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Navigation Skills 2 Map to Basics

By Dave Roberts   

on September 10, 2014    5/5 (1)

Navigation Skills 2 Map to Basics

The first thing you’ll need to get and become familiar with it the map. Forget the compass for now, that’s to come in a few weeks, so here’s the first few steps. We’ve mixed the article up with some videos from the Ordnance Survey site as well as a live map.

You’ll need before you start:

What map do you need?

Starting at the beginning and the blooming obvious, one of where you’re going to walk. Once you consider though that many mountains tend to be on the edges of maps, it’s much more common than you think that people end up walking off the map! Moel Siabod in Snowdonia is on the corner of four sheets. Also remember that many Ordnance Survey maps, especially the Outdoor Leisure maps, are double sided. So you may need to turn the map around on the hill, which is a skill in itself!

Maps come in all shapes and sizes, and any OS Leisure or Harvey brand maps will be fine for hill walking. I swear by the Harvey Mountain Maps as they’re light, waterproof and in some cases easier to read. However, we’ll concentrate on those maps by the OS for simplicity.

There are basically two types of OS maps, corresponding to two different map scales of 1:50,000 and 1:25,000. The 1:50,000 maps cover a larger area, but at less detail than the 1:25,000 maps which provide a lot more detail and are generally more useful for really detailed navigation. You’ll also need more sheets of the 1:25,000 maps for a given area than the 1:50,000 maps. Here’s a video from the OS that explains the difference:

Remember that these are paper maps and unless you get a waterproof map, you’ll need to put it in a map case as they’ll turn to mush in the rain! You’ll need to fold the map into the case carefully, in order to show the area you’ll need for the day’s walk if at all possible.


Reading the map

Now you’ve got your maps, question is can you read them?

Each map has a key – and everything is clearly marked and explained in that.

Your best bet is to look at your map, and try and recognise your locality on the map. Find your home, place of work, local landmarks and it’ll hopefully start to make sense. If you’re out on a walk, make use of the map to try and identify locations and landmarks. Ask your group leader if you’re right (providing their navigation is up to scratch!)

Main Features:

This map below is as good an example as you can get to demonstrate all these, a walk along the Nantlle Ridge on a 1:50,000 scale map.

The route features all the main features you’ll need to recognise, and you can test yourself. The answers are marked (1), (2), (3), (4) and located at the end of the article. No cheating!

Contours – which indicate the height of the land. The height profile helps you visualise the height along the route. We’ve produced a link to a 3d visualisation of Nantlle Ridge on Google Maps that helps.

Simpler still – can you see how this image below is represented by the map below? It’s taken from Rhyd Ddu – looking towards the ridge from the very start of the walk. Two summits are visible – Y Garn (633m) and Mynydd Drws y Coed (695) – which one is in cloud (1).

Aran Circuit (2 of 28)

Footpaths / roads – represented by various symbols. You’ll be looking most often for the green or pink dashed lines – which represent footpaths and bridleways. We’ll explain what these mean in our Route Planning post. What road will the walk briefly touch during the walk? (2)

Forests – Rather obviously the green swathes with little trees on them. Beddgelert forest is just about visible.

Rivers and lakes – represented in blue. You can just about see what lake in the photo above? (3)

Other man made features – Towns and villages, as well as railway stations and tracks. There’s a cottage in the image that is also seen on the map below, can you identify it? (4)

If you turned around 180º, what would you see? (5)

Download the GPX File for your GPS device

What this scale does not show are more detailed features such as field boundaries, boulders, sheepfolds, ring contours and similar small features. These may not seem significant now, but by the end of these series of articles you’ll hopefully appreciate how any one of those features can be used in order for you to locate yourself

You’ll now need to practice using the map.

Grid references:

So you know exactly what you’re looking at on the map – how do you identify that exact location to others? You need to provide a Grid Reference. This is a unique identifier used in the UK, similar in usage to providing the latitude and longitude.

Here’s another video that’ll explain it better, but you should also download the Ordnance Survey Map Reading leaflet.

And the more complex 6 figure grid reference.

Answers to the test – (1) Mynydd Drws y Coed is in cloud. The photo is looking due west, so south is to the left of the image and north to the right. (2) The B4418 during the walk, it starts and ends on the A4085 (3) Llyn y Gader (4) No! The building is marked on the map, but not named. The farm named Drwsycoed Uchaf is far out of view.(5) not a stalker, but you’d be looking back at the Welsh Highland Railway station along with other features – car park, toilets, main road and the most obvious thing – Snowdon, but you’d have to scroll the map. 

Finally – practice!

This is probably the hardest part of Navigation to explain in a blog post, and as there’s so much stuff that the Ordnance Survey have already published, it seems pointless to try and recreate these as well as negotiate the complex licencing required in order to use the Explorer mapping. If we’ve missed anything obvious – ask below. It may be in the pipeline, or something we’ve missed.

Over the next week:

  • Get used to swapping the two sided map over. Just folding a map can be a difficult task in itself. Imagine how hard it would be on the mountain, in strong winds.
  • Read your maps – try and get used to the symbols and what the map represents.
  • Try especially to visualise the contours. Can you see the mountain or hill from the contours on the map? 3d mapping or Google Earth can help immeasurably with this.
  • Try and get on a walk this weekend and get the walk leader to show you some map skills.
  • Download the free map reading leaflet from the Ordnance Survey and study it.
  • Get hold of one of these books and get reading:
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Dave Roberts

siDave Roberts founded Walk Eryri in 2004, with the aim of providing routes that are off the beaten track. Walk Eryri is now part of Mud and Routes which continues to provide more off beat routes and walks in Snowdonia and beyond. Dave has been exploring the hills of Eryri for over thirty years, and is a qualified Mountain Leader. Dave also established Walk up Snowdon, Walk up Scafell Pike and Walk up Ben Nevis just to mention a few.

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