Map Geeks Rule OK!

I get lost a lot. I love getting lost. Being lost, I have discovered new trails, interesting sights and had many a micro-adventure. My husband has stopped asking how long I will be when I go for a run; I love wandering.

As the saying goes, not all who wander are lost. Sometimes I am off course, disoriented, diverted. Sometimes, I know where I am but it’s not where I would necessarily prefer to be. Sometimes, I am happy with my wrong turn, others I am annoyed by the extra mileage or climbing incurred.

Strangely, I tend to get lost more when I am on familiar turf. It is within this comfort zone that I trust my instincts and get lazy about checking my route. Usually this is fine and I can work out an alternative way home. Often it is frustrating and I curse my stupidity as I schlep the extra distance without the water/ sweeties/suncream I need. Many times I shuffle home bedraggled, exhausted and a bit wobbly.

A bit of mild peril is part of the fun of running off road. In a mundane 9-5 daily existence, wandering through bracken and mud, whilst essentially only a few miles from the nearest ice cream van, makes us feel like warriors, we are explorers of the fringe wilderness.

GPS and the OS maps app have given me the confidence to run further, and in places, I never would have before. There is a comfort in being able to stand under a finger post and know where that path will ultimately lead you. Used alongside a conventional paper map, a GPS reading can confirm (or deny) that you are exactly where you thought you were and you can proceed accordingly. I love that I can plot a route from my sofa and then just follow the arrow on my screen, taking away the on-the-ground navigation means I can enjoy my surroundings more.

But. And here’s the crux. Sometimes being lost is not fun. Sometimes mild peril becomes incrementally more dangerous. Sometimes GPS is unreliable or completely unavailable. If you are running off road alone, it is vitally important that you have the skills to ensure that you can get home in one piece.

Here’s some brief context to my lecturing. I’d swum to the isolated start of my run (so no easy way back) found myself in a phone signal black spot, on unfamiliar, high level fells with very limited visibility. I was wet, didn’t trust my bearings and the running was *incredibly technical (*read as I was stomping along, stumbling intermittently and getting increasingly sweary.) I was on top of one peak, couldn’t see much in any direction, and was heading higher, there were massive drops on each side of me, and I didn’t know which was the right way to go. I was scared.

We joke about navigation skills. Being the person who always gets lost is funny. “She took the wrong turn and ended up adding on an extra 2 miles!” There are the stalwarts we mock as dinosaurs when they chunner about map reading when we have a gadget that uses actual satellites in actual space because it’s like the 21st century now. We begrudge carrying that map, compass and whistle that make up the mandatory kit.

The question is, if you found yourself in a situation which you genuinely feared your personal safety to be at risk, would you have the skills you need?

Again, long story short, I’m here writing this now. So either I’m a complete fell sissy who was almost crying in sight of the picnic site or the answer is yes.

So I’m going to nag, because having spent a few hours being genuinely terrified, I feel I’ve earned the right to be a bit sanctimonious.

  • Use your gadgets, yes, they are wonderful! But, use them alongside a paper map; that way you will learn to match up what you are seeing around you with what is represented on the sheet.
  • Practice using a compass, it is a simple tool that simply makes sure your map is turned the right way around. Simples!
  • Have the odd run where you carry a map in your hand, you will quickly get the hang of thumbing your way along paths and looking for features that pinpoint your location.
  • Go on a navigation course. Go on two! Listen to the map sages who have wet dreams about contour lines. Glaze over a bit whilst they waffle on, drink the tea, eat the biscuits, then go out and practice!
  • Have fun with maps! Orienteering, geo-caching, Street-O, treasure hunts all help incentivise you to be a bit better than your club mates/rivals. I am living proof that a slow runner can beat a faster club mate by being smarter (you know who you are Adrian!)
  • Take navigation seriously. You don’t want to be the div who has to call Mountain Rescue with no clue where you are, and you don’t want to die of hypothermia whilst they look for you.
  • Be intrepid. Be brave. Be curious. Look at the wonderful world around you. Enjoy!

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