Chantelle Kelly leaves the phone at home, but discovers all is not lost.
I have to admit that I rely heavily on technology to get me everywhere: Sat nav in the car, Google Maps on my phone. I hadn’t attempted to read a map since taking part in the Duke of Edinburgh awards at high school, so I was eager to get stuck back in.
I met a very friendly Alastair Clark in Bayford, Hertfordshire for his half day Map Magic course, and my first task was to draw the room we were sitting in, from a birds-eye view. We then measured how many times my piece of paper fit against one of the walls. Alastair was teaching scale – the smaller the scale, the more detailed the map is.
Next he pulled out the map; a 1:25,000 ordnance survey map of the local area. We folded the map to just the area we were walking in, so as to not lose our place from the start. Alastair was full of these tiny, helpful tips. He explained the ‘key’ – the different, coloured lines and symbols, and talked us through what we would expect to see on the way. As we set off, he told us to hold our thumb on the map to mark our present spot. Following the route, we ‘ticked off’ the things on our mental checklist as we passed them – woodland boundary, stream, field edge, and so on.
Estimating distance was trickier, but could be done. We counted our footsteps until we reached the end of a footpath. I counted 130 steps in 200m on the map – so I now know that my average pace is 65 steps per 100m!
Alastair timed another 200 metres, so we knew the time it took us to walk it. We reckoned we could walk 1km in roughly 15 minutes, dependant on the terrain. One square on the map was 1km, so we now had an idea of how long it could take us to walk a certain distance.
However, now it was time to test our mettle! Alastair left us to our own devices, and we carried on looking out for markers along the way – a water tower, a fork in the road and then our ‘attack point’. We found Alastair waiting for us, exactly where we expected him to be – we had managed to not get lost!
I was amazed at the amount I had learnt in such a small amount of time. I now see map reading as an essential life skill, and Alastair’s courses come highly reccomended!
Alastair’s top map reading tips:
• Always line your map with the countryside (orientate your map).
• Fold your map so that you just see the section that you will need.
• Hold your map using your thumb to mark your present position.
• The least important information on the map is the writing – there is no need to hold the map so that the writing is the right way up.
• Plan ahead and decide which parts of your walk will require greatest concentration on your part.
• Map reading is also about landscape reading – develop your skills of observation.
• When interpreting contours remember that water features are usually at the bottom of valleys.
Take your Navigation to the Next Level
Already an expert in navigation? It’s time to try orienteering…
Orienteering is a sport that combines map reading and running. Competitors have to find their way between a series of checkpoints, called controls, as quickly as possible. Orienteering is a great way to improve your navigational skills, with lots of navigational decisions to be made across shorter distances.
There are different orienteering disciplines at the top level. Sprint takes place in an urban setting with around 12-16 minutes of running. Competitors
require good running speed and the ability to change gear and direction quickly. The Middle and Long Distance events take place in the forest. The Middle Distance takes the runners around 30-40 minutes and strength-endurance is the key here as the controls can be fairly close together on technical and hilly terrain. The Long Distance takes runners around 70-90 minutes and typically has some long distances between the controls so speed-endurance and strength-endurance are needed here.
Permanent orienteering courses are a great way to get outside and go orienteering at a time and place that suits you. These fixed courses offer a huge amount of variety, from urban courses in city centres to rural routes through beautiful scenery.
Discover more at
Alastair Clark holds Mountain England Moorland Leader Award, British, Orienteering Federation Instructor Award, Outdoor First Aid certificate and is a fully qualified teacher with a Cert Ed and MEd. He was recently voted Guide of the Year for cycle leading with Saddle Skedaddle.
Alastair’s Map Magic courses are part of Stirring Learning, for more information or to a book a course visit: www.stirringlearning.eu/maps