Part 2: Planning a route
In Part 1 of this navigation series, we became familiar with reading a map and identifying features and terrain. Now in Part 2 we can use this understanding to plan a route in order to execute a safe adventure in the hills.
The map sample below is part of the Harvey Maps British Mountain Series. For more information on these great hiking maps check out the Harveys Website here.
In our example we will plan a route from the train station in Crianlarich (point A) to the summit of Cruach Ardrain (point B) making a horseshoe traverse of the mountains two northern ridges. The first step is to describe the route.
Describe the route
This simple step helps you to identify the key features of your route, points where important route-finding decisions need to be made and helps you picture how your day will play out. Once you have developed a bit more experience this step can be done mentally whilst looking over your map but for now it helps to write it down. Think about including important information that can be read from the map such as built features, terrain features, heights and directions based upon the points of the compass. Keep the sentences short and clear. Below is a description I have written for our route to the summit of Cruach Ardrain.
Leaving the train station in Crianlarich follow the forest road first east before quickly turning south through woodland. After crossing underneath some electricity cables look out for and take the second turn off to your left at approximately 270m altitude (almost 3 contours, each at 15m, above the bold contour marked 225m. 225+(3*15) = 270m).
Follow this path for approximately 1.5km. The path will become less well defined along its length as indicated by the dashes on the map. The Allt Coire Ardrain river will be seen or heard flowing to our left and on reaching the end of the defined path we will leave the forest and enter onto open ground as indicated by the change in colour of the map from green to yellow.
Continue following the course of the Allt Coire Ardrain until you reach a small stream flowing down from your right. At this point head South West and follow the small tributary stream uphill to its source at an area of wet boggy ground. Directly uphill and South West of this point a small pass in the ridge will be seen as defined by the shape of the contours. Head for this small pass at 675m. At this point you will be able to look both East and West down into two valleys and South up a defined ridge.
Follow the defined ridge uphill where a hill path will be found. Follow this along the ridge which gradually turns East and climbs more steeply to defined summit of Cruach Ardrain at 1046m
From the summit descend steeply North East to a small pass at 855m before climbing again along a complex ridge through crags to Stob Garbh at 959m. Continue along the crest of the ridge over the top of Stob Coire Buidhe at 857m to the ridge end at 701m. This section is pathless but the ridge crest should suffice as a guide.
A small stream can be followed North West from point 701m down a steep slope passing into woodland at 375m and eventually meeting a forest track at 240m (225+15). Picking up this track turn left (West) and after about 1.5km and having crossed a bridge over the Allt Coire Ardrain river turn left onto the forest track you started the day on. Follow this back to the train station.
As you can see by writing down a description, we have already identified important sections of the route, where there are turn offs or paths to follow, where features dictate our route and at what heights we should find these. Writing these down in a small notebook for reference on your trip is helpful if the weather changes and for comparison with your navigation aids such as altimeter and compass. Don’t worry if you are not familiar with these tools as we will cover their use in Part 3.
Handrails and catching features
As you can see from the description above features like ridge lines, rivers, paths and boundaries between types of vegetation can be very useful for describing a route and for navigation. These linear features are easy to identify on the map and in real life. We can use these linear features in two different ways.
The first is as a ‘handrail’. In this scenario we use the linear feature as a guide to walk along. In our example we use the river and stream as a handrail when we walk along the side of it. We also use a ridgeline as a handrail and follow its length.
In the second scenario these linear features can be used as a ‘catching feature’. This is when we take note of the point at which we cross a linear feature and can use this point as an indicator that we need to change direction or take another course of action. In our example we use the ridge line as a catching feature on the way up to tell us to change direction. On the way down the path is a great obvious catching feature to tell us to stop descending and follow the path to the left.
When you next plan a route think about how linear features can help you as handrails and catching features when you are next on the hill.
Break the description in different legs
The description is pretty wordy so it helps to break the journey down into more obvious legs that can be described simply by their Height Gain or Loss and Distance. I tend to define my Legs by a change between climbing and descending or on reaching a major terrain feature like a ridge or river. Below are the Legs I have broken our example into. Distance is measured using the scale of the map and height from the contours. Remember to check out the key on the map to make sure you are measuring correctly.
Having defined our distinct legs we can start to build up a picture of which sections may prove harder than others and thus take longer. We also now know the overall distance we expect to cover and the height we will have to climb. This information helps us to make some prediction as to how long our trip may take.
Timing – using timing rules and monitoring progress
Naturally the time you will take to complete your adventure will depend on how fast you will be walking. With some experience you can start to predict what speed you tend to walk at on different terrain and a timing card like the one pictured below is a great tool for this.
When I am out with clients, I tend to err on the side of caution and plan for walking 3km on the flat each hour and then add 1 minute for every 10m of height gained. So for our route above we travel 12km which will take 4 hours at 3km/hr (12/3 = 4) and we gain 1002m of height adding 100 minutes onto our journey (1002/10 = 100). In total our journey should take 5 hours and 40 minutes (4hr + 100mins = 5hr 40min).
This gives us an idea of when we should start our journey so that we finish before dark or before weather changes. It is worth calculating the timing for each leg in the same way so that you can monitor whether you are walking faster or slower than your predicted times. Knowing if you are on or behind schedule allows you to make important decisions like when to abandon your original goals and choose a shorter route if you are moving slowly or if you are moving well to potentially extend your trip.
Safety – bad weather options, escape routes and leaving a route plan with a friend
Now that we have an established route planned and we have a rough idea of how long it may take we have some good information to leave with a friend in the form of a route card. Should an accident happen on your adventure this route card will alert your friends and potential rescue teams as to your intended plans and aid in any rescue attempt. A route card should show your rough route and direction of travel, your intended start and finish time and at least one intermediate time, say at a summit as well as your name and phone number and the number of people in the group. Check out the route card below for our example route.
It is also worth thinking about some escape routes from your intended plan that can be used if the weather changes or if it becomes clear that you will be unable to complete your intended route. You can add these to your route card as well. In the example above they are in black.
- Describe your route – Use straightforward sentences and include information that can be read from the map (heights, features, handrails and catching features) as well as directions using the points of a compass and up or down.
- Break the route into legs – With clear start and end points, the distance between the points, the height gained or lost and any important notes.
- Predict the timing of your route – Calculate how long you think each leg will take based upon km travelled each hour with the addition of time for height gained. Start conservatively and after a few trips you will begin to build up an idea of your normal speed.
- Make a route card to leave with friends – Include your route and any escape routes, timings and name and phone number.
Taking time to plan your route well will make it easier to avoid any navigation errors when you are out on the hill and will hemp massively if bad weather comes in and you need to navigate in poor visibility.
In the next blog we will look at how to use a compass to aid your navigation should poor conditions catch you out.