using a compass make sure it is well clear of metallic objects and electronic devices stored in pockets and around your neck and wrist, as this will deflect the needle and an inaccurate reading will result.
To become a competent navigator requires a specific set of skills. In this post we look at navigation training to learn some of the basic skills you will need to find your way when out and about in the hills and mountains – interpreting the map and relating it to the ground (topography).
Understanding the symbols on the map
Maps can have a bewildering array of symbols in various colours, and can initially confuse and alarm those unused to them.
However, help is at hand in the form of the legend, this is the key to the symbols and can be found at the bottom or side of the map sheet. Reassuringly, roads are consistently brown or green, rivers and lakes are blue and woods are invariably green.
A typical map legend
Tracks and trails are usually black dashed lines, though National Trails are often red, and individual buildings are small black squares.
It is important to remember those symbols that, as hikers, you will need most; cliffs, scree, paths and marshy ground being some examples. The remainder can be looked up on the legend when you need to identify them.
Understanding contours and relief
Contours are the thin lines drawn on a map, often approximately parallel to each other, in either brown or black. These lines represent points of equal height above sea level, and are labelled at intervals with the height in metres (altitude).
Contours are the standard way of depicting relief, (the shape and height of the landscape), and the patterns a series of contours describe give vital clues as to the relief and the topography of the ground.
Where contours come close together the ground will be very steep, and when well spaced the ground will be much flatter. When contours form a continuous line, as in a circle, then they describe a top or summit. Lines drawn at equal height intervals on a hill will appear as concentric circles on a map.
Recognising topographical features
Contour interpretation is a vital part of good navigation but can seem a daunting prospect at first, start by recognising the contour shapes for some of the common topographical features found in the mountain environment; for example, ridges, valleys, hills, saddles and corries.
Once you have learnt to interpret these commonly found features you will soon be able use the finer details to understand the true shape of the landscape from the map, often without ever having been there!
Here are two examples:
A saddle between two hills with spurs at either end
A uniformly steep sided valley
In the top illustration the spurs at either end of the hills have shallower gradients than the sides, and make for better ascent/descent routes. The steepest ground is to the north, below the saddle, and should be avoided if the ground if slippery or frozen.
The valley in the bottom illustration is uniformly steep on all sides, as the contours are approximately equidistant, there is no obvious preferable route in this instance.
Orientating (setting) the map
It is good practice to orientate the map before every navigation decision.
To orientate the map using the features you see in the landscape, align the recognisable features, such as hills, cols or rivers, on the map with their counterparts in your field of vision. The map should be rotated until you have a line of sight from you, through the map feature, and onto the physical feature you see before you.
If you have limited visibility, or cannot locate a recognisable feature in the landscape, you can set the map using your compass. Line up the edge of your compass with the north/south grid lines on the map. Holding the compass firmly in place, rotate both compass and map until the magnetic needle also lines up with the north/south grid lines and the red, (north), end of the needle points towards the direction of travel arrow on the compass housing.
Orienting (setting) the map with a compass
The map is now orientated, but it is approximate, as we have made no allowance for magnetic variation. However, it should suffice for feature recognition purposes
With the map oriented try to locate your position relative to the features you can see in the landscape. Once your approximate position is determined it is then possible to plan your next navigational move on the map, and to give yourself a direction to head in.
Do you see what you expect to see?
Do the topographical features you see on the ground match those on your map? If so, great! If not you need to stop and re-evaluate your position, do not press on blindly hoping that something will fit eventually, because it won’t.
If in doubt you should set the map and try to work out your location, if this doesn’t work and you are uncertain of your position then you should return to the last point where you did know your location, a hill top perhaps.
A good navigator will know where they are at all times, will constantly check their position and confirm their location by using tick features, points recognisable on the map that they might pass, like a stream junction or a forest edge, for example.
Do you see what you expect to see? – Identifying tick features, in this case the end of the Lough.
By mastering these techniques you will be on the way to becoming a competent navigator. To progress further you will need to get to grips with using a compass to take bearings, and be able to follow them; and to estimate distance travelled and time taken both on the map and on the ground.