#GetOutside – Advanced Nav with the Ultimate Navigation School

I have no sense of direction. Absolutely none. Never ask me for directions; my internal compass is pointing consistently 180 degrees on the wrong bearing. Or 270 degrees. Or maybe 45…

I’ve spent enough time teaching Scouts how to take a bearing for a clear footpath that – so far – I’ve never managed to pilot myself or Phil into any serious bother on a hill. Anything beyond checking which fork in the path to take was, however, beyond me. Last year, I did the Intermediate Navigation course with the Ultimate Navigation School (funded by Jaguar Land Rover’s Employee Learning Scheme). I spent a glorious weekend pottering about in the Peak District with a team and with Martin and Adie from the Ultimate Nav School. I learned to measure legs by pacing, why you should pay attention even when you’re not leading the leg, and the importance of waterproof trousers that go over your boots. I left that course feeling like a total pro but, on adventures hence, I noticed I was missing something: when rain and fog really came in, or when we stayed out long enough for it to get dark, I lost all frame of reference. I had no confidence that I could find myself without a cheeky check of the OS Maps app, or that I could navigate to safety. I want to do more solo wild camping this summer so I knew I needed to sort this out; I went back to the Peak District and the Ultimate Navigation School for the Advanced course. This time, I was joined by loads of the other Ordnance Survey GetOutside Champions.

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Getting soggy on the Intermediate Navigation course

The meeting point at the Windy Harbour hotel was an explosion of blue and teal from ‘those’ jackets. Paul and the other Ultimate Nav instructors doled out navigator packs and maps. They talked us through some basics and some theory and they left us in no doubt that they were the experts out there. What brought me back to the Ultimate Nav School after my first course, though, was that the instructors are all approachable. I’d normally smile through things I don’t understand and assume it will all become clear later on but, in my small group with Paul, I was happy to say, “Right, run me through this, because I just don’t get it…”

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‘Those’ jackets! Photo credit: Paul Hitchen

By mid-morning, loaded up on tea and biscuits, we were out on the hills, trying to follow bearings up and down groughs and sliding through peat and the last of the snow. The instructors took us around a tricky route, teaching us about micro navigation, reading contours, and some absolute wizardry about pinning down where you are along a bearing when you’ve been talking instead of paying attention. We spent the afternoon navigating ourselves across the featureless Dark Peak until we stumbled across the Pennine Way.

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At a local Scout hut, kindly loaned to us for our debriefing session, we loaded up on more tea and excellent biscuits and were given our homework assignments. I had two legs to plan and lead the next day: from a fork in a path to an inconspicuous spot on the edge of a slope; and from a trig point to an apostrophe in the label of the name of the hill. Having done the Intermediate Navigation course, I was fairly sure that the apostrophe wasn’t actually going to be there when we got to the hill, so I was nervous about how I would prove our location to Paul when we got there. I decided I would deal with that on Sunday: first, there was a night navigation session to do.

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How was I going to find this?!

Back on the hill in the dark, the Dark Peak felt much colder and more exposed than it had in the daylight. We were instructed to double our calories while walking at night, which I did not need any encouragement to do. Pacing along bearings while chewing happily on a steady stream of chocolate bars, the night nav became less intimidating. The peat was still as slippery as it had been earlier and, after several Champs pulled some excellent comedy falls (and a few intentional face-plants into the snow), we left the chilly Peak in high spirits.

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Nigel loves the snow! Photo credit: Scott Mcalister

In the morning, the Dark Peak looked anything but. The blissful blue sky was completely the wrong weather for an Advanced Navigation assessment, but none of us were complaining. You’ll be pleased to know that I found the inconspicuous spot on the first leg, and the place where the apostrophe should have been on the second leg (I can confirm there wasn’t actually an apostrophe on the hill). I am officially an Advanced Navigator with a certificate on the way. And I probably won’t get you lost.

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Getting my bearings… Photo credit: Paul Hitchen

I’m glad I went back and did another course with the Ultimate Navigation School, and I want to go and push it even further with their Night Navigation course. I’m itching to get back in the hills to head off-piste and keep my new skills sharp, and my confidence with safety on the hills is at an all-time high. It’s probably still best to ask someone else for directions if I don’t have a map and a compass handy, though. Sorry.

My Navigating Essentials:

  • Planning ahead! Prior preparation prevents… ahem.
    Make sure you’ve done a route card showing where you’ll be and when you’re due back. Have at least one waterproof copy with you, and leave another with someone at home. Safety first.
  • A compass
    Keep it away from your phone or it’ll go a bit squiffy.
  • A map
    I use 1:25 000 for hiking because you get more detail. The OS Explorer Active ones are laminated so they’re great for drawing routes, bearings and measurements on.
  • Grid reference tool, timing card and slope angle tool from Shaven Raspberry
    Ain’t nobody got time for mentally calculating slope length and walking time for each leg mid-adventure and possibly in the rain.
  • The Ultimate Navigation Manual
    A new purchase for me but I’m really glad I bought it. We can all forget stuff after a course so it’s a confidence boost to have some written guidance to hand when you’re route planning.

I also use some apps to help us along the way, but I’ll go into all my day hiking gear in another post…

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