As the nights start to draw in, the chances of having to do some navigation in the dark increase. Far from being something to fear, night navigation can be great fun.
Compass navigation at night can be a challenge as sighting on objects to keep on bearing has to occur over shorter distances and features on the map become harder to discern. However here are a few short tips to make your life easier (or help you pass your night navigation assessment if you are taking a Mountain Leader or Hill and Moorland Leader course).
1. Have a good head torch.
A hand torch that you got free when you filled the car up with petrol is probably not going to be quite as useful as a headtorch with a powerful beam. Whilst torches exist that can light up an entire hillside, that’s probably a little excessive and has a high chance of blinding your mates if you are not careful.
Your choice needs to be bright enough to read a map and see some of the terrain around you. The more you can see (ie a brighter torch with more lumens), the easier the navigation (unless you are in Scotland where it will either be raining or the midges so thick the torch only illuminates your toes).
Beyond the Edge recommend the Petzl NAO+ (£150 and 750 lumens) as the top end headtorch and the Petzl Myo (around £75 and 370 lumens) as the mid price model on our night navigation courses. They Nao+ is reasonably lightweight has a powerful beam and adjusts its brightness automatically so your retinas don’t get seared when you glance at the map after trying to see the route off.
It’s not cheap but I use one when searching with Mountain Rescue and for all my planned night navigation and have been very happy with it. There are many other less powerful head torches but aim for around 300 lumens or greater to make your life easier.
If your torch sits on your head (or helmet) your hands are free to hold a map and compass, faff with ropes or whatever else needs doing. Holding a torch in your mouth to keep your hands free can have lasting effects…
2. Use a good compass.
Similar to point 1 above. We recommend a Silva type 4 or Silva expedition as a reliable and accurate compass for night navigation. On our navigation courses we regularly see bargain compass bought off the internet give multiple different variations of north or fail miserably after a few uses. You really do get what you pay for and without a compass, night navigation can be quite challenging!
As the sun falls, you may also be reaching for your gloves so check that you can hold the compass and turn the bezel with gloves on. At night having luminous marks on the compass needle and bezel is handy and if they start to fade, hold it under the light of your torch for 30 seconds to get it going again.
3. Don’t be frightened to turn your torch off for a few minutes
Whilst it sounds bizarre, turning your torch off and getting a feel at the macro level for your surroundings can often be useful. You don’t need to wait until your eyes adjust completely as the horizon will be visible and walls and trees can give clear silhouettes at a much greater distance than your torch will pick out.
4. Keep it simple.
Use big features to navigate by when you are starting out. If these features are linear (walls, obvious tracks, wood boundaries) then all the better as if you are a little out navigating with a compass at night, you will still hit them. If you are heading for a small feature, find an attack point to minimise the chance of any error.
5. Hone your pacing.
Use 50m of string to measure your paces on both flat and inclined ground. You take shorter paces going up so it’s useful to know how many paces on flat, easy angled, moderate and steep rather than just flat ground. With a bit of practice, you should be no more than a few metres out, even over 1km.
Lastly, enjoy yourself. Watching the sun set from high on a hill or tracing shooting stars are amazing experiences to be savoured. When most folk have gone home because they are afraid of the dark it’s a special treat to be out and about.