• Ash

Why you should probably use your compass less.

Of all the things I get asked the most when teaching navigation, "how do you take bearings?" is probably one of the most frequently heard.


Before you read on, I am not saying you shouldn't learn to use a compass to take bearings, absolutely not, it's a skill I've relied on for over 30 years of navigating. It's an important skill and one I teach. Here's a reminder sent to course participants on exactly that skill.

So, when have I used a bearing lots? The answer has one thing in common, but here are examples; at sea, in the Sahara, on the Cairngorm plateau and from the air. The commonality here is featureless areas, and big featureless ones at that.


However, over-reliance on bearings in areas with a lot of features is a sign that skills can be improved massively.


Given no-mad is based in a mountainous area, and many clients are wanting to be able to navigate in wild, mountainous terrain on events such as the OMM it's worth just assessing whether the skill of a compass bearing is as useful as some other techniques that can be overlooked early in a navigators learning journey.


Have a look at this event map and decide for yourself how many areas are featureless?

The answer is very very few!


Then have a look at the compass I use for navigating on events like this. See any way of taking a bearing?


The answer is a firm 'no'.


The main mantra that I teach in navigation is "See, Describe, Remember." This is from two perspectives - what can you see and describe on a map, and what can you see and describe around you.


The all too common image of a navigator is someone looking down at a map, or a compass, not looking up at the landscape, landforms and features they are moving through.


And this is the fundamental of why you should probably use a compass less. It is distracting you. A lot. And if you are distracted, you are missing out, on so many levels.


And this is also just one of the many reasons to use a Harvey Map to practise your navigation, it has just so much information, but not very much to distract you. Look at this, not county parish boundaries, just pure navigational information on shapes and terrain to help you make decisions.

What do you see? What can you describe?


If you describe any of those round "ring contours" as lumps like the one with a tree on beneath, then you're already a long way to being a great navigator.

It's worth thinking on what is considered the "Gold Standard" for navigating in Summer Conditions (Mountain Leader) have a look how many times 'bearings' is mentioned specifically:

Not often right? Again, in the much feared night navigation and micro-navigation sections, it is not unusual for a compass to not be needed at all.


From the perspective of someone trying to move quickly and efficiently through terrain like this, there is also one additional reason to "see, describe and remember". Speed.


Consider that looking down, and resetting a compass takes a few seconds (let's call it 5 seconds for ease). Recently, whilst observing someone (a very experienced navigator), on one leg of about 1km, the compass was checked 35 times. That's 175 seconds (lets call it 3 minutes). Now on a short score mountain marathon of 5 hours (day 1) a reasonably fit person could cover 30km but checking a compass that regularly will be nearly 90 minutes checking a compass, and that means you've only got 3.5 hrs to move, perhaps a reduction of 9km and the associated points. Of course this is an extreme example, but you get the point that keeping your head up, and your thumb on your location on a well orientated map is going to be a far better technique for maximising your scoring.


Of course there are heaps of other navigations skills like pacing and/or timing that are critical, and together with a really well practised "see, describe, remember' these are the things that will turn you from a good navigator into a ninja navigator.


So, when you're deciding what techniques you need for the navigation you're going to do, maybe asking the question "why, or where, do I need to navigate?" is an important one to ensure that you learn or practise the right skills in your navigation tool box. Or, have a chat with me, I'd love to help you!


About Ash

Ash qualified as a Yachtmaster (Ocean) in 1997, and was awarded an Associate Fellowship to the Royal Institute of Navigation in 2012. Through no-mad he is a provider for Mountain Training Hill & Mountain Skills and a navigation tutor for the National Navigation Award Scheme.


Ash has been competing in Mountain Marathons since 1999. In 2012, Ash won a Gold Medal at the Welsh Athletics Long Distance Trail Running Championships, and completed Marathon des Sables in 2014.


Outside no-mad, Ash is a consultant Health and Safety Advisor to UK Athletics and an Associate Consultant to RoSPA in the Water and Leisure safety department,

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