I realised how much I didn't know!
I left my house around 7.30am on Saturday and headed south for Chesham. I have never walked within the Chiltern Hills area, and as I drove through the small villages such as Wittington Bottom, I made a mental note to return here with my walking club. It is such a beautiful area. I remember thinking "It's a shame that I am going to be sitting inside all day watching a powerpoint presentation when all this beauty is around us". Little did I know that the PowerPoint would last about 15 mins and after a few exercises about understanding the symbols on an OS Map, we were kitted up and ready to hit the footpaths! This was going to be awesome!
The course was directed by Steven Pease from Vertical Relief, who had a calming influence and obviously knew his stuff. I have never really used an OS Map before as I only ever use technology, but I never felt uncomfortable by asking what may seem like silly questions. I didn't even know that the top of an OS Map represented north! I was in for a steep learning curve!
I was chatting to a fellow Nordic Walker yesterday who asked me the question "What sort of things do you do on this type of course", so I thought I would enlighten everyone with a rundown of the new skills that I have acquired.
Leadership Skills and Group Management
There is much more to leading a walk than just navigation. You need to be aware of not just what is in front of you, but also what is behind you. I was introduced to the term "twitching", which basically means that the walk leader needs to turn around on regular occasions to make sure that the people following are all ok, that no-one has stopped to do up a shoe-lace, taken a fall, or stopped to pick up dog-mess! A leader must be aware of the legislation that relates to the care of a group and of course legislation that relates to the land that you are walking on.
I learned how to properly brief a group for the walk ahead, and to know that it is ok for others to walk ahead, as long as I am aware of where they are and that I am in control (and I can see them). You don't always have to lead from the front. It is interesting to see how the skill of adapting to different situations depending on the group and situations comes naturally after a period of time.
Above all, I realised that it is ok to be flexible. By reading the land, the weather and the abilities of the people in the group, it is ok to change your plans accordingly.
Walking Skills / Hazards and Emergency Procedures
We spent quite a bit of time understanding pace and distance whilst walking. I now know that it takes me approximately 70 steps to walk 100 yards, and I can now judge a distance by sight. I am a confident walker and to complete this course you need to be able to keep a good pace and walk a good distance. Being able to demonstrate an appropriate level of personal fitness goes towards the final assessment.
Other things that I learned with regards to walking skills:-
- Identifying potential hazards such as a barbed wire on the ground, tree roots that others may trip over, or a dodgy stile.
- Understanding that everyone has a different pace and copes with hills and declines in different ways.
- We talked about what side of the road to walk when there is no footpath
- We also discussed muddy tracks and the best way to navigate through the mud (this was a practical exercise and quite good fun!).
Planning a walk
Planning a walk is crucial to the enjoyment and safety of your fellow walkers. When planning a walk I now need to consider the group's abilities, the terrain, the weather forecast (there are better resources to use rather than the iPhone weather app!) and also plan for any emergencies.
- Understanding where to find information within a map (or even an app) that will help you plan for emergencies or exit walks. This again was a practical exercise where Steve took us up high, and coincidentally it started to hail storm and was very windy. He claimed to have slipped and hurt his head, so we all rallied together and got the patient and the group into an emergency shelter. Those little shelters warm up really quickly! Whilst under the shelter we planned how we would get our patient some help. By looking at the map we could see that there was a farm not that far away, and the plan started to develop from there.
- When planning a walk you need to know if there are going to be steep climbs, descents and danger points.
- Weather forecasts - I know this sounds a bit crazy, but I didn't really understand about wind speeds, neither did I have a full grasp of all the weather icons at we are presented with. I am pleased to say that I have a much better understanding now.
- Risk management is essential. I currently risk assess all of my walks, but I was not sure if I was doing it correctly. I actually believe that I include too much information in my risk assessments, but hey, you can never have too much information when you are evaluating a walk and it involves people's lives can you?
Basic Mapwork and Route Finding Skills
I am a geek and I have not used a proper map in years. I am a keen geocacher, and even when I was walking the Camino or the Cotswold Way I have always used technology to get me from A to B. The route planning exercise took me 20 mins to map a 3km walk by paper, which would have taken me less thatn five minutes using Alltrails or Viewranger App. But, there has been the occasion when I have been standing in a forest with no signal and very little battery left which would have proved a bit tricky if I was leading a group of people. Technology is great, but at the end of the day, an OS Map does not run out of battery (especially when it is cold), and a compass will always point you in the right direction. It was time to bury my tech skills and get jiggy with paper, pen and a compass!
- Understanding the different types of maps, scales and symbols. Symbols are not that easy and the exercise that Steve conducted with regards to map symbols really did get you thinking about how a map works.
- I was not fully aware of access land and rights of way.
- Contours! They are super complicated, but once you can see them it all makes sense. It's a bit like those magic eye pictures when finally the penny drops and you understand if it is a hill going up or going down, and what the looped contours mean.
- I now know how to read a grid reference properly (using the numbers on the side of my compass - well, the side of Steve's compass as my "Christmas cracker compass" had no numbers on it!
- Map orientation is essential. Do you remember that episode on Friends with Joey "getting into the map" so he could navigate his way around London? Yep, that was me this weekend!
- Above all, I now understand the limitations of using a handheld GPS device.
Now, this was my area of expertise, and I was positive that there was not really much to learn when it came to gear. How wrong was I? On Saturday, back at base and with a hot coffee warming our cold bodies, Steve took his rucksack and started to unpack everything he was carrying. It was just like a magician as more and more stuff kept appearing in front of us. Do we really need all this stuff I thought to myself, but every time I questioned it, I had a reasonable explanation as to why all the items were essential.
That evening at home, I repacked my own walk leaders rucksack and added extra items that I do not usually carry. With exception to the obvious things such as food, water, first aid, waterproofs and torch, I also took with me:-
- Foil blanket which I had in my large rucksack (perhaps a blizzard blanket when leading more challenging routes such as the Lake District)
- I packed my one man tent to represent an emergency shelter (but I will purchase an emergency shelter for the future).
- Emergency gel for energy (handy for anyone who may be running low on blood sugar levels).
- Hot coffee in a flask (I don't know why I never think about taking a hot drink, but I was certainly envious of those that did!).
- A mars bar for emergencies.
- Dog poo bags - to collect any litter along the way.
Environmental Awareness, Conservation, Access and Land Ownership
Having been geocacher for many years and understanding the concept of "cache in, trash out", or "Leave no trace". I loved the fact that we covered environmental issues whilst out walking on Sunday. Steve stopped and pointed out an orange peel which was on the ground as well as a sweet wrapper. We discussed whether it was ok to leave the orange peel on the ground, or should the owner have taken it home. I learned that if it is not part of the natural surroundings then it should not be left. If we were walking through an orchard of orange trees (highly unlikely in the UK!), then it would be ok to leave the peel, but in normal circumstances, it would not. An orange peel can take up to 6 months to decompose.
We agreed that the general rule of thumb "pick up three things whilst out and about" will mean that you are doing your part for the environment. I pledge to do my bit from now on, hence I will carry dog poo bags to collect litter along the way of my walks.
It was fascinating to learn that moss always grows on the north side of a tree, and Steve highlighted many of the birds and flora whilst we were on our walk. We were made aware of badger setts and animal trails. I didn't realise that this was all part of the curriculum, as Steve's style of teaching was a way of sharing his own passion for the environment and was contagious. Steve also pointed out how walking can impact the environment, and how natural trails form.
If anyone is considering leading a walk then the Lowland Leaders Award is the best place to start. The whole process will open your eyes to new things which is important for any leader. The next step for me is a two-day assessment to make sure that I have understood everything that was taught over the last few days, as well as logging a minimum of twenty walks on the Mountain Leaders Dlog. Wish me luck!