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The art of reading a map whilst running

16:53 9th April 2013 By Fi Spotswood
Adventure race navigation

Photo: www.openadventure.com

Navigation is really the heart of adventure racing. Hardened iron man athletes are fit and fast, but there’s little point in that if you run (fast) in the wrong direction. There is no way of short cutting your journey from Hopelessly Lost to Front Runner in the navigation stakes. Practice makes perfect. However, a few tips learnt, um… the hard way, might help you fast track as much as possible.


  1. Go orienteering. With a range of difficulties and lots of help on hand, orienteering is a great way of getting used to handling a map and finding your way around the hills. The hieroglyphics won’t feature on adventure racing maps, but it’ll still get you used to that brain process of working out how the map relates to the world around you.
  2. Practice in all conditions. When you can see for miles it is, quite frankly, cheating. Get out in the clag (mist, fog and rain) when visibility is measured in millimetres, and then practice your compass work. Just make sure you go with someone experienced to start with.
  3. Practice tricks of the trade, like hand-railing big features. Pick an easy to spot feature like a forest edge or ridge line, or even a river, and use that as a way of judging where you’re heading or wear you are. Take few risks.
  4. Practice navigation on the move. Keep your thumb firmly planted on the compass on your map and get used to glancing down at it on easier terrain.
  5. Get the gear. Map boards are great on the bike and various types are available, and strapping your control descriptions to your left arm with elastic bands is a good way of freeing up a hand to hold the map.
  6. Make sure you can see. If you read with glasses normally, what makes you think you’ll be able to read a map without? Invest in sports glasses or contacts.
  7. When you race in a team, have a lead navigator and a back up navigator who simply double checks decisions silently. There’s no point in having a full on WI committee meeting at every junction. Just let the navigator do their job, and if mistakes are made put them down to experience and discuss when you’re off the hill. Arguing helps no one.
  8. Make sure you have a handle on the map scale. Often adventure races will switch between 1:25,000 maps (for the foot stage) and 1:50,000 maps for the bike stage. This can catch people out. Be ware!
  9. Get a bike computer. You’ll be moving a LOT faster on your bike, so make sure you know how far you have gone since the last turn off. If you’re looking for a bridleway in 1 kilometer, you can easily whizz past it if you’re not careful.
  10. Practice navigating on different kinds of maps. If all you’ve ever seen is Ordnance Survey maps, then racing abroad or even doing the OMM (Original Mountain Marathon) will be a helluva shock as the maps will look very different.

Most importantly, enjoy it. Finding your own way across the wilderness is part of the challenge. Is it time to move beyond those way marked races and events and do some self-supported adventures?


This article is part of our series on Adventure Racing Skills.
Read the other parts here:

Adventure Racing Skills

  1. Towing
  2. Packing Light
  3. Teamwork
  4. How to be a city dwelling Adventure Racer
  5. Eating
  6. Navigation
  7. Essential Kit

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