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Geographically Challenged? (Part I)

This is a new series of articles about how to avoid getting lost and indeed what to do if you think you are! Before you yawn and turn away thinking this is going to be just another map reading article, think again! There is far more to map reading than just using a compass and a conventional map, there are also many natural navigational tools you can use along the way which can make it much more interesting.

In this series we will be sharing our practical tips of how to stay on the right path in wild areas of the UK and Europe as well as understanding how this can practically relate to trail running. We all hear far to often of people getting lost in the hills either in races or just indeed on leisurely hikes. Even a GPS has limited capacity in route finding and of course there is always user error! I suspect there are many levels of understanding of this skill, so let's start at the very beginning...


Before you even open that crisp new map and unpack your shiny new compass you need to understand what "ground" is. The best way of doing this is to find some high point in your local area, a hill, a tower block or church spire will do! Once you have gained some height, take a seat and look at what's laid out in front of you.
  • What's in the foreground? Trees? Houses? Any roads? What direction do they point? Away from you, parallel? Are they lower than you? Can you see any walls or fences? What's in the middle ground? 
  • How does the middle ground appear, is it lighter than the foreground? Can you spot any villages? More trees and roads? Any hills or maybe pylons? What details can't you make out in the middle ground that you could in the foreground? Can you estimate the distances?
  • And finally the background which takes you up to the horizon. Notice it's a even lighter colour than the foreground, details are much less distinct, almost blurry - can you make anything out though? Do you know what direction you are looking?
Spend about 10-15 minutes doing this, ideally with a little sketch pad, sketch out the zones and if you are a bit of an artist draw in the key areas, if not just write them in. I bet you noticed many things you never had before even if you've lived there for years!

Now you've looked at the ground you might have guessed this is the very beginning of a map, both in what you've drawn and the mental image you have created. The art of the cartographer is to take this 3 dimensional world and put it into 2 dimensions with enough detail to be useful but without too much to cause confusion. If you cannot relate to the ground in front of you, you will not be able to relate the map to the ground! So this is a really important step and one that you will do repeatedly in the course of navigating, even if you spend just a few seconds in the course of a race! 

Next time... Relating the map to the ground!