Lomond Hills - Night Navigation training session
Most walkers would feel that it is unnecessary to undergo training in night navigation, as they don't intend to go walking at night-time! But it is always a risk on a full-day hike, especially in winter, when a small error in routefinding or a spell of bad weather can delay the return journey. There may be someone in the walking party who is slowed up by injury, delaying the group. It is a risk which it is worthwhile preparing for. And night navigation skills are very similar to those required in thick mist or white-out conditions.
I had seen a notice on the internet that Kingdom Guides was offering a night navigation exercise, and it was just the right time for me as I was wanting to sharpen up my navigation skills - and what better than to do this in night-time conditions?
Thinking about what is normally involved in navigation with a map and a compass, it's easy to see why night navigation can present difficulties. Unless there is a full moon, it is difficult to pick out distinctive features in the landscape, or even to see far enough ahead to pick targets to walk towards. So the normal set of navigation techniques need to be modified to suit the darkness.
This turned out to be a very valuable exercise, with a guide who inspired a lot of confidence. This story will not attempt to provide the learning that came from the 4 hours on the hill, but just to highlight a few key points. The most important thing is to get some real first-hand experience of coping with darkness, so that if you find yourself in these conditions you are familiar with what is involved and feel comfortable in dealing with it. This will in turn help to inspire confidence among those walking with you, who may be feeling very uneasy about being stuck on a hill - or just in unfamiliar countryside on a low-level walk - at night-time.
There is a whole structure of qualifications for those wishing to lead walks in the hills and mountains, providing a high level of reassurance for those who go out walking with a guide. These are covered by the Mountain Leader awards scheme. The National Navigation Awards Scheme does not provide qualifications for mountain leadership, but simply for navigation skills.
The group which I joined for this exercise had all had previous experience of training sessions with Murray Wilson of Kingdom Guides. They wanted to develop their skills either for taking out groups, or to gain more self-confidence in walking alone or with friends.
The session started from the Craigmead car park situated beside the road which crosses the Lomond Hills between West Lomond and East Lomond. Although these two hills are steep-sided, there is an area of land in between which has much gentler slopes mostly covered with grass and some heather (see daytime photo here), with a few forestry plantations. This makes it safe for navigation exercises.
The most important lesson was the use of handrail features (such as tracks, walls or streams), which are marked on 1:25,000 maps, to provide a line to navigate to safety. This will be well-known to anyone who has some knowledge of navigation with a map and compass. It's worth noting that 1:50,000 OS maps do not show field boundaries, so are not as helpful for handrailing. Pacing and counting of steps are also basic techniques to measure how far you have travelled from the last known location.
Normal daytime navigation to a visible object in the distance doesn't work at night with visibility limited by the power of the headtorch. We learned how to calculate the aspect of a slope (the direction it is facing in) to help identify our location. We were also given good advice on the sort of headtorch to use, and how to manage a walking group when its members are anxious about becoming lost in the dark. Demonstrating that the leader is in control of the situation and recognises features in the landscape will help to reassure others. To get the benefit of all this expertise, contact Kingdom Guides in Fife, or the nearest NNAS trainer to where you live.
Alongside the valuable lessons, the walk was an enjoyable and unusual experience in itself. It was sub-zero but with no wind, and as the evening progressed we could see the frost spreading on the grass. Walking in the dark has a totally different feeling compared with a normal walk in daylight. Whilst there is a sense of being enclosed by the darkness, this is combined with an appreciation of unlimited space with no visible features to enclose it. This can be quite un-nerving without the presence of someone who knows how to navigate through the dark void. The lights of towns and villages below the hills on either side did give some definition to our location.
At one point, one of the group asked us all to turn off our headtorches. As our eyes adjusted to the dark, we could pick out more and more of the constellations spread across the night sky. It wasn't perfect because of the lights below us, but it was spectacular all the same - much better than trying to see the stars from an urban street or back garden. We talked a little about whether people deliberately go out for night hiking, to get this sort of experience. It was mentioned that this happened in Germany. If there are clear trails through the hills it would be easier to follow a route than in the Lomond Hills. Maybe something to try another time.
All these techniques would be equally relevant in daytime conditions where visibility is severely limited, except that a headtorch would be of no benefit in the daytime.
This was an extremely useful training exercise which anyone intending to go out in the hills, with some responsibility for navigation, could benefit from.
Contributed by Andrew Llanwarne, 6 December 2016< Back to Scotland page for links to other stories
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