Fell Runners Association Navigation Course

The Fell Runners Association holds two navigation courses every year.

The Spring course from Kettlewell YHA in the Yorkshire Dales is sometimes held in warm sunshine… but not this year – winter returned!

navigating in winter conditions

conditions on the “Spring” navigation course!

The aim of the course is to give runners more skills and confidence to enable them to navigate safely on the fells and to make their own decisions in races rather than simply following the runner in front.  It crams lots of information and practical activity into the weekend with participants split into small groups and allocated an instructor (a merry band of hand picked “experts” with vast experience of navigating, fell running and orienteering – or a bunch of old crocks who have all gone the wrong way at some time or other!)

"expert" instructors

“expert” instructors lead the way

Starting with introductions on Friday night then into a basic theory session discussing all things mappy, terms such as contours, handrails, attack points, aiming off and catching features were all added to the participants’ vocabularies.  Then it was off to the local hostelry for further getting to know each other but with a reminder that people would be “encouraged” to take part in the morning 7 am run!

Morning Run

morning run

The early morning run gave a taste of the day’s conditions with light snow starting to fall on the trot up to Hag Dyke.   Appetites whetted it was back down to the hostel for a hearty breakfast before the day’s practical activity.

The main part of the day was taken up by practical navigation on the hill with each participant being tasked to take their group to a specific location, usually an obscure point on the map, and then discussing their route choice and techniques used to get there.  It was great to see confidence growing throughout the morning as the runners learnt to accurately estimate the distance they were covering and use the features around them to make the map “come to life”

where are we?

where are we?

By mid afternoon it was time to let the students off the leash to take part in a solo, orienteering style activity putting into practice what they had learnt.  The hillside was soon dotted with runners counting their paces and following compass bearings looking for shafts, gullies and re-entrants.

gulley hunting

gulley hunting

After a long day on the hill the group were happy to get back for a shower and hot drink before tucking in to 3 courses of excellent food.

Then it was time for the much anticipated night navigation exercise!  A few rather uneasy faces looked up as they were given details of their task; to use the skills they had learnt to locate checkpoints but this time in the dark.  At least they were doing this in pairs so they had someone’s hand to hold!  The instructors headed out to take up strategic locations making sure no one went astray and could soon see a trail of head torches coming up the hillside.  This was a real test of navigation but there were plenty of major features to help re-locate if anyone went slightly wrong.

night navigation

the much anticipated night nav.

An hour later there was a real buzz in the pub as enthusiastic (or should that be relieved) runners exchanged stories of their experiences, the locals must have been wondering where all these gullies, boulders and contours were.

Was it the exertions of the previous day or the “re-hydration strategy” that lead to slightly fewer runners assembling for Sunday’s 7am run?  Those who got up had the chance to run around the night navigation course and see exactly where they went – or should have gone.

Another good breakfast was had before the FRA’s Access & Environment officer Chris Knox gave the group an insight into the role of the FRA.  Then time to prepare for the final activity; the individual 10k navigation exercise.  This took the form of a fell race with compulsory checkpoints but with the runners choosing their own route between them (although there was no pressure to race if people wanted to focus on the navigation rather than speed).

The one thing that hadn’t been anticipated was the weather as snow, strong winds and low cloud made for really testing conditions.

navigating in bad weather

testing conditions

The skills learnt allowed all participants to successfully complete the exercise and runners returned to base with a sense of achievement at what they had done.  Feedback from the group showed they had all gained confidence and achieved something they didn’t feel at all confident with when they arrived.

So a successful course and a happy gang of runners with a new set of skills ready to use in their next race.   Thanks must go to the staff at Kettlewell YHA, the instructors who give their time for free, Steve Batley for organising the course (again), Margaret and Jenny for their hard work behind the scenes to ensure the administration runs smoothly and finally the enthusiastic participants who make working on the event so rewarding.

The Autumn course is at Elterwater, September 27 – 29.  See you there.


Navigating when it’s Grim

Teaching navigation skills in bad weather is a good thing…

…and the last week has been particularly “grim”.  Cold, windy days with the Peak District hills hidden away under a heavy blanket of low cloud.  Normally, running in these conditions isn’t particularly pleasant, but the bad weather happened to coincide with two navigation sessions I was delivering and so provided a real test of the runners’ map and compass skills.
It’s easy to convince yourself that you can navigate when you’re warm; when you can relax your grip on the map without fear of it being whipped from your hand to disappear into the distance; when your bare hands can turn the compass dial unencumbered by thick gloves; when your eyes don’t stream from the fierce wind and blowing sleet; when you can feel your fingers, toes and nose and when the sun casts shadows on the distant hills.
But when it’s “grim”, what then?
Navigating in “grim” weather
On Wednesday, a bitter easterly wind and hill fog greeted us as we climbed onto the moor from Ladybower reservoir, leaving behind the security of the path and heading into the gloom.  
“How long do you think it will take?” I must have asked John the question a dozen times as he grappled with the numerous variables that were going to affect our speed: distance, terrain under foot, wind direction, ability to focus on recognisable features, and all whilst dealing with cold hands, running nose and steamed up glasses.  It would have been very tempting to call it a day, go back to the shop for a hot drink and look at expensive jackets, but he persisted.  A little hint here and there – “look at the contour lines” and then, BINGO! Out of the murk the tiny sheepfold we had been looking for emerged – well done! Confidence lifted, frozen feet temporarily forgotten, where next? “How long do you think it will take?”
Into the gloom
And on to Saturday, different location same weather.  The featureless Dark Peak moors can be intimidating at times and in poor weather the expression “godforsaken” springs to mind.  And so it was off into this harsh, unforgiving environment that we went, micro-navigating, looking for tiny features in the landscape.  Graeme and Lynne were familiar with the basic concepts of navigating and wanted to fine tune their skills to enable them to be more precise when locating features and thus become more confident for fell races and orienteering events.
Counting paces…60 steps…we should be there…where’s the pond?…stop…check the compass…have we drifted?…is this it?…call this a pond?!
You see that bit of heather?
And thus it continued, taking compass bearings on barely visible lumps of heather and counting paces. 
“It should be 100 metres in that direction.” 
“What does 100 metres look like?” 
“Well Usain could run it in under 10 seconds! I’d like to see him do that up here!!”
What does 100 metres look like Usain?
And again success, stream junctions emerging on cue, a change in the slope right where we expected it to be and two happy runners with more confidence in their abilities.
We like “grim” conditions, if you can navigate then, then you can navigate.

If you would like to book a navigation lesson in the Peak District, visit www.fellrunningguide.co.uk