The Importance of A Map and Compass

As some of you may know, I recently passed the Lowland Leaders Course, which is a nationally recognised qualification for the outdoor industry.  In all honesty, I very nearly didn't pass this course, mainly due to my attitude towards maps and a compass.

I needed to change my attitude!

In my head, paper maps were a complete waste of time, especially in this day and age where we have GPS devices and smartphones to help us navigate.  On the assessment we were not allowed to have any technical help or guidance which I found incredibly frustrating.  Having to keep my thumb on a map so that I could keep track of where I was a constant pain in the bum!  My hands are so small and when I was holding a map for miles, it gave me cramp, and my thumb would often move from the last point which meant it took me ages to figure out where I was!  All this time, I knew my iPhone was in my pocket and all I had to do was launch OS Locate and I would know exactly where I was in minutes.  Following a map through a forest trail is quite exhausting as you need to count the footpaths, look out for little signs to indicate where you are to keep you on track.  My assessor (Steve) would tell our group to stop at any random time and ask another member of the group to take the lead - if you were not 100% sure of your exact location then you would be leading a group of people the wrong way.  The pressure was on!

I learned quite quickly that chatting to people made me lose my location on the map very quickly.  Chatting too much has always got me in trouble and during the first day it was rather embarrassing.  When Steve asked me to lead a particular section after lunch, I set off in a confident manner then after two mins the road on the map, was not presenting itself in real life.  I needed to tell my group to stay put, while I walked around the area for a good few minutes trying to figure out where I was.  Knowing you had people waiting for you was not a nice experience and my confidence took a bit of a nose dive.

That was day one! Day two was different!

I woke up around 4am on day two of my assessment knowing that I needed to pull something out of the bag today if I was going to pass this course.  I spent two hours watching YouTube videos for hints and tips about using a map and a compass when out in the field.  Finally the penny dropped. and these tips helped me the most:-

  • Knowing that the top of the map was always pointing north
  • Drawing on the map with arrows to note which way I was going really helped.
  • The Silva Compass 1-2-3 system was etched into my brain.  Dead in the red!  And never forget to orientate your map!

The rain came down, my hands were freezing, my feet were icy cold as we headed out for a 12.5 mile hike in the Chiltern Hills.  I gave myself a talking to as deep down I knew that I couldn't always rely on technology.  Yes, I always had a spare power-pack and I have never run out of juice, but what if there is a technical problem with the phone?  If I was in an area that I didn't know that well, and I was leading a group of people and my phone or GPS device died, then how would I navigate back?

I'm pleased to say that I managed to keep my concentration for the full day, and I didn't get lost once on day two.  Steve would sporadically ask us for map co-ordinates of where we were, or ask us which way was "east"!  He was constantly testing all of us as he needed to know that we had the confidence to manage a group of people on a Lowland expedition.


My attitude has now changed towards a map and compass.  I now always keep a physical map in my bag of the area that I am walking, along with my Silva Compass.  Yes, I will continue to use my GPS and iPhone to lead a group, but for peace of mind I now have a map, and more importantly, I know how to use it!