On a recent winter hike with a group of clients to Lugnaquilla mountain (930 metres), I decided we had to turn back when we were on the plateau, and tantalisingly only 1 km from the summit cairn. Why did I do this and what were the thought processes that led to this decision, when is it a good time to turn back?
There is an old mountaineering saying, ‘The best decision you will ever make is the one to turn back’, and it is often true. To make this crucial call there are a number of criteria that must considered, and here I have outlined those I feel to be the most important.
The prevailing weather conditions are a crucial factor when considering whether to continue or turn back. What is the weather like now, how will it change as you continue the ascent, what will it be like on the descent?
High winds are a game changer in the mountains, having a profound effect on safety and morale. What is the strength of the wind, how will this change as you ascend, will you become more or less exposed to it if you continue?
Strong winds, (those over 50-60km/hr), are going to slow your progress, and will significantly increase the risk of you being blown over and perhaps injured. In addition, walking into a strong headwind for a number of hours will sap both your energy and morale. Remember that the wind will strengthen as you gain height and can be more severe over saddles and at the top of corries.
The temperature is also an important factor to consider. As you gain height the temperature drops by approximately 1.0 – 1.5°C for every 100 metres of ascent, so if it is 1 or 2°C in the valley it could well be -10°C on the upper slopes of Lugnaquilla, for example. If it is a cold day, then coupled with the wind, you may have a considerable wind-chill to take into account. Do not underestimate this, on a day when it might be -5°C on the mountain, a strong wind can give a wind-chill of -15°C or more, stripping heat away from your body very quickly.
Precipitation can add significantly to the chilling effects of the wind and cold, soaking gloves and hands and leaking through waterproof clothing to wet the layers beneath. Perhaps not so obvious at first, snow is less of a problem than rain or sleet. Is it raining, or is it likely to rain soon?
Effective Equipment & Clothing
Do you have effective equipment and clothing to deal with the conditions anticipated? Your boots should be suitable for the terrain you are on, sturdy and waterproof boots with good grip are essential for the uplands of Ireland and Britain.
Is your waterproof clothing going to keep you warm and dry in heavy rain? Wet clothes can result in you loosing up to 20 times more heat than when you are dry. You should have enough warm layers, either in your pack or being worn, to cope with the conditions, as well as a warm hat and gloves, plus spares.
Physical & Mental Condition
How are you and your companions feeling? Are you tired, hungry, cold, dispirited or exhausted? Maybe you are feeling strong, in good spirits and ready for the challenge. You should also ensure you have enough high calorie food to last the day, to keep your energy levels up. Be honest with yourself and consider are you able to continue with the hike as planned.
These are important factors to take into consideration when deciding if and when to turn back.
Think about how long it might be before you reach more comfortable terrain and more sheltered conditions, down in the valley or perhaps under the cover of crags or trees.
If you did a route card when planning the hike, monitor your real progress against that predicted, check if you are on time or well behind the clock. If you continue on, consider how much time you have before it begins to get dark. Do you have the time to get down in the daylight, and do you have a torch in case you get caught out in the dark?
Implications of an incident
All of the factors above will have a bearing on how you might manage an incident, should one occur. If you have an enforced stop due to injury or illness could you cope until help arrives, given the weather conditions you find yourself in?
Finally, think about changing your route if the circumstances dictate, perhaps you can do the hike in reverse and keep the wind at your back when on higher ground. If you are already committed to the hike then remember to have your escape route(s) planned and be prepared to use it if things get tough, or you get behind on time.
There is another commonly used mountaineering phrase, ‘If you think it’s time to turn back, then it probably is’. If your gut feeling is that something is not right then give some thought to the above, change your plans if necessary, and stay safe.
Russ Mills runs Mountaintrails.ie, specialising in guided hiking and mountain skills training, and based in Dublin, Ireland.
High wind in the mountains can be a real game changer, it can have a profound effect on safety and morale. It can make it feel much colder than it actually is (wind chill effect), and can be unpredictable in direction and speed.
Strong winds, (those over 50-60km/hr), are going to impede your progress, and will significantly increase the risk of you being blown over and injured. In addition, walking into a strong headwind for a number of hours will sap both your energy and morale. Add significant gusting and you will be constantly adjusting your balance, foot placements and forward momentum, all of which can be very tiring.
The speed and direction of the wind can be unpredictable in the uplands. As the moving air is pushed over a mountain range it is squeezed between the mountains and the top of the troposphere, causing the wind to speed up. It is nearly always windier, therefore, on mountain tops than in adjacent valleys. The wind is forced over ridges and through saddles, increasing in speed, and making these places more hazardous in stormy weather. The topography of the valleys and mountains often means the wind can be gusting, swirling about and rapidly changing direction, adding to the difficulties of keeping your balance and stability.
High winds will often make it feel colder (wind chill), this can bring about rapid cooling of the extremities, the head and hands in particular. The effect of wind chill is to increase the rate of heat loss to the surrounding air. Prolonged cooling can lead to hypothermia and frost nip, both very serious conditions.
Cold and wet weather can be dealt with by adequate clothing and equipment, but strong winds mean you may have to change your plans. Here is our assessment of the effect of wind on your ability to move effectively, and what to do about it.
|Wind speed in km/hr||Effect on you||What should you do?|
|Less than 20||Negligible||Continue as planned|
|20-30||Unlikely to affect your balance or control. At these windspeeds in winter a temperature of 0C will have an equivalent wind chill of around
|Add an extra warm layer.
Prevent small items from blowing loose.
Goggles will be useful in winter conditions.
|30-40||You will begin to feel the buffeting effect of the wind. Progress into a head wind will become more laboured. It will be harder to maintain your balance when walking.||Keep way from steep and exposed ridge lines. Secure your map and tie down loose clothing and secure toggles to prevent them whipping around.|
|40-50||Walking will become more difficult. Energy output will be significantly increased. Expect a greater risk of being blown sideways and off balance.||Consider changing your route to avoid a head or cross wind. Be prepared to shorten the day. Check companions for signs of hypothermia and frost nip, particularly in winter.
Navigation will become more difficult.
|50-60||Walking will become very challenging. There is a strong chance of being blown off your feet.
|Link arms with weaker members of your group. Try to move between the worst gusts. Get off the hill by the safest and easiest route keeping away from steep windward drops.|
|60-70||As above||If you must venture out in these conditions then keep to the valley floor.|
Russ Mills runs Mountaintrails, a guided hiking and mountain training business based in Dublin, Ireland.
Hiking the winter hills:
The winter hills can be a magical place and offer some great rewards to the willing hiker, crisp frosty mornings, misty valleys, long reaching views and snow topped mountains are but a few of the delights to be experienced at this time of year. But the Irish mountains can be a daunting place in winter too. With unpredictable weather, they can also bring inherent risks, such as icy cold winds, grey boggy hillsides, torrential rain, shorter daylight hours and low cloud with poor visibility.
To cope with the ever-changing nature of our Irish hills in the winter it is best to be well prepared. It is vital in winter to have good waterproof hiking boots with an ‘aggressive’ sole pattern and a good step in the heel for essential grip in the wet and slippery conditions you will encounter. Couple these with a pair of gaiters, they will prevent snow, mud and debris from entering the top of your boots.
Protect your legs with good softshell pants, often made of a stretchy material for comfort, they are also windproof, will offer a degree of insulation, and may ward off the odd shower. Avoid jeans at all costs, they are made of cotton, will get heavy and cold when wet, will result in you losing a lot of essential heat and bring with it the risk of hypothermia.
Layering your clothing gives flexibility and allows for better temperature regulation as it is easier to add or remove layers. A good layering system should include a base layer, an effective base layer should move moisture away from your skin, it should be comfortable and provide some insulation. The choice is usually between synthetic, (polypropylene or polyester), or wool, (predominantly merino). Cotton should be avoided, as it will absorb up to 25 times its’ own weight in water, and the hollow fibres of cotton won’t release it easily, so it stays with you and makes you feel cold and clammy.
Next comes the mid or insulating layer, this will provide most of the warmth by trapping air in the fibres of the material. Often a synthetic fleece, they provide insulation while transferring moisture to the outer layers to evaporate. They are generally not windproof so need to be used in conjunction with an outer layer or shell.
A shell jacket with a hood will protect you from wind, rain and snow, and can be both waterproof and breathable. Soft shell jackets are becoming increasingly popular, they are windproof, provide insulation, and will keep off the odd shower, though once it rains heavily you will need your waterproof jacket.
In addition to your clothing, there are certain essential items you should have with you when heading for the winter hills.
12 things you should definitely carry in your winter rucksack:
- Waterproof drybags. Put those items that you want to ensure stay dry into drybags for extra protection from the winter weather. Use a rucksack liner too, to ensure all your kit stays well protected from the elements.
- 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 in winter. 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 integral hood too, that is adjustable.
- Gloves & Hats. Take several pairs. You will often see 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 gloves are ideal for most conditions, but be prepared to upgrade to insulated and waterproof gloves when the weather dictates.
- 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 (primaloft) 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. There is no rule concerning how much liquid you should take, though 1.5 litres is a good guide. Take a hot drink in a flask when it is going to be cold.
- 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.
- Survival bag. 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. You might consider upgrading this to a ‘blizzard’ bag, which has some added insulation.
- 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.
- Head Torch. 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.
- 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.
- Emergency whistle. 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.
- Duct Tape. This amazing versatile tape has a myriad of uses, from repairing torn waterproofs to temporary boot repairs. (Wrap some round your water bottle or walking pole).
If you want to experience hiking in snow conditions, then the higher mountains are the place to go, but unless you are equipped with ice axe and crampons, (and know how to use them), stay away from deeply frozen icy ground. Be prepared to back off if the conditions get very slippery with ice and consolidated frozen snow.
There is still a lot of exciting hiking to be had below the snow line, with clear crisp air, superb visibility and stunning sunsets. Yes, the hills in the winter can be a hostile environment, but by giving a little thought to preparation it is possible to experience some wonderful winter hiking in the Irish hills.
Mountaintrails provide guided hiking tours, navigation training and Mountain Skills courses in Ireland and the UK. To find out more go to www.mountaintrails.ie.
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:
Many of us have an altimeter as an integral part of our mountain watches, but how many of us know the skills of navigating with an altimeter?
Here are 5 tips on how to use an altimeter as a navigation tool.
Before we begin however, a note of caution, altimeter watches rely on barometric pressure to calculate altitude and as the barometric pressure fluctuates so does the altitude reading, and this can lead to serious errors if not addressed.
It is important to re-calibrate the altimeter regularly by re-setting it to the correct reading when a known altitude is reached, such as a summit, col or spot height. Read the height from the map, and adjust the altimeter accordingly. This is particularly important in areas where the pressure may change rapidly as weather systems track across the globe, for example over Ireland and the British Isles. Here adjustments should be made every couple of hours, as and when the opportunity presents itself.
- Knowing how high you are (absolute altitude)
Knowing how high you are (your altitude) and how far you still have to climb is a great way of monitoring your progress. This is particularly helpful on a long uniform slope with little in the way of landmarks, or when visibility is reduced as clouds descend or when night falls.
In poor visibility, reading off the altitude can indicate if you are at the summit of your mountain, or merely a lower, subsidiary top.
- Ascent rate
Checking your ascent rate is a great way of monitoring your progress. By checking both your increasing altitude and the time taken you can estimate your arrival time at the summit.
For example, if you have a 1,000 metre climb to undertake, and you have completed the first 200 metres of ascent in 30 minutes, then it should take you another 2 hours (4 x 30 mins) to reach the summit. You can check your progress against the estimated arrival time, and if all is going well, reach the summit. Equally, you can re-assess your plans or turn back if you are falling well behind the clock.
- Descending a slope
If you are descending a slope, perhaps in poor visibility, and you are required to make a change of direction to avoid steep and craggy ground, check the map for the height at which you need to turn off and when your altimeter reads that height, you can make the necessary change. (In the example below this is at the 790m contour).
This technique would work equally well if you were ascending a slope and needed to change direction.
- Traversing (Contouring)
Maintaining the same height as you traverse around a slope, (following a contour line), can be notoriously difficult in bad weather. There is a strong tendency to lose height as you go, and drop down the slope.
Checking that the altitude reading on your watch remains constant allows you to maintain your height and traverse the slope without any problems.
- Relocation (Aspect of Slope)
This navigational technique can be combined with an altimeter reading to determine your exact location on that slope. In the example below the altimeter reads 600 metres, which places you at the red cross on the map.
Used in combination with other navigation skills, and your map and compass, an altimeter can be a valuable addition to your navigation toolbox.
This is a lament we hear often at Mountaintrails, sometimes spoken in frustration, sometimes in anger, and most often at the end of a wet day.
So why is our precious waterproof clothing failing to perform? In many cases it is because we are simply asking too much of it.
The techi bit….
So called ‘breathable’ fabrics have a micro pore membrane bonded to a hardwearing outer layer. This membrane allows water vapour to pass through, but not liquid water. This in turn means that the moisture you produce when working hard is allowed to escape, whilst preventing rain from penetrating your garment.
The ‘breathability’, or Moisture Vapour Transmission Rate (MVTR), is measured in laboratory conditions over a 24 hour period. Manufacturers can then make claims about their materials based on these results.
The issue is we are not in a laboratory, we are slogging our way up a damp hillside, and our own transmission rates vary considerably, depending on our activity levels and metabolism, amongst other things.
Exercise vigorously on a wet and humid day and your body will pump out a lot of moisture, much more than the ‘breathable’ fabric of your waterproofs can cope with. Water vapour will condense on the inside of your jacket and your clothing will begin to feel damp. You might think your waterproof is leaking, but it is not, it’s coming from you.
For the water vapour to escape effectively it is important that the outer surface of the material is not saturated with water. To prevent this your jacket is treated with a DWR coating (Durable Water Repellancy), but this coating wears off over time and needs to be replaced. If your jacket is no longer ‘beading’, i.e. the water is forming into small droplets and running off the surface, then it is likely to become saturated, and will ‘wet out’.
This will slow the MVTR and lead to more condensation on the inside of your clothing.
In addition, humans are not well designed for waterproof layers, any clothing has to have holes in it to accommodate our head, hands and legs, and water can enter through these holes resulting in us getting even wetter!
So what can we do to try and stay dry…?
First and foremost, don’t wear your waterproof jacket if it’s not raining. I see so many waterproof jackets being used solely for insulation and wind proofing, and this leads to a build-up of condensation as described above.
Far better to wear a ‘softshell’ jacket. This is essentially a jacket that offers a degree of insulation, can be fully windproof, and will allow moisture to pass through, (in both directions). None of your moisture will condense on the inside and you will feel much more comfortable. Some softshell jackets are designed to keep out a light shower, but might be less ‘breathable’ as a result. The Buffalo is a good example of this.
However, when it starts to rain you must exchange your soft shell for your waterproof shell.
If you have to put on your waterproofs then be sure to remove a layer first, by adding an extra layer you are adding more insulation and will be getting warmer. This will lead to more water vapour being produced by your body and will put extra pressure on the waterproof membrane to perform, resulting in more condensation inside your clothing.
Wash and reproof your jacket regularly…
When the DWR layer wears off and the rain water no longer ‘beads’ on the outside of your jacket it will become saturated or ‘wet out’.
This layer of water on the outside of your jacket will impede the movement of water vapour through the membrane, and more condensation inside your clothing will result, making you feel wetter.
Reproof your waterproof clothing with NikWax Wash-In, or a similar product, on a regular basis. The more you use your jacket the more often you should treat it.
Check on the build quality of your jacket and pants…
The material may be waterproof but rain can still penetrate through seams, pockets, zips and those large openings for your head and hands!
Check that the seams are sealed, or ‘taped’, some top end jackets now have welded seams.
Consider waterproof zips when you purchase your waterproofs, these are much better than conventional zips, though more expensive.
Make sure the hood fits well around your head and can be pulled in tight without impeding vision. Check that the cuffs are adjustable, and can be closed down with Velcro to reduce water ingress.
Avoid cotton T shirts and underclothes…
Cotton will absorb up to 25 times its’ own weight in water, and the hollow fibres of cotton won’t release it easily, so it stays with you and makes you feel cold and clammy. In colder conditions this can also increase the risk of hypothermia.
By wearing synthetic wicking layers the moisture your body produce will be moved to your outer layers and away from your skin, making you feel much more comfortable.
It is not possible to stay completely dry when battling through horizontal rain on a windswept mountain, but by caring for your waterproof clothing and using it appropriately you can stay comfortable, if a little damp, even in the worst of weather.
Russ Mills – Mountaintrails
As summer advances ticks are becoming more active, and more outdoor enthusiasts are finding these unpleasant critters embedded in their skin.
To understand the importance of avoiding being bitten, here are our Top Ten things you should know about ticks:
1. Ticks are arachnids, and related to spiders and scorpions. They have a 3-stage life cycle, larvae, nymph and adult. At each stage they need a blood meal to grow, ticks feed on small mammals, deer and sheep and will bite humans. They are most active in late spring and summer.
2. Tick bites do not hurt, therefore you will not know if one has bitten you. They prefer warm and damp parts of the body, particularly the hairline, navel, waist, groin and behind the ears and knees.
3. Initially ticks can be very small, about the size of a poppy seed, but will swell as they become engorged with blood. If you find a tick on you or one of your children do not pick, scratch, burn, drown or squeeze it, as it will vomit it stomach contents into your blood stream and pass on any infections it may carry.
4. Ticks generally do not feed for the first 24 hours, so you have time to check yourself in the shower when you get home.
5. To remove an embedded tick use a specialised tick removal tool, either a ‘tick hook’ or a ‘tick lasso’. Narrow end tweezers will also help, but remember to grab by the head, and not the body.
6. Ticks carry a bacterial disease called Lyme borreliosis, or Lyme disease, not all ticks carry it, they get it by sucking the blood of infected animals.
7. Around 50 -100 cases of Lyme disease are reported in Ireland each year, if you think you are infected you should see your GP, who will run tests to determine whether you have Lyme disease and whether to give a course of antibiotics.
8. Symptoms may appear after 3 or 4 days, but may take several weeks to appear. Common symptoms are a bullseye rash at the site of the bite, and flu like symptoms, headache, fatigue and fever.
9. Regular campers, hikers and fishermen are most at risk, and these groups would be wise to carry a tick removal device with them.
10. Ticks climb tall foliage and drop onto animals as they brush past. To avoid being bitten stay on tracks and paths and away from bracken and other tall foliage in the summer. Wear long sleeves, and particularly long trousers, and tuck trousers into socks or wear gaiters. Applying insect repellent to clothes will also help.
Russ Mills runs Mountaintrails, a guided hiking and mountain skills training enterprise based in Dublin, Ireland.
To learn more go to our website at mountaintrails.ie.
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
One of the most important navigation skills is being able to relocate yourself when you have become ‘lost’ or more correctly, ‘temporarily misplaced’. Having the relocation techniques to deal with such a situation is a key element in being a competent navigator.
Firstly, do not panic. Stay calm and stay where you are.
Many people, on realising they are misplaced, will press on more quickly, or walk in any direction in the hope of finding something they recognise, thus making the problem worse.
Have something to eat and drink, this will both give you time to calm down and increase your blood sugar to help you think.
Gather All Available information
What can you see around you? Are any features in view, such as a forest edge or a stream, and what is the shape of the terrain around you, which way is the ground sloping?
How far have you walked since your last known position, (the location where you were last certain of your position). How long did it take you? What distinctive features did you pass, such as a path junction, knoll or forest edge?
See if you can locate any of these features on your map, and use the information to narrow down the possibilities.
Aspect of Slope
If the terrain you are on is sloping it is possible to use this important technique to help you find your position. Use your compass to take a bearing directly down the line of the slope, that is the line that a rolling ball might take, adjust for magnetic variation, and then search the map for slopes with that aspect.
In the example above, if we know we are somewhere in the vicinity of hill 668, and we take a bearing down the slope of 198°, then we can eliminate all slopes that do not have that aspect.
With our bearing set on the compass, we can line up the orienting lines in the compass housing with the north-south grid lines on the map. By moving the compass around the map we can locate the slope(s) where the long edge of the baseplate is pointing directly down slope, (and is at right angles to the contours).
We can now locate ourselves somewhere on the southwest slope of hill 668.
If you have been walking on a bearing, and the indications are that it was incorrect, then it is still possible to return to your last known position.
Instead of walking with the red end of the compass needle aligned with the orienting arrow, (keeping red in the shed), turn yourself through 180° and align the white end of the compass needle with the orienting arrow, (put white in the shed).
Following this bearing and remembering the paces, or time it took, you can return you to your previously known position. This will only work if you did not stray wildly off the original bearing, or wander around the hill hoping to see something you recognised.
Resection can be a time consuming process. It also relies on the fact that you can see far enough to identify two, and preferably three, major features that are also on the map such as hill tops or stream junctions.
It could be argued that if you can identify these features then you are not misplaced! However, under certain circumstances it can be a useful technique. If you are somewhere along a long, featureless ridge for example, and need to pinpoint your position more accurately.
- Take a compass bearing to a feature, and after converting it to a grid bearing, place one of the top corners of the compass baseplate on the feature identified on the map.
- Carefully manoeuvre the compass until the orienting lines in the housing line-up with the north-south grid lines on the map, being sure to keep the corner of the baseplate on the feature and the orienting arrow pointing north.
- Your position now lies somewhere along the long edge of the compass base plate, you can now plot this line on the map using a pen, (see red lines above).
- Repeat this for one or more features to pinpoint your position, depending on the accuracy with which you took the bearings your position will lie at the intersection of these lines.
Article by Russ Mills – Mountaintrails
These, and other navigation techniques, can be found in ‘Navigation in the Mountains’, published by Mountain Training and available through our website shop here: