Category: Survival skills

5 Helpful Tips to Improve Your Map Reading Skills

Map and compass

It’s National Map Reading Week! I was lucky enough to be taught basic navigation skills at an early age but I appreciate that for many people, maps designed for outdoor activities are about as comprehensible as the financial pages of The Sunday Times. But it’s never too late to learn. If you struggle to figure out which way’s north and whether the brown circles on the map represent a hill or a valley, here are some helpful tips to help you improve your map reading skills. Why not get outside this weekend and try them out?

Tip 1: Pick the Right Map

There are lots of different types of maps at varying scales which can make it confusing to know which one to choose. The scale will usually be expressed as a ratio, for example 1:50,000. The bigger the number after the colon the less detailed the map will be. Ordnance Survey provides a range of maps that cover the whole of UK at a range of scales.

Some people prefer the Harvey maps, particularly in mountainous areas. They look a bit different to the OS maps but are designed to provide a simpler view of the landscape (particularly where there are lots of contours) to help you navigate more easily. Harveys also sell specific maps for long distance walking and cycle trails. You can usually get the whole route printed on one map which can save a lot of space in your pack!

Here’s a quick guide to some common UK maps to help you work out which is best for you:

  • 1:50,000 OS Map – good for people who want a less detailed map that covers a large area. All roads and main footpaths will be marked, but there’ll be less detail to help you navigate off-road than other maps. Useful for cyclists who mainly stick to roads.
  • 1:25,000 OS Map – for many years the OS Explorer range has been the go-to map for outdoor activities. The maps show all rights of way and distinctive features and have a high level of rock and contour detail in the mountains. The only downside is that in mountainous terrain it can be tricky to read the map accurately because of the level of detail. The best map for all-around outdoor use.
  • 1:40,000 Harvey Mountain Map – Harvey focus mainly on mountainous areas of England, Scotland and Wales. Their maps look quite different to OS maps but are great for hiking, biking and running in the more remote, hillier parts of the country. The maps don’t contain all the detail of a 1:25,000 map but this makes them much easier to read. Unlike OS maps that cover the whole country, Harvey maps cover a specific area. This means that instead of having to buy multiple OS maps you can cover the same area with one Harvey map. Best map for general hiking and mountain biking in national parks and upland areas.
  • 1:25,000 Harvey Superwalker Maps – focused on popular upland areas of the UK, these provide a higher level of detail than the Mountain Maps but still focus on readability. If you’re navigating in complex mountain terrain, this is the best map for you.

A lot of people prefer paper maps but if you enjoy getting outdoors in a lot of different places then the OS Maps app is a great low-cost way of accessing all the maps in the country on your phone. However, for learning basic navigation skills a paper map is much easier to use. Plus, it never runs out of battery!

Tip 2: Get Used to Using a Compass

A compass is the second important tool in your navigation toolkit. With a map, compass and some basic skills, you should be able to navigate your way through most parts of the country with ease. Even if you use a GPS device it’s worth carrying a map and compass as a backup. (And know how to use them!). If you get into the habit of taking your compass out with you on walks, runs or bike rides then you’ll keep up your skills and over time they’ll become second nature.

Your compass has a base plate and a rotating bezel with angles marking the 360 degrees of a circle. Inside is the compass needle which will rotate as you move around. The important thing to remember is that the red end of the arrow will always point north – even if it’s not lined up to the north marker on the bezel. (There are actually three different ‘norths’ but this can be quite confusing for people who are new to navigation so for the time being just remember that red equals north.)

The simplest compass skill is to orientate your map to north. Even if you can’t remember how to take a compass bearing, by orientating your map in the right direction, you can pick out features around you to pinpoint your location.

Whichever map you use there’ll be a grid of squares marked over it. The top of the map will be north so the vertical lines that run up the map are on a north-south line. To orientate your map, hold the compass flat on top of the map and turn the map until the red north arrow is pointing along the vertical grid lines to the top of the map. Remember you need to turn the map and not the compass! If you’re facing south this will mean that the map feels upside down, but don’t worry, you’ll soon get used to navigating by the features on the map and this won’t be a problem.

Once you’ve orientated your map have a look at the landscape around you and see how features appear on the map. Can you spot that big hill over to your right? How about the river on your left? If you’re using footpaths or bridleways then most of the time by orientating your map correctly you can follow your planned route without the need for more complex compass skills. In the mountains, it can be a different story and you’ll want to know how to take compass bearings and learn more advanced skills so you can navigate effectively in poor weather.

Tip 3: Understand Basic Topographical Features

Maps can be confusing things full of brown squiggly lines and coloured symbols. It’s no wonder people get confused! But it’s worth taking a bit of time to understand the different features a map represents. Roads, footpaths and water features such as lakes and big rivers are usually quite obvious and easy to see. What most people struggle with are contours. Unfortunately, if you want to go walking in the mountains you’re going to come across a lot of contours and you’re going to have to use them to navigate.

Contour lines show changes in height. On a 1:25,000 map there is one contour line for every five metres of vertical height. Some contour lines have a height marked on them. If you have a GPS device that measures altitude you can use these to help you work out how far up or down a hill you are. Contours are continuous and follow the shape of the land. If you walk along a contour line you’ll always be at the same height.

Contours also tell you how steep a slope is. The closer together the brown lines, the steeper the hill. This makes hills and mountains quite easy to spot on maps as you have concentric circles that get smaller and smaller as you get towards the top of the hill.

Next time you go out walking or running try and match the typographical features you see on the ground to your map. A great way of getting better at using contours to navigate by is to try orienteering. Orienteering maps are much more detailed than OS maps and show almost every feature on the ground. You can learn how different landforms are represented and scale this up to the big mountains when you go hiking.

Tip 4: Trust the Map

Sometimes if you’re lost it can feel as if the map doesn’t match what’s on the ground. Your brain tricks you into thinking that you’re right and the map is wrong. Believe me, from bitter experience I know that the map is always right! If you can’t match the features on the map to the features on the ground this probably means you’re not where you think you are.

If you end up in this situation you have a couple of options:

  • Walk back until you get to a point where you’re certain of your location and the map matches the features on the ground. For example, this could be a path junction or where a path crosses a river
  • Work out your current location using your map and compass.

If you choose the second option then your first step is to orientate your map (see tip 2). Then try and remember your last known location and pinpoint this on the map. Presuming you’ve been checking your map as you go, this shouldn’t be too far away and it’ll give you an indication of whereabouts on the map you might be. Once you’ve done this look for some distinctive features around you – for example, a large hill, a saddle between two hills or a church spire in the valley below. Ideally, you want to pick three or four very distinctive features. Find these on the map and using these points you should be able to narrow down your location. Then look for any small features nearby to help you pinpoint your exact spot.

Once you’re confident about where you are then you can carry on walking or retrace your steps if necessary. Just remember the map never lies!

Tip 5: Get Out and Practice

The only way you’ll get better at navigation is to practice it. Like everything, this takes time and can be frustrating. But you don’t need to go on a full day out in the hills to get some practice in. Get outside in the evening with your local map and walk on the footpaths around your home. Look at what features you pass and how they’re marked on the map. How does the vegetation change and what colours signify this on the map? What buildings are recorded and what buildings aren’t? Can you predict when you’ll pass each five-metre contour line?

As you know the area you’re unlikely to get lost so you can perfect your map reading skills without worrying about whether you’ll make it home in time for dinner.

Happy navigating!

Going Back to School: A Wild Day out in the Woods


Mmmm, leeks roasted in the fire’s embers

This weekend I went back to school. Not to the bricks-and-mortar schools of my childhood, but to a new, different type of school. It has no walls, no ceiling and the floor is pretty muddy. This is Forest School.

The Forest School movement in the UK has steadily grown since it was brought over to the UK from Scandinavia in 1993. It offers an alternative model of education: one based on play and experiential learning that teaches self-esteem, cooperation and respect for each other and nature. There’s also evidence that a long-term Forest School programme improves children’s resilience, confidence and wellbeing.

So much for children, but what about adults? Although many Forest Schools focus primarily on the education of younger children, older children and adults can benefit from the same experience.

Keen to learn some new skills to equip us for some more microadventures this year, I booked myself and my fiance on to an Adult Bushcraft session at The CommuniTree Initiative, a social enterprise based in Ramsbottom.

We meet Danny (founder of CommuniTree and our leader for the day) and the other participants at the entrance to a small, public woodland. The CommuniTree use this space for workshops and events, but there are no barriers and members of the public (and their dogs) are free to wander through the woodlands and campfire area.

Bushcraft vs Survival

Straight up Danny tells us, “this is not a survival course”. I breathe a sigh of relief at not having to forage for – or kill – my lunch. Bushcraft, he explains, focus on developing skills which you can use to get closer to nature. That could be spending the night in a hammock in the woods, or foraging for mushrooms. Think Ray Mears rather than Bear Grylls.

After an introductory session, our first task is to build a shelter. As it’s January, Danny has a handy pile of donated Christmas Trees for this very purpose. We grab an axe each and start dragging trees over to our self-selected ‘camping’ spot.

Ten minutes later I have taken off three layers of clothing and the branches of one Christmas Tree. My hand and arm muscles are feeling the effects already. I switch to a lighter axe and keep going. After a quick lesson on lashing and knot tying, we get to work creating a shelter for two.

It’s a simple exercise, but surprisingly satisfying and absorbing. We learn from experience how best to overlap the branches to create the shell of the shelter. Sam collects armfuls of moss to plug the gaps, while I lay out a carpet of branches inside. We almost wish we’d brought our sleeping bags for the night!

Cooking on an open fire

Satisfied with our morning’s work, we return to the campfire for lunch. There’s some weird magic about eating outdoors. Whatever food you have – however meagre and basic – always tastes delicious. We make a basic bread, roll it out and place it on the campfire to cook. It’s the perfect accompaniment to mop up the tasty chilli Danny’s provided.

Stuffed full of chilli and fruit crumble (cooked in a Dutch Oven over the fire) we get back to work in the afternoon. We’re handed tarps and hammocks and shown various methods of rigging them to create an alternative quick and easy shelter for the night.

Building a fire from scratch

I always find it amazing how we are drawn to fires. I could spend hours gazing into the flickering flames, basking in their warmth and listening to its crackling and spitting. But in this class, we have to earn our fire time.

Danny gives us each a block of dried silver birch wood and shows us have to cut it into different sized pieces of wood using an axe, knife and mallet. I admit to being slightly nervous about this part of the day; my axe skills (or to be more precise, my aiming skills) being pretty much non-existent. But even I managed to split the large block on my first try and end up with a selection of thin sticks to use for my fire.

I haven’t built a fire from scratch for years, but it’s surprisingly satisfying to set a grid out and build it up using smaller and smaller sticks topped off with some natural tinder. We use a firesteel to start the fire and it takes immediately. I’d like to explore different methods of fire lighting at some point, but that’s for another day. For now, I’m happy toasting brioche and marshmallows over the flames I’ve created.

Reconnecting with nature

Throughout the day, Danny shows us parts of the wood and different trees and fungus. We learn that the Birch Polypore or Razorstrop fungus has antiseptic properties and you could cut a thin strip to use an emergency plaster. The Jelly Ear fungus, on the other hand, is surprisingly tasteless and has (as its name suggests) a jelly-like texture. Nature’s Haribo!

We’re also encouraged to explore the wood ourselves. One of the first activities is to go off, individually, and find a place to just sit for five minutes. For me, this is pretty new. Though I love and appreciate nature, and spend a lot of time outdoors, I’m always doing something. Even if it is just walking. If I do sit, it’s usually when I’m admiring a beautiful view, or resting on a long hike. Not generally in the middle of a muddy, damp winter woodland.

But when you sit and close your eyes you realise how alive the wood is. You notice the birds chattering in the trees, hear the babble of the nearby river and smell the damp, fallen leaves. You appreciate this little patch of woodland – this bit of nature, however small – for what it is.

How often in our busy lives do we actually just sit and do nothing in nature? Nothing other than appreciating the sounds, smells and sights it produces. Perhaps reconnecting with nature is not about doing anything; it’s actually about doing nothing at all.

The CommuniTree Initiative run events and workshops for children, adults, families and schools in the Bury area. In the interests of full disclosure, I traded my place on the course in exchange for doing some writing work for CommuniTree (got to love the the sharing economy!). This post was not part of the agreement; it’s based purely on my own views and awesome experience with Danny and the team – I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend them.

How to Love Camping in the Rain


Knowing how to stay dry in the rain makes for happy camping

Camping means different things to different people. To some, it’s packing the car up to the ceiling with monstrous dome-shaped mansions, air beds, duvets and carpet. (Yes carpet. Really.) If you’re one of these people you may just want to switch straight over to the ‘How to Pretend You’re at Home When Camping’ blog. Now.

Still reading? Great – you’re the other type of camper. The type who go camping to have an adventure. Who deliberately chooses the pitch furthest away from the communal toilet and shower block, so they can pretend they’re not even on a campsite. Who abandons the campsite altogether for the joys of wild camping. Your tent is small enough to carry on your back and your favourite possession is your trusty sleeping bag.

There is only one problem with this type of camping: rain. Not that rain itself is an issue, but rain also equals mud. And quite often comes alongside its companion, wind. Together these three elements can turn a nice clean, cosy camping trip into a Glastonbury-like mud bath experience from which nothing and no one emerges unscathed. I have been there. I know how miserable it feels.

But never fear, there are ways you can avoid this fate. You can be that smug person, tucked up in a nice dry sleeping bag listening to the curses of your soggy companions outside. Whether you’re leaving the tent up for the weekend, or arrive at your campsite for the night soaked through from walking all day, here’s how you can not only stay dry when camping in the rain but learn to love it.

Select your equipment

First up, tent. A tent with a decent porch space or two entrances / porches is pretty helpful when it’s wet. If you’re a car-camper then you may just give in and go for the big tent with a nice large porch area you can stand up in. (Though let me remind you that a) these tents are generally the first to get whisked over your head when the high winds hit, and b) they can take a lot longer to put up which means more time getting wet.)

However, the really important thing about pitching your tent in the rain is that you know how to put it up, and can do so damn quickly. In lashing wind and rain. Possibly in the dark. And definitely without referring to the instruction manual. Because the quicker you get the tent up, the more likely it is to stay dry inside.

I currently have two tents I use: a summer, super lightweight 1-2 person tent, and a slightly larger, hardier 2-person job. I can pitch either of them on my own, in the dark, in about three minutes (four if its windy and I have to find something to weigh the bag down with). With two people, working together it’s a two-minute job. Practice pitching your tent when it’s dry, folks. You won’t regret it come rain-day.

If you’re camping and think it may rain, I also suggest you pack the following items: bin bags (multiple), two smaller plastic bags (large sandwich bags or carrier bags WITHOUT HOLES IN) and a tarpaulin (with string and / or spare tent pegs). The reasons for this will shortly become abundantly clear.

Keep sleeping kit dry

Sounds obvious, right? And if you’re setting up your tent beside your car it’s pretty hard to get this wrong. But if you’ve been hiking all day in the rain, likelihood is that some rain will make it into your pack.

Bearing that in mind, here’s how to pack your bag to guarantee you will have dry clothes and a bag to snuggle in, whatever the weather:

  1. Keep a pair of dry, warm clothes to change into in your sleeping bag. I tend to go for a pair of thermal or fleece leggings, a long-sleeved thermal top and socks. Roll ‘em up in the bottom of your sleeping along with a liner (if you use one).
  2. Stuff your sleeping bag into a fully waterproof stuff sack such as this Exped one.
  3. Place this in either another waterproof stuff-sack, or just a plastic bag.
  4. Place double-wrapped bag inside the waterproof liner of your rucksack. (Again, this doesn’t have to be a fancy expensive job. A strong black bin bag works just fine.)
  5. If you use a blow-up Thermarest-style sleeping mat, pop this in a waterpoof bag and then inside your ruckside liner. If you’re old-skool and use a closed cell sleeping mat that you carry on the outside of your rucksack, then double wrap it in bin bags. If your mat gets wet, you get wet. Simple.
  6. Ideally have a waterproof rucksack cover for your pack.

Pick your spot

Don’t pitch your tent in a bog. Or in a nice hollow in the ground that may (after a night of rain) turn into a bog. Or a stream. Simple.

Oh, and if it’s windy make sure you pitch with your tail end to the wind. So you don’t get a nice lashing of rain in every time you open the tent door.

Have a process

This is perhaps the most important part of staying dry. It’s all too easy once you have the tent up to want to rush inside out of the rain. Particularly if there are two of you and you’re both desperate to get in and dry. But if you rush in like a herd of elephants, you will end up getting the inside of the tent wet. And then you’re be in for a grumpy, damp evening.

Having done various expeditions and overnight adventures sharing a very small tent with someone else, this is my process for getting everyone, and everything, in whilst keeping the water out.

  1. Unzip the inner door of the tent, but keep the outer flap closed. Person 1 unpacks their sleeping kit and any other dry items they want inside the tent. Person 2 helpfully opens and closes the outer tent flap to allow Person 1 to chuck in their prized possessions.
  2. Repeat step 1 for Person 2’s kit.
  3. Stack your wet rucksacks in one side of the porch. If you have two porches, shout “hurrah!” and pile up all the wet stuff in one of them (use the other for access). If you don’t have space in the porches for the rucksacks, and particularly if they are still vaguely dry, dig out those trusty black bin bags you packed, place a rucksack in each, wrap tightly and leave in an accessible place outside the tent.
  4. Fight about who gets to go in the tent first. For the purposes of continuity, let’s assume Person 1 wins.
  5. Person 1 strips off their wet outer clothing OUTSIDE the tent. This is very important folks. The inner sanctum of the tent is for dry people only. There is a bit of a knack to this. If you just have wet waterproofs, then take jacket off and fold on top of your rucksack in the porch. Get Person 2 to open the tent flap and pull down wet waterproof trousers whilst turning and placing dry bum inside the tent. Person 2 zips you in out of the rain and stands there grumpily whilst you peel off wet trousers and boots and place them to one side.
  6. Person 2 stands in the rain moaning whilst Person 1 gets both mats out (and blown up), gets their sleeping bag out and gets changed into dry clothes as quickly as possible.
  7. Person 1 makes themselves as small as possible, giving Person 2 the maximum amount of room to wiggle in. Person 2 then repeats step 5 (except they zip themselves into the tent).
  8. Inner tent gets zipped up and Person 2 dries themselves off, gets changed and into their sleeping bag, all the while moaning about how much wetter they are than Person 1.

Ta-da! Both people inside, cosy and warm. If you are completely soaked to the skin, then chuck your towel into the tent first, strip everything off outside (ok maybe keep your underwear on if anyone’s watching), then dive into the tent to dry off. If you haven’t brought a towel, more fool you.

Cooking, eating and toileting in the rain

Perhaps even worse than getting soaked to the skin, is the realisation that, having got nice and warm and dry, you have to go back out into the rain. However, unless you are equipped and expert in the use of a pee-bottle (or shewee for ladies), you’re likely to have to venture out at least once or twice in the night.

Even in the UK (home of rainy weather gods) it is rare for it to rain solidly all the time. So if possible, wait for a break in the rain and be prepared to make a run for it. If you’re unlucky, then remember the golden rule. Wet clothing stays outside the inner sanctum. Basically just reverse step 5 above to get out, and repeat it to get back in. Oh, and those smaller plastic bags you brought along? Put your feet inside them before you put them in your wet boots. That way you’ll keep dry feet. (And look a bit silly, but hey, who’s going to be watching you in the rain?)

You have four options for cooking in the rain:

  1. Be very grateful that you’ve chosen a campsite with a sheltered cooking area.
  2. Cook in the porch of your tent VERY CAREFULLY (and not at all if it’s full of your damp clothing/boots and other potentially flammable objects). Really only do this if you are very well practiced, have an emergency escape route (a second porch) and you must open the tent outer to vent it. Safety first, boys and girls.
  3. Set up your trusty tarpaulin between the tent and a nearby tree/wall/fence to make a makeshift shelter. Again, take care if you’re cooking near the tent.
  4. Abandon cooking and go to the pub. (Remember to take along your wet clothes to drape over the chairs to dry.)

Generally, if I’m resorting to options 2 or 3, I go back inside the dry tent to eat and save the washing up until the morning. Minimising the number of times you have to get in and out of the tent in the rain will increase the likelihood of it staying dry inside.

Packing up in the rain

Sadly packing up in the rain is somewhat harder than pitching in the rain. For one thing, there’s no real way to avoid your tent getting wet, which is a bugger if you’re camping in the rain again that night.

You can keep it as dry as possible though. First, pack up everything dry in the tent. So your ‘night-time’ clothing goes back in your sleeping bag, which goes into its multiple layers of dry bags. Roll and pack up your mat. Then take it in turns to pull on your wet over trousers (urgh) and boots, ninja maneuver out of the tent and zip it up whilst you struggle into your waterpoof jacket. Get the other person to pass out the dry bags and get them packed up into the rucksacks.

Then you’re just left with a wet tent. Get it down quick and packed up quick. Whatever you do, don’t take off the fly sheet and spend ten minutes neatly rolling it up whilst leaving the inner sanctum of the tent soaking up the rain.

Take the fly sheet off, stuff it under a rucksack so it doesn’t blow away, then get that inner tent down toot sweet m’dears. Fold it to keep the inside as dry as possible then roll it all up into one wet, heavy, miserable bundle.

So, there you have it. Camping in the rain doesn’t have to be a pain. And there’s nothing like being curled up warm and dry, listening to the patter of raindrops above your head.

How to Survive in Eden

Ardnamurchan - copywright Dave Wilkie

Ardnamurchan – copywright Dave Wilkie

If we had the opportunity to start again, what world would we build?

That was the question posed by the makers of Channel 4 documentary / reality TV show, Eden. But the first challenge facing the 23 new inhabitants of ‘Eden’ (in reality a 600-acre estate in Ardnamurchan on the Western coast of Scotland) was basic survival. Living outdoors in Scotland in March is no joke: it is quite possible to experience all four British seasons in one day, and hypothermia is a real risk. Not to mention the ferocious Scottish midges.

So how did our budding survivalists fare with their survival priorities?

Positive mental attitude

The first rule of survival is a positive mental attitude, something the group had bags of (well until the first falling out). They practiced their team-building by creating a luxury toilet arrangement. I’m all for good hygiene, but I suspect in a real survival situation, they’d be prioritising a roof over their heads.

Score: 8/10 – with a few exceptions, everyone seems happy to be here.


Hands down to the group. After a practice run, they quickly constructed a fairly sturdy shelter using straw bales, tree branches and tarpaulin. Individuals were partly chosen for their skill sets, and carpenter Raphael quickly proves his worth. With individual bed spaces and storage solutions, it evens stands up to the Scottish weather. For now.

As of week two, Anton seems to be the only person thinking ahead to winter and a more substantial home that may stand up to the 60mph winds that frequently batter this Scottish coastline. Unfortunately it seems like the rest of the group are more interested in tepees and holding meetings. I get the feeling Anton is not going to be around for long.

Score: 7/10 – they have a good shelter for now, but I hope someone else joins Anton in starting to think about winter quarters.


Streams in the Scottish highlands tend to be pretty clean, however given there’s a herd of sheep and goats wandering around, some form of water purification would be advisable. We don’t get to see whether the group have been given water purification tablets, or if they’re boiling all water before use, but given that none of them seem to be permanently attached to the luxury toilet, it’s safe to presume they’re not suffering too much.

Score: 10/10 – everyone’s still alive and kicking.


Fire. Warmth, hot food and for the castaways, hot showers (what is this, a hotel?). In the first few weeks the group graduate from an open fire, to a barbeque and then an oven. One of the stars of the castaways is chef Stephen who seems to be able to create a Michelin-starred meal from the most basic of rations. Potato four ways, anyone? He can come cook for me anytime.

9/10: Fire is key to survival and the group have this sorted. Though I dread to think how many trees will have been toppled by the end of the year to fuel their bathing habits.


Stangely, food seems to have been pretty low on the group’s priority list. Or perhaps it’s just me who’s always thinking of her stomach. Creating home comforts such as a hot shower and homebrew comes ahead of actually getting the vegetables they’ve been provided with in the ground.

There’s a reason why our ancestors spent the majority of their days gathering and growing enough food to survive: food in the wild is not an instantaneous affair. The group were given the luxury of start up rations designed to last until they could become self-sufficient. But have they underestimated just how long this will take?

Score: 4/10 – survival is about thinking long-term right from the beginning. Let’s hope our castaways get a good early crop of vegetables before the potatoes run out.

Will they survive Eden

It’s fairly safe to say Channel 4 is not going to stand by and watch people starve, but there is more to survival than putting food on the table. Mental strength is the number one requirement for survival and only time will tell if all these castaways have enough of that to survive.