Information on map reading, compass use and orieteering skills

Finding North is not enough! (but it's a start...)

Most of us are only too aware of the rules of the mountains. Leave no trace behind, dress appropriately, tell someone exactly where you are going and when you will be back, and don't go hill walking alone. And of course, bring a map and compass! Even if you are only going for a few hours or a day trip.

But how many of us can actually use a map and compass? The weekly reports of adventurous hill walkers in the Wicklow and Dublin Mountains coming into 'difficulties' and needing the services of mountain rescue would suggest that there are more of us becoming 'geographically embarrassed' than we would care to admit. In most cases it only results in some embarrassment on behalf of the wayward hiker, but the consequences could be fatal.  

Anyone with a keen interest in hillwalking and hiking has at some stage experienced that stomach clenching feeling of being lost, even if it was only for a matter of seconds. And believe me - there is no worse feeling!

So where do we start? First and foremost, we need to have the right equipment. A discovery series or topographical map and a silva compass will get you on the right track.

When you arrive at the car park and before setting off on your walk it always helps to take your bearings. To do this you need to orientate your map to the ground.

Step One: Get out your flashy new compass and hold it in the flat of your hand, keeping it parallel to the ground. Wait until the north point (usually a red arrow) stops moving. That is north! Its that simple.  

But wait, your in a car park, so make sure you are not too close to any vehicles (and not inside one!) as this will throw you significantly off course. Also have a look around for any steel fences, electric cables or anything else metal, as this will adversely affect your compass and you will be lost before you even get started.

Step two: Now get your map out and hold it next to your compass, and rotate your map so that the top of the map is pointing in the same direction as the north point on your compass. Now your map is orientated to the ground.   

Okay, so far so good. Now take a look around at your surrounds. If you can see any large mountains, hills or other features (like the sugar loaf in Wicklow), try and identify them on your map. These will help you to find your car on your return journey, and help you keep your bearings as you conduct your walk.

But what happens if you ger caught in inclement weather? Or you are surrounded by fog, or its night? Orientating your map would not be enough to get you out of course. In such cases you would need to 'take a bearing' and march on it, and more on that in the next instalment.


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