Teaching Mountain Navigation

When it comes to mountain races, I’m a terrible one for complaining. Why do they have to mark nearly all the routes? Why, when the routes aren’t mark, do hardly any racers turn up? Why don’t more people run the IMRA navigational series? Why don’t a lot of Irish mountain runners know how to use a map and compass?

Learning how to Navigate in the Lake District. Photo courtesy of John Allen.
Learning how to Navigate in the Lake District. Photo courtesy of John Allen.

I finally decided to put my money where my mouth is. Back in 2007, I attended a NavArt course in the Lake District run by Joe Faulkner. Afterwards, he casually suggested that in the future I should teach at one of his mountain navigation courses. “When you teach navigation, it improves your own navigation”, he said. With a course running in March of this year, I asked Joe if I could take him up on his offer.

We were five instructors on the course, each charged on day one with instructing a group of four. From 10am until 4pm, we were out on the hills teaching map interpretation and feature recognition, compass work, route choice, and techniques such as aiming off, hand-railing, pacing, and contouring. Being based in Borrowdale, we had a great site for navigational practice, with tricky contours, spurs, re-entrants and crags to practice on.

Punching a Control on the Navigational Score Practice Day. Photo courtesy of John Allen.
Punching a Control on the Navigational Score Practice Day. Photo courtesy of John Allen.

That evening, the twenty clients headed out on a night navigation course. I spent the two hours sitting at one control in a forest on the hill, watching the stars above and the head-torches wandering around below. It was a peaceful night sitting in the dark. I was also feeling content, knowing that I had given others some of the skills and confidence I had to enjoy the freedom of the mountains on their own.

Back home in April, I helped out my friend, Jenny Kilbride, on her Outdoor Evolution one-day navigational course in Blessington. 12 girls had decided they wanted to know how to find their way around the hills and not to have to just stick to paths or rely on their knowledgeable friends to show them the way.

The morning was spent in the classroom teaching the rubrics of maps and compasses. The afternoon we spent out in the Wicklow Mountains, up and around Sorrell Hill and Black Hill. Again, it was great to see the girls increase in confidence as they navigated their way through the forests, along running rivers, and up on to saddles and summits. And whilst on that gloriously sunny day, Djouce and Glendalough were swarming with hikers on pre-defined trails, we met no one on our boggy slopes and seemingly had the whole mountains to ourselves!

I still complain about people’s poor navigation skills and poor attendance on navigational races. However, at least I have tried to share some of my knowledge so that others too can run in these races. Ultimately, mountain navigation is about learning the basics and then persistently practising them. And it is only through such persistence that you can finally find the freedom of running where you want, whenever you want. Now is that not something that appeals?

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