Fi Darby is a freelance outdoor writer, and one half of the popular outdoor blog Two Blondes Walking.
The list of things you actually need for a wild camping trip can be pared down to the basics but two things I always include are my compass and an Ordnance Survey 1:25,000 map of the area I’m visiting. Wild (or nearly wild) camping is all about getting away from it all. For me being able to explore using my navigation skills is my key to achieving exactly that.
What’s over there? I think the instinct to explore is set deep within most of us. Even on a campsite, where everything is new, it doesn’t take long before I’m wondering what’s just around the corner, or planning my first walk. Walks that take me directly from my campsite are a joy. No wrestling with traffic, finding car parks or holding my breath down narrow lanes (we have plenty of those here in Devon). Just me, my map and compass, and the thrill of what might be around the next corner.
Just looking I usually take a book or my Kindle camping with me but I definitely prefer pouring over my map, and planning my own adventures to reading about someone else’s. I can while away hours sitting outside my tent thinking about where I’m going to go next, or retracing where I’ve just been. Map reading is a great way to fix my location in my head, and really become part of the landscape. Here’s that hill, there’s a stream, I wonder what that wooded valley looks like.
Can I sleep here? Although I love wilder camp sites, I also sometimes crave the slight feeling of uncertainty I get from sleeping in a wild lonely place. Finding my own wild camping spot is a thrill, one which is made much easier (and safer) by my map reading ability. With a map in front of me I can plan longer trips, avoid huge hills with my big rucksack, and pick out shelter from the weather. I also know that with decent navigation skills, and my trusty compass, I can find my way back off the hills in the dark if I need to (I never have yet).
Can I swim here? I’m a keen outdoor swimmer, and spend a fair amount of time when I am away looking for locations at which I might be able to take a wild dip. For me the fun is in the exploration rather than the result. I don’t mind if my predicted river pool length turns out to be a shallow stream splash. What I love is finding water on the map, then working out a way to use the network of lanes and footpaths to get to it.
Beautiful accidents Some of the greatest things about exploring using a map and compass are the unplanned finds. The places and things I see along the way to where I thought I wanted to be. Views are a great example of this. We all presume that the best views are from the top of hills but these are nothing compared to that glimpse of the sea down a valley, or the lambs nestled next to a spring green hazel hedge. If I don’t explore, I don’t find, and if I don’t have my map and compass with me, I’m far less inclined to explore.
Exploration culture Exploration and the skills we need to do it aren’t just good for us. They’re good for the environment too. As long as we take a leave no trace approach, exploration can help us fall back in love with our natural spaces, and consequently want to look after them. It can also take the pressure off some of our more popular locations. With a map and compass in my hand I can find my own beautiful places, and leave the location gathering to the destination junkies.
Skills for everyone? Sounds like a bit of outdoor snobbery? Not at all. I’ve spent much of my adult life teaching other people how to navigate using a map and compass. I firmly believe these skills, alongside camping and expedition skills, should be included in the National Curriculum.
Learn to navigate It’s easier now to find navigation courses than it ever has been, and I would encourage everyone, to give map reading a go. Contrary to popular belief, successful map reading isn’t about having a good sense of direction, it’s about learning how to use the available tools. I’m a good example of this, my natural sense of direction is hopeless but if you want someone to guide you off Dartmoor in the middle of the night, I’m your girl!
Each year Fi and Lucy from Two Blondes Walking run navigation and wild camping workshops on Dartmoor. They are Ordnance Survey Get Outside Champions, have appeared on ITV’s Britain’s Favourite Walks and Channel Four’s Devon and Cornwall, and love nothing better than sharing their love of navigation and adventure with as many people as possible. Join them this year for some fun and relaxed outdoor learning.