TGO Challenge Preparation 2017: Navigating Across Open Ground — Some Tips

This is another subject I’ve covered in the past and which is worth looking at again. There’s nothing particularly revolutionary here but just some very simple things that can always be overlooked in these days of GPS navigation!

As I mentioned last time out there is always a chance you will find yourself crossing open ground on your first Challenge, even if it is only for half a day or so.

One of the nice things about the North West is that the landscape is so dramatic and exaggerated that it easy to see things. Come over a pass and as you descend you can often see the other passes (or cols) laid out in front of you. You know you need to take a pass that runs south east? Well, often you can see exactly where it is.

As you move East through the landscape is not so dramatic and at times can be pretty featureless. This is something of a characteristic of areas like the Monadhliath or anywhere really we you are likely to be plodding across Peat Hags.

Areas such as the Monadhliath come with other hazards. Your map may well have tracks marked across open grounds but new tracks are being driven through all the time, sometimes to accommodate wind farm development but more often than not to make it faster and easier to get to shooting positions. When you are descending from some indistinct ridge, along open ground, it is tempting to follow one of these tracks when you come across it. But remember you don’t know where the tracks is going. If these are access tracks for shooting positions they are likely to meander all over the place. If you see a track that seems to be following a water course downhill it may well join with a shown track later on, in other words it has been extended. But as always you map is your best friend.

On such open ground — whether the visibility is poor or not — water is the thing to think about. Water always flows down and even small streams are shown on the map!

To get to the top of a ridge or rise follow a stream uphill. As it cuts through the peat it may well disappear underground but the course will still be discernible. When you have reached the top of the ridge or the rise the streams will have disappeared! Follow your general compass bearing and as you begin to descend look out for more water and then begin to follow it down. Very soon the streams will have become more distinct, join together and provide you with features you can recognise on the map — or can easily identify from you smartphone map or GPS.

Counting streams can also be very helpful. As you walk up that incline count the streams running into your little valley or gulley. Remember, you need the ‘third on the right’! A few years ago I was crossing ground I’d crossed before and camped at a familiar spot. I was joined by a fellow Challenger who I’d walked that very route with last time I had been there. Next morning we started at a pace, chatting and catching up, confident in the knowledge we’d been that way before. We were too relaxed and followed the wrong stream uphill — which put us several hours in the wrong direction. If we’d have been counting the streams we’d have been fine!

Here’s an actual example — and one which will be encountered by many first time Challengers.

A very common route — out of Braemar — is to walk through Balmoral before heading for Gelder Shell bothy (easy day) or pushing on the Shielin of Mark.

To get to the Shielin of Mark there is a climb up from the Spittal of Glenmuick and up and over the peat hags. Bounding over the hags can be great fun but it is often not clear where the Shielin is. This little stone cottage is quite concealed almost until you fall over it. A foolproof way of finding this — even in poor visibility — is to follow the water and count the stream. 

Get your maps out — or your computer — and follow me now.

The Spittal of Glenmuick is at NO 308 849.

You are looking to take the path running SE that climbs up alongside the right hand side of the stream. When the path crosses to the left side of the stream it is time to start counting! The path ends just after a stream has come in from the left (from the East). The next stream that comes in from the left is the one we take (NO 323 833). We continue following this uphill (East) until the streams divide left and right.

At this point you can take a bearing and head off up and over the peat in a general SE direction. However, there is an easier way.

At the point where the streams divide (NO 329 832) follow the stream that runs to the right (or SE then S). At the end of this stream you will face a very short climb up and over some high ground. Heading very roughly SE you quickly drop down to see a larger stream coming in from the right (flowing from the South). Turn left and follow the stream downhill (you have the Round Hill of Mark on your Right). In just a few minutes you will see the Shielin.


Shielin of Mark Bothy

The Shielin Revealed!

Here’s another example you can follow on the map. This is from the Findhorn glen, another very popular route for those on their first or second challenges. (This is where I made my mistake referred to above).

Start at NH 702 167, which is where I camped. Follow the track and road down to the bridge at NH 726 182. We now cross the bridge. What follows is a bit messy as we have to cross very open and boggy ground (nothing dangerous) to take the track up and over to the Dulnain. The bridge sends you on a track but we want the next one to the right (of E) running E of the Ruins. We then find ourselves on a good track that takes us up onto the open peat hags. 

The track crosses over the stream and then as we head East there is a mess of tracks (made worse actually as some of them are now longer). We want to leave the track at NH 747 163 following the stream that runs ESE. You will see as the stream runs out there is a very small patch of water at the top of the ridge.

Let’s go back to the bridge and no do what I did last time. Forget the tracks. Our stream is the second stream we come to. Our mistake was to take the track up the first stream. I can still remember my companion’s cry (he shall remain nameless) of “this looks about right”.

What throws you a bit is that the track is obviously heading in the right direction before verging off to the NE which is wrong. We should have checked the compass bearings but if we had simply counted the streams we’d have had no trouble. Ignore the tracks and follow the water.

So, the simple instruction would be walk up the track, cross the bridge and take the second stream on the right!

When our stream peters out it is pretty easy to set a bearing across the open ground. Basically, continue climbing (you might not easily see the patch of water) before descending. Once on the descent it is easy to see the streams picking their route through the peat. You’ve a bit of margin for error here as all the streams end up at the same place — a lovely little bothy with a bridge over the river to connect you to the bridge on the other side.

So, when you are planning in advance and thinking about open ground. Take real careful note of the water and the streams! The fact that water runs downhill is rather useful. And counting is remarkably effective!



  1. chris yapp says:

    Andy you make a very good point in this post as i and many others would have done the same thing as well but i,ve actually counted pylons as well as using water to find the right path to get to the right path

    • Good points. For overseas readers OS maps not only show power lines but the position of pylons. Mind you, I’ve had some dodgy experiences following the lions of pylons!

      • Are you sure that the position of pylons is shown? I thought the OS symbol was for a power line and not pylons per se. Of course I’m happy to be corrected.

        • David — the lines certainly are and that should be all you need, I’m looking at my 1.50 maps now and I think the positions of the pylons are located but I may be wrong. However, and practically the line of the power line is correct and with a compass can be followed.

  2. Good stuff! As a pretty pathetic navigator myself–not because I can’t do it, but because I’m normally listening to a book or music, and so I become distracted–I’d say the most important thing is to really concentrate on the map. If you get lost you will prolly find your way back, but who wants to have to walk extra miles on top of an already long day, plus the stress of having to work out how you’ve gone wrong? Nooooo… Follow Andy’s good advice and get it right first time!

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