Map Reading in the Rain

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With Country Walking magazine’s Nick Hallissey

“The cloud came in, the rain was torrential and we had a force five gale. I mean, it was bloody June but we were wet, soggy, cold and really quite unhappy.” Nick Hallissey is the Deputy Editor of Country Walking, Britain’s best-selling walking magazine. If anyone knows about trekking and navigating in the rain, it’s him!

More and more of us are enjoying hiking and orienteering adventures around the British Isles but going for a walk in Britain in the autumn (and every other season, let’s be honest!) will almost definitely include rain showers, if not storms and hail. You can step out of your house in the morning to clear blue skies and sunshine but start heading up the hills and it can quickly turn.

Thankfully Nick’s experience turned out well in the end, thanks to a bit of planning and a protected map: “We needed the simplest, safest escape route off the plateau. My phone was useless – the cold temperature drained the battery – so I put it inside a drybag, then stuffed it right to the depths of my rucksack and stuck solely to my OS map inside its waterproof case.

“It was no problem to read the terrain, choose the escape route and follow the line. When we needed to check we were still right, it was far easier to just lift up the case and check the map than it would ever be to dig out a phone, activate it, tap an app and wait an aeon for the mapping to locate me.”

Nick is a big fan of the traditional skill of map reading, something he believes should be taught from school age, “It’s certainly essential if you a) want to get the best out of exploring our countryside and b) want to maximise your chances of a good experience rather than a bad one. It’s great to be the person in the group who can bring out the map and say ‘it’s alright, I’ve got this’.

“I definitely think map-reading should continue to be taught in schools. It instils a basic sense that the countryside is there for you to discover and enjoy. I’ve met so many people who say their love of the outdoors was inspired by a school trip, usually involving a map and a compass. I’m one of them.”

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Here’s our top five tips for what to do and how to be prepared for an inevitable change in the weather in the British countryside:

Stay calm and confident

First things first, don’t panic. Allocate a group leader – someone who is calm, methodical and can take the lead. Make sure everyone in your group agrees to this before you start your walk. Deciding early on and knowing everyone is comfortable with this will help to make decisions more efficient and effective when you find yourselves in trouble.

Group together

If you’re in a group, some people may be further ahead than others. As soon as you realise the weather is getting worse, wait and group together. You will need to make some decisions as to what to do next and you need to make these collectively and with agreement. Different members of the group will have remembered different landscape markers or features and this will help you to work out exactly where you are. Which leads us onto…

Get your bearings

Work out where you are as you should have a map on you at all times. It’s best to carry it in  a waterproof case, meaning you can read it no matter how bad the rain gets. Look for a case with an ultra-clear front, one that’s the right size for your map and is easy to carry.

Nick agrees, “Stop. Seek shelter and find a place to plan your options. Look at the map; if reaching your objective is now out of the question, find the alternatives, whether that’s turning back or short-cutting your route for the quickest, safest finish. I learned early on that carrying on bloody-mindedly when the sky is clearly not your friend, is not likely to give you a great day – and it might make the people you’re with want to kill you.”

Report your location

If it’s looking bad, then it’s best to report your location to a friend or family member so that they are aware of your situation and most recent stopping point. Stay in contact with them, agreeing how often you will send a regular message to say you are safe, but don’t overdo it as you don’t want to run out of battery.  

Basic equipment

There are three pieces of equipment which will help you at this point and it’s important to be prepared.

  1. A map. Not a GPS or Google Maps on your phone, but a proper failsafe traditional paper map (and someone who can read it!). Maps can’t suffer battery or signal failure just make sure you protect it with a rugged waterproof map case, like Aquapac’s. The ultra-clear plastic casing means you can see the finest of detailing through it. It’s supplied with a lanyard to keep it safely and conveniently close to you and even floats if the weather gets that bad!  

Nick is a huge map fan for three reasons, “Firstly, a map does not run out of battery, lose signal or shut down if dropped in a bog or smashed on a rock. The next is just the fact that I don’t want to lose my map-reading skills. Knowing the signs in the landscape; reading contours; spotting the potential handrails to safety; seeing where the hazards are. It’s amazing how quickly you can fall out of practice with map-reading. Finally, I just LOVE paper maps. The feel of them, the genius behind them, the joy of opening one out, understanding the landscape as a whole and thinking, ‘wow, where am I going next?’. You genuinely don’t get that with a smartphone, do you?”

  • A compass. Maps aren’t that great on their own, unless you can work out which way is north. Ordnance Survey runs online courses to show you how to use a map and compass together.
  • A charged up, turned off mobile phone. Save the battery and only use it when you need to send a message. Then turn it off again or switch to ‘airplane mode’ to save battery. You can pack this into a waterproof mobile phone case to ensure it’s safe and will work in any weather. Aquapac’s waterproof mobile phone cases allow you to use all of the phone’s functions without having to take it out of the case.

Nick agrees that it’s always best to prepare for the worst, “I pretty much never go on any walk anywhere without a waterproof and a warm layer in the rucksack, even if I know it’s meant to be scorching all day. It’s just good practice; means you’re ready for the freakiest of freak weather changes and means you’re never likely to be without one when you really need it.

“The same applies to waterproof cases; I’ve always got one for a map and one for the phone (although if it’s really wet, see above; the map takes priority.) It’s not about overpacking, just reading the forecast as thoroughly as possible and taking the minimum amount of sensible stuff to respond to it.

“(Although I usually have a spare warm layer in my pack too – I like being the one who cheers up the person in the group who hasn’t brought enough warm clothes by having something in my bag they can have. I find people buy me more drinks that way.)”