Read the landscape and plan your route
Even if you are out on a shorter trek along marked trails, you should always have a map and compass in your pack. Weather conditions can change quickly, particularly in the high mountains, and cold temperatures, strong winds and heavy rainfall can suddenly appear. Visibility can be impaired by bad weather, so a map and compass are indispensable. A GPS unit is also an excellent aid, but taking into consideration the limited life of batteries in cold temperatures, it would be a good idea not to rely solely on electronics.
In clear conditions and an open landscape, it is possible to plan your route several kilometres in advance. Choose the easiest and least demanding path from point A to point B, set up goals mid-way and regularly check where you are on the map so you are prepared in the event the weather changes. Remember to look up from the map and read the landscape around you – even behind you.
When orientating yourself, it is important to find clear landmarks and their location on the map, for example a peak, stream, TV mast, electrical lines, etc. You can use these as “guide rails” and targets as you move forward. Following the direction of the compass is more difficult than many people are aware, and in terms of large distances the precision of the compass can be significantly wrong. One good tip is to set one clear object, for example a large stone or a distinctive tree, as your target. Once you reach this target, get out your compass again and choose a new target. This way you do not need to look at your compass all the time.
If the weather is bad or if you are in difficult terrain – for example thick forests – you will have to completely rely on your compass. This requires skill and experience and it is important to carefully select targets to hold a straight line. One tip is to use a safety line and let one member of your party walk a bit ahead as the target and steer that person so he/she is on track according to the compass. If visibility is extremely poor, you might need to track the distance by counting “ski steps” or pole strokes. (One prerequisite for this method, naturally, is that you prepared in advance for this situation and counted how many steps/pole strokes you take over a distance of one hundred metres.) You should do this even if you are using a GPS.
When visibility is poor it is of extra importance that you choose a route that avoids dangerous obstacles such as ravines, precipices or cracks. Your trek will be much, much easier, of course, if you can follow marked winter paths, forests, mountainsides, electrical lines, etc.
How to handle a map and compass
1. Hold the map so its top edge faces north.
2. Align the edge of the compass so it is between the point where you are located and your target, with the direction of travel-arrow of the compass pointing in the same direction as the target.
3. Rotate the compass housing until the North arrow is pointing toward the map’s North and is in line with the map’s North-South meridians (graticule).
4. Rotate the compass so that the compass needle’s red tip (magnetic North) is in line with the compass housing’s North arrow.
5. The compass’s direction of travel-arrow is now pointing toward your target.
The best piece of advice that we can give with regard to navigation is to practice, practice, practice. You need to become well-versed in how quickly you move through different types of terrain with and without a pack, how to read a map and how to use a compass – both in good and bad weather and in different types of terrain. It is also a good idea to remember how long your steps are and how many steps/pole strokes are needed to go one hundred metres. Remember that these numbers can vary significantly depending on whether you are travelling on a flat surface or up the side of a mountain.
Did you know that: Winter trails in the Swedish mountains are marked with poles with Xs on them (sometimes referred to as “guiding stars”). The Xs are often painted red. They are placed at approximately 40-metre intervals so you can follow them when visibility is poor. Poles with two Xs show that the trail is changing direction.