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How to find your way

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Do navigation apps risk destroying our ability to find our way from A to B independently?  Walking apps rated.

In his 1958 story The Feeling of Powerwriter Isaac Asimov imagines a future where computers are so ubiquitous that people have forgotten how to count.  When a man works out how to perform simple sums using a pencil and paper, he has a sensation of power.

I often recall Asimov’s tale as I do my accounts; and often do sums manually instead of using a calculator in the hope of keeping my brain working.   But nowhere is my sense of technological advance erasing a skill more focused than in navigation.

Map-reading is a skill I value.  To navigate your way from A to B gives you precisely the feeling of power of which Asimov wrote.  Yet when you are in difficult terrain; far from home; the maps are not good; or all three, you crave information.  No wonder GPS is so all-conquering.  But how useful is the latest technology for trail hiking, compared with traditional methods?

Walking into cloud at Little Dun Fell. The rucksack cover blew off five minutes later

I recently walked the final 100 miles of the Pennine Way, from Dufton in England to Kirk Yetholm in Scotland.  The route is famed for heavy bogs and heavy weather, including low clouds, high winds, mist, fog, cold, and rain.  In these conditions, knowing where you are takes on new importance.

To help our party (me and my daughter) I packed five navigational aids:

(i) Wainwright’s original Pennine Way Companion (a classic descriptive guide with hand-drawn maps);

(ii) the Pennine Way National Trail Guide by Damian Hall (a modern guide with 1:25,000 maps of the whole route – a fine series I’ve used on other long-distance footpaths);

(iii) six 1:25,000 paper Ordnance Survey (OS) maps covering the route;

(iv) a Garmin GPS system with the Pennine Way downloaded onto it; and, finally,

(v) the Ordnance Survey maps app (“OS maps app”) on my iPhone.

All of this roughly quadrupled the weight of my rucksack – I exaggerate only slightly.

On the first day, climbing the notoriously hard-to-navigate Cross Fell from Dufton, towards a forbidding cap of dark cloud lowering over the mountain, I set off with two OS maps folded into a waterproof map-holder round my neck; a charged-up Garmin; the National Trail Guide in what I thought was a waterproof pocket; and the OS maps app open on my phone, protected in a waterproof pouch, also around my neck.

Throughout the day, the device which helped me most was the OS maps app.  I had to remove my map-holder from around my neck and put it in my back-pack when wind on Knock Fell blew the maps around so much I feared I would be strangled.  I also took my phone out of the waterproof pouch for ease of use, once it stopped raining (for an account of walking this section in worse weather than we experienced, see the rambling man website).

On the second thru eighth days, I used only the OS maps app.  Here’s what made it best:

(i) the app displays a section of 1:50,000 or 1: 25,000 OS map on your phone’s screen.  This includes all footpaths, notably long-distance ones such as the Pennine Way.  It places the GPS indicator – a red triangle pointing the same direction as the phone – where you are, at the centre of the map.  So you know exactly where you are, relative to the map.  It looks like this:

Windy Gyle, Cheviot Hills, on the app, with location indicator

The same scene in real life

(ii) it works off-line.  You can download the maps from OS, in advance, then turn off your 3G or even put your device in flight mode (see symbol in the Windy Gyle screenshot, top left).  The GPS miraculously places you at the right spot on the map.  No phone signals are involved.  Using flight mode saves power – the screenshot above shows 61% power after a day’s walking.  It also helps  you forget about the outside world;

(iii) it is handy (obscure fact: the German for a mobile phone is “Handy”).  You have your phone on you anyhow.  No need to lug around guidebooks, maps (tho’ personally I would always carry one, and a compass, as back-up), and a separate GPS unit;

(iv) it is good value.  You can buy a 1-month subscription, which includes the ability to access all 1:50,000 and 1:25,000 maps and to download any of them for use off-line, for £3.99 for a month – long enough to do most long-distance footpaths.  If you are a regular walker, they cost £23.99 for a year.  By contrast, standard OS 1:25,000 maps cost £8.99 each, or £14.99 for the weatherproof version.  The OS app is, in a way, part of the future-oriented sharing economy (links in bold italics are to other posts on this site).

The OS maps app is not perfect.  In heavy rain, it is hard to keep your phone dry, and a waterproof pouch makes it hard to use the phone e.g. to take pictures.  I found the app crashed occasionally, particularly when downloading maps.  The size of your phone screen makes it hard to get the strategic sense of where you’re going you enjoy with a traditional map.  It may be best to combine it with a 1:50,000 map as a back-up and strategic guide.

You’re in Scotland on the last – or first – leg of the Pennine Way

View from near the Schil, showing advancing rain 

But these are trifles.  On the whole, the OS app is superb, whether you’re planning your walk, or stuck up Cross Fell inside a cloud.  In fact, the only real downside is that navigating this way feels too easy – as if you are cheating.  Does it mean we shall all lose the ability to navigate?  If you fear this, maybe you should use a 1:50,000 paper map and take the app as a back-up.

Maybe it’s a bit like the stone slabs, taken from slum clearance, which ease the path through bogs on some sections of the Pennine Way.  You feel a bit of a cheat using them – but if you’re a purist, you’re free to plough through the bog alongside them.

Stone slabs – some underwater – ease the path to the summit of The Cheviot

To check out the options for OS app subscriptions – including the huge amount you can get for free – see the Ordnance survey site.

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  1. Pamela Major says:

    Excellent stuff. And superb pictures.


  2. eva Marinter says:

    Sehr beeindruckt von dem erfolgreichen Kampf gegen die Unbillen des Wetters, der Bilder und dem melancholischem Gefühl derartiges nicht mehr zu schaffen.


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