Keri Wallace is a fell runner, Mountain Leader (substitute in lover!), mother of 2 and part of the team behind Girls on Hills, the Scottish guiding / trail running company which she set up with fellow adventurer, Nancy Kennedy. When not losing herself in the highlands of Scotland or being mistaken for Nicky Spinks' bodyguard (true story), she joined us on The Trail Zone at The National Running Show in Birmingham, UK in 2020 to talk to people about Blazing Your Own Trail: top tips for improving your navigation confidence. 

Nicky Spinks listening in ; )

Keri wrote the following article on the subject for Trail Running Magazine in January 2020 and we have reproduced it in full here. 

There is a sense of freedom that comes from running on trails as opposed to roads, but it is still all too easy to find yourself running the same routes day-in, day-out. Planning your own adventure by devising your own route not only changes the scenery but is also an empowering process in its own right, allowing you take charge of your journey and personal safety.  

Once you have planned the route you wish to take, you need to be able to self-navigate to turn your objective into a reality. You may find that the trail peters out, has been re-routed or just isn’t there at all! Therefore, navigation is a core skill for any trail runner looking to take on longer, more  remote or even mountainous trails. 

Essential skills

Navigation skills and prior experience are becoming increasingly important for ultra-trail racing, with more and more self-navigation events appearing in the race calendar. Examples include races such as Hardmoors, Arc of Attrition, Lakes in a Day or the Spine Race, where self-navigation skills are mandatory. 

There are also an increasing number of trail races designed to specifically test competitors’ navigation skills alongside their running ability. The Open5 series, OMM-Lite races and single-day ‘mini’ mountain marathons all take this format, blending the unique pleasures of orienteering, adventure racing and trail running. In the mountains, NG (non-GPS) category fell races and mountain marathons take self-navigation to an even bigger scale. The latter incorporates strategic route-planning between checkpoints, usually over two days. 

A new breed of race 

This year, a new kind of race joined the party: the Type II ‘Fun Run’ from Type II Events. Brainchild of fastpacking adventurer Jenny Tough, the event is an ultra with a difference. The race route is determined by the competitors themselves, who must collect a combination of mandatory and optional checkpoints around the mountains above Braemar, Scottish Highlands – each worth a different number of points relating to its difficulty. The overall race distance is about 85km but all runners must reach the finish line within 30 hours. The race is won by the number of points collected, making solid navigation, route-choice and strategy all key to success in this new style of event. 

“I wanted to create something that combined navigation, strategy, and a social element as well – it is a fun run, after all!” says race director, Jenny. “The format means that everyone can run to their own abilities and terrain preferences, and still finish together.

“Another really important part of this format is self-sufficiency in the hills, which is something I think all ultra-trail runners should be confident with, and I would encourage beginners to learn how to navigate, as well as run unsupported.” 

Jenny is currently part-way through a global-challenge to run solo across a mountain range on every continent. In 2016, she ran across the Tien Shan of Kyrgyzstan, in 2017 across the Atlas of Morocco, then across the Bolivian Andes. Earlier this year she completed her fourth expedition by running the length of the Southern Alps. See more at jennytough.com/run-the-world-mountains.  

“I’m always thinking about ‘what if’ scenarios,” she adds. “Sometimes, things don’t go to plan and you have to adapt quickly. In those scenarios, you might need to navigate somewhere that wasn’t in your plan for the day in order to get to safety. It’s important you’re confident enough to do that, whether you are running in the UK or the high mountains of the Atlas.”

Plan a treasure hunt 

Build ‘navigation tasks’ into your usual trail runs. Identify and find a number of features while out on your run. It takes a bit of extra time but also adds interest to a familiar route. 

Go solo 

Self-navigating alone is where all the learning happens! While it feels safer to take along a friend or to navigate in a group, you rarely learn as much as you would do alone because it’s difficult to get so immersed in the task.  People also learn in different ways, so what might make sense to one person may confuse another. Find your own way – literally. 

Be a map nerd 

Make friends with paper maps. Have them on your coffee table or by the loo! Look at them long and often

Do a course

Sign up for a navigation skills course. There are hundreds of independent providers out there offering navigation courses, ranging from introductory level to advanced skills and refreshers. They are inexpensive and available all over the country. Central courses are available through the British Mountaineering Council (BMC), Mountaineering Ireland and Mountaineering Scotland. Girls on Hills Ltd delivers trail running navigation courses specifically for women.

KEY SKILLS

1 Have a rough plan

Decide on a start location and look at surrounding options. You can link-up paths, trails and bridgeways but don’t be afraid to stray ‘off-trail’ (where access is permissible) to visit new areas or link up non-connecting trails. Circular routes are easiest logistically but through-routes often feel more rewarding, by giving a sense of real ‘journeying’. If it’s windy then plan to run ‘with the wind’ rather than against it to maximise enjoyment!

2 How long?

Each square on the map (gridlines) is one kilometre. Use this to work out the approximate distance of your new route. Then think time not distance! Consider the amount of elevation and the type of terrain underfoot, as this will impact your pace and therefore the duration of your run. Also bear in mind that navigating will also take extra time at first! Plan a route that is going to fit comfortably inside the time window you have available.  

3 Escape routes

Consider how you might shorten your run if the worst happens and you experience an injury, or the route is taking longer than expected. Give this more than a cursory thought and make sure it’s really a safe and viable option. For example, are there any rivers which may become uncrossable on the way back if weather deteriorates? It is also sensible to let someone know where you’re going before you head out.    

Photo courtesy of Girls on Hills

4 Make a tick-list

Break down your run into shorter ‘legs’, making a mental check-list of features you expect to pass. Tick-off these features as you pass them to monitor your location along the trail but also to help build a picture of how quickly you are covering the distance (trial and error is the only way to hone your route-planning skills!) At the end of each leg, make a list of ‘tick-off features’ for the next leg.          

5 Double-check early

As soon as things don’t feel right, stop and consult the map. Don’t just press-on muttering “this must be this and that must be that”! Set the map (see over the page) and try to identify what is around you (learning how to use a compass can help you here). If necessary, go back to your last known location. Stopping early prevents things from getting too much out of hand.

6 Love it

Enjoy visiting different places with a new found sense of freedom. And revel in the feeling of accomplishment when it all goes to plan! In the digital age, being able to navigate by map could be considered a dying art, but you’ll experience an indescribable satisfaction in helping to preserve this skill for generations to come.

To get in touch with Keri and search for Girls on Hills click here