Literally as I posted my last blog about good navigation habits, I read a blog raising a point about Mountain Leader courses and whether, with the advantages of modern GPS technology in our waterproof phones, people could relax on the navigation side of things and focus a little bit more on the leadership aspect and it was a thought provoking read. It made some valid points. In the blog, the author mentioned that often on personal walking days, he will use his phone for navigation, as I suspect many instructors do. I use my phone when I'm out and about. It's convenient, saves time and just makes life easier. If you're learning to navigate, having your phone to check your accuracy is well helpful. It can get you back on track if you're a bit off or confirm that you're Bob on. (Sometimes it might tell you you are in a lake when you're definitely not!) If I'm working with a group, the last thing they want on a bad weather day is for me to be fart arsing around with the map every few minutes, especially if it's dark, cold and wet and they just want to know how long is left. It's much better to be able to focus on your group when you need to. If you have a tool that will make that job easier, then only a fool wouldn't do that. At a glance, it might seem hypocritical and a bit pointless, for me to be forever banging on about learning to use a map and compass and it's easy to say "What's the point?”
What's the point in bothering to put all that time and effort into learning something when I can just open my phone and push a button?
It's a valid question, especially when you see instafamous adventurers racing around the mountains and telling everyone that it's ok to just use OS maps and the like.
The first and most obvious answer is that phones have limitations. They are not waterproof. They are water-resistant. There is a difference. Here is a quick read to clarify what an IP68 rating actually means in regards to a phone being 'waterproof'.
One really important thing to remember when thinking about how wet a phone can actually get is that they are basically rated to be sat in a big tub of water. Rainy mountains often come with wind. High wind + rain = no phone. The water pressure will squeeze through the protection, guaranteed. It's why even the best waterproof clothing eventually gets saturated in wet and windy weather. You could use a case. But then try using that with big gloves on in the freezing cold. It's just not practical.
The other big drawback to using a phone, especially iPhones, even brand new ones is the battery. Phone batteries do not like cold. It simply sucks the life right out of them.
In November 2019, I was walking to Ben Macdui in a white out and met someone on his way up - alone, using his phone to navigate. He was getting near the top and told us his phone was on 45% battery! I really did worry for a bit but after a while, he came running through the snow, passed us and made it down. Proof that you can get away with using your phone, even on a Scottish mountain in winter, in the Cairngorms. Maybe not. Getting away with it is ok until you don't. Some people spend their whole lives 'getting away with it' in the mountains and that validates their approach to them. I'm proud to say I didn't use my phone once for navigation that day and I don't say that with arrogance. I say it because it was bloody hard work. 7 hours in a whiteout, using only a map and compass is tiring. It's fucking hard work! But I did that. (Well, me and Jade did, but you get the point) I didn't just get away with it. I was in control. I knew what I was doing. I knew where I was and what to expect. I was in control. In a sense, it was kind of an achievement. It was a validation of the time I'd spent practicing skills and building confidence and that right there is the key thing for me. If you take away all the flaws in using your GPS and had 100% reliable hardware then answering the 'Whats the point?' question might seem harder but it's not.
Taking the time to learn navigation when you are new to the mountains is a key foundational skill. It gives you confidence in your own abilities. Being responsible for yourself in a challenging environment is hugely rewarding, not just within that particular environment but in all aspects of your life. Probably the majority of people I teach map reading skills to are women. A lot of the time they might have had a partner be in charge of the map because it's sometimes perceived to be a 'mans job' - maybe not so much with the younger generations but I have heard it said to me many times over the last few years. Takin charge of your own destiny is empowering, even if it is just on a mountain walk! It means freedom. Having something to work towards and focus on is healthy. It's good for the mind and soul.
When I visited France for the first time, I remember looking around in awe. I'd never seen mountains on such a scale. On one side of the valley, they were all massive, spikey and scary looking! But on the other, they looked a bit more accessible. I remember just looking up at them and saying "Fuck it, I'm going there!" And I did. Having that confidence to get a map out, look things over, make a plan and know what I was getting into was amazing. And that came from time spent on wet and windy Welsh mountains, learning.
Another positive benefit of learning to navigate properly is that it encourages a slower, more thoughtful approach to spending time in the mountains. You do have to slow down occasionally, stop even and look around. To be a good navigator, you have to learn to become aware of the landscape. You see the twists and turns in rivers and the flowing curves of the hills around you. You notice random patches of woodland and ancient dry stone walls. You not only notice the walls but the quality of them. The almost impossible inclines they seemingly straddle with no effort at all. They might have been there for hundreds of years and will hopefully remain for hundreds more. You might even notice prehistoric ruins - cairns, roundhouses and hillforts. If you get really switched on, you'll use your ears more, hearing water that can't be seen but is there on your map, just giving you subtle hints of where you are. If you're a word lover like me, studying maps while you are on a walk will bring the lost stories of that place alive once again, through the names you'll read. Reading maps was one of the things that kickstarted my love of the Welsh language.
Maps connect you to the landscape.
Reading the landscape the way you do when you're navigating with a map and compass, looking for details and clues for where to go, will help you when you decide to be a little bit more adventurous and try some scrambling, It's the same mentality. The same attention to detail. The same slow and thoughtful approach. The same awareness of the world around you. You won't be in the habit of simply blundering around. Hopefully, you'll be a bit safer and more rounded as a walker.
But still... Why bother with all that when you could just look at a screen and push a button to find out where you are?