Learning To Read Ordinance Survey Maps
I was first introduced to OS Maps when we lived in Scotland.
When we would go hiking with other families, someone would bring along a paper Ordinance Survey Map, usually in a plastic square waterproof case that they wore around their necks. When the kids were in secondary school, they used them on school hiking trips.
As long as I have been hiking with Taido, he has used either a GPS device or mapping software on his phone for mapping, so I learned from him how to do this same.
Mapping software and phone apps have steadily improved over the years. I’ve learned to use so many different apps that I often don’t even carry a paper map.
Until this year.
Bronze Navigation with OS Maps
Last spring I signed up tp be a leader on walks in the UK with Ramblers Walking Holidays, and one of the many requirements for leading was that I had to pass several levels of British navigation certification. On these navigation assessments, you are not permitted to use mapping software or a phone. Only a paper map and compass.
Well, I am game for learning new skills, especially ones that make me more reliable in the hills. So I started to learn to read OS Maps. To prepare for my first course, I watched lots of YouTube videos to try to start deciphering the symbols and lines on the maps.
Honestly, it was hard for me to make the switch. For one thing, you can’t increase the size of a paper map by spreading it apart with your fingers like you can on a phone, so it’s harder to see.
Also, if you want a little dot on the map that moves along on the path, showing you your position and keeping track of right where you are, then you have to draw it on there yourself. And it’s not as accurate or foolproof as the little line that is automatically drawn on your phone as you walk.
But I learned to fold the map so that my thumb is on the point where I am. Then I hold the compass onto the map pointing in the direction I want to go. As I walk, I notice the things on the ground that are also on my map: a stream, a fence, a sheepfold (there are an astonishing number of sheepfolds on OS Maps). The official navigation names for these skills are thumbing the map and ticking off features.
And there are loads more phrases that are specific to navigation with OS Maps that I’ve learned this year.
Orienting the map is holding it in the direction you want to go.
Dog-legging is finding a route on the map to avoid a place you can’t walk through by making a triangle detour around it.
A handrail is a linear feature that you can use to keep yourself oriented in the right direction.
Taking a bearing is using the map and (a very specific kind of) compass to walk in the direction you want to go.
After reading and prepping, I went on my first course in Wales last summer. For two days I wandered around in the hills with a delightful instructor called Jane. She helped me put all these terms into practice.
While much of the terminology was unfamiliar to me, many of the skills in practice are basic common sense. They were skills I’ve used without knowing exactly what they were called.
I’ve followed many a stream to a crossroads or bridge without knowing to call it a linear feature. Riverbeds often run conveniently alongside trails.
At the end of the two days, Jane awarded me my bronze navigation certificate. Next up was the silver.
Silver Navigation with OS Maps
The week-long silver course involved a detailed assessment out on the trail at the end.
We were going to be asked to find spots on the map that are not on any trail.
You bushwhack on purpose to show that you could do it if you needed to, to find a different way out or to regain your way if lost. (I don’t really care for bushwhacking.)
I was next-level nervous about this step in my training.
What if I don’t pass? Or what if I can’t keep up with everyone?
I considered backing out because I was so anxious, but in the end, I made my way up to the Lake District on a rainy November week to do the course.
All week long, we tromped around in the rain across fields, hills and bogs.
Slowly, we learned to take these paper maps (which were laminated for us because of the rain) and to use them to navigate to where we were asked to go.
We took turns being the leader, but even when you weren’t leading you were supposed to be tracking on your map where we were going.
One of the instructors would stop you and say, Can you show me on your map where we are?
When he was talking to me, he would sometimes add something like, Um, it might be helpful if your map was right side up.
All week I vacillated between being mortified and too cold and wet to care anymore.
I had several moments of doubting the wisdom of my choice to be there. And the night before my assessment, I was so nervous that I couldn’t sleep.
I was never much of a test taker in school. Raging anxiety and the high stakes of a test are just not a great combination.
I kept reminding myself that I really didn’t have anything on the line. I wasn’t going to be fired or kept from attending university if I didn’t pass.
Of course it would be a bummer, but it would not be the end of the world. In fact, late in the week, we found out that our bronze navigation level was enough to lead some of the Ramblers low level walks.
I like low level walks, I told myself. They are nice.
On the day of the exam, we headed out into the cold day early in the morning.
Four of us were assessed together, and one of our instructors came along with us for moral support.
Ramblers uses an independent assessor to be sure that their instructors aren’t fudging the line on the testing. We met the assessor and his dog at a trailhead and headed up into the hills together.
All day long he pointed out little tiny spots on the map and told us to take him there.
Sometimes it was the corner of a fence, but mostly it would be a bend in a contour line, a spot where the hill slopes up a little bit.
The rain came and went, but the cold wind stuck around most of the day.
We were in an area that if you blindfolded me and spun me around three times and took off my blindfold, I would have no clue which way I had come from. It was brown, boggy bracken in every direction.
And so we took bearings. We counted paces. We used our stopwatches to see how long we’d been walking.
We used all the skills we’d been learning all week, and one by one, we lead the group around the hills.
And then we each pointed out on our maps where we were.
On my last turn, I was leading us down the hill to a bend in a contour line. It was starting to get dark. I was using my headlamp to read my map and pointing at the side in the hill that I hoped was there. I was beyond exhausted from the combination of walking hills all day AND being tested.
The assessor finally put us all out of our misery and told us that since it was getting dark, we could head back. Then he told us that we had all passed.
Instead of jumping up and down with glee, all I could think about was a hot shower and my warm, dry bed.
A few hours later, after we were all showered and fed, the assessor met with each of us individually to let us know what kind of walks we could guide.
He told me that if I practice navigating for about 18 months that I should be ready to go for my gold navigation.
But I can’t even think about the gold just yet.
For now, I am going to enjoy having my silver. (If you visit me, I will proudly show it off to you!)
And I am leading two walks for Ramblers Walking Holidays in 2023, one in Wales and one in the Cotswolds.
So if you fancy coming on a walk with me, let me know!
I’ll do my very best to keep you from having to bushwhack through wet bogs.
Mini Walking Stories is a project I’m doing this month to catalog a fabulous year of walking. During December, I’m inviting you to come along with me on one of the walks I took in 2022. Read more stories here. Or subscribe to get stories to your inbox here.