Route finding

Once the walk starts, responsibility for leading it can be shared, or people can take turns — so if this is the first walk you have organised don’t feel finding the way is all down to you.

  • Get a map, even if you are following a walk from a book. If you get off route the book will not be much help getting back on course. It can be helpful before the walk to mark the route from the book up on a photocopy of a map — and if this turns out to be hard it may be equally hard to follow the directions on the ground.
  • Follow the walk on the map, meaning keeping continuous track of where you are. When you are starting to lead walks this may mean you are looking at the map almost constantly, but it gets easier — and the alternative is you just follow the path or track ahead until you realise you don’t know where you are, and then try to figure out your location from landmarks you can see. This is hard, and if you have only a set of written directions will probably force you to backtrack a long way.
  • Get an Explorer map. There are two main kinds of walking maps for the area around London, both published by the Ordnance Survey: the 1:50,000 Landranger maps (purple covers) and the 1:25,000 Explorer maps (orange covers). Landranger are a little easier to find, in shops or in libraries, and cheaper. However, Explorer maps have four times the space to show a given area and so contain much more information. The two samples below show the same area, first on a Landranger map then on an Explorer, and the reasons for spending more money on the second should be obvious. Remember, you should be able to borrow maps from your local library:

Sample of OS Landranger map

Sample of OS Explorer map

  • Learn what the symbols on the map mean:
    • You probably know how roads and footpaths are marked on the map (footpaths are red on Landranger, green on Explorer), but if you are in the middle of some fields away from the road, most of what you can see is just the field you are in and a lot of hedges. The footpath may be indistinct, and you cannot tell which hedges have roads on the far side.
    • You probably know that blocks of solid green on the map are woods, but on the ground it is hard to tell what are woods and what are just a series of hedges with a lot of trees in them.
    • The best feature of Explorer maps is that they show hedges and fences, so you can see where in your particular field the path is supposed to be.
    • Some features on the map are taller than hedges and can be seen from a distance. For example, on the sample maps there is a line running from north west to south east crossing the road just south of the station. This is an electricity power line, with tall pylons very visible when you are there.
    • Similarly, church towers and church steeples, which have two slightly different symbols on the maps, can be seen from a distance.
    • The fairly faint brown lines on both maps are contours, linking points at the same height and so showing you the actual shape of the ground: where the hills and valleys are, so in this example Henley Street turns out to be down in a valley.
    • Every Ordnance Survey map includes a complete key to the symbols.
  • Practice map reading when you are on other walks. Borrow the map from the organiser at lunchtime and/or on the train home, and try to work out where you have been; and ask other people to help. Bring your own map and try to follow the route as you walk. When you have built up a little confidence, ask if you can take over leading for a short part of the walk.
  • Maybe rehearse your walk before you lead it. Our walks are social occasions as well as fresh air and exercise, so it can be hard to concentrate on navigation. This is one reason why it may be a good idea to reconnoiter the walk in advance of doing it with the club, by yourself or with a friend. However, that obviously takes another whole day and there is no rule saying you must do this. A less demanding solution is simply to take turns doing the navigation, although this obviously means the organiser needs to bring along maps and guidebooks for others to use, rather than relying on their own memory.
  • Maybe get a compass. They are less useful in the countryside around London than in the mountains as all the hedges and so on make it impossible to “walk a bearing”, i.e. follow a straight line pointed to by the compass. However, it can still be very useful just to be able to check the direction you are going in: if you have a compass, bring it.
  • Maybe get a GPS. If you can afford one, GPSs (Global Positioning Systems) are better than compasses as they tell you where you are, rather than just what direction you are facing. A “proper” GPS with built-in OS maps will cost you several hundred pounds, maybe at Cotswold Outdoor where you get 15% off with your Red Rope membership, but you may already have a smartphone with GPS built in. The phone’s built-in maps will not be much use for country walking, but you may be able to add OS maps quite cheaply (e.g. Landranger maps of all of south-east England for £11.99).
  • Don’t just give up. If you get into difficulty when leading, ask for help but don’t just let a more experienced navigator take over. Discuss what the problem is, and learn from experience.
  • Don’t worry, be happy. Getting lost in the high mountains or waterless desserts can have serious consequences (!), but in the country around London nothing too serious is going to happen to you. Getting a little bit lost and then finding yourself can be fun. Don’t get embarrassed, and if others get stressed out tell them to chill a bit. Enjoy!
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