31 Mar, 2012 @ 13:12
4 mins read

Be a safe, confident and happy walker!

getting your bearings eva m bratek

THERE are many excellent books on walking savvy and navigating, my favourite one published in English being “The Natural Navigator”by Tristan Gooley, available on www.amazon.co.uk, and in Spanish the excellent “Manual del Buen Montañero” by Daniel Villalta Lozano, recently published by Editorial La Serranía,   www.laserrania.org.

However, I would like to focus on a few simple things that are so easily forgotten when walking in a foreign country where the language, walking customs and terrain can be different from what you are accustomed to at home.

Southern Andalucía, where I normally walk, is full of fabulous easy footpaths where you can feel at one with the mountains whilst keeping to short walks which you can explore at leisure. The experienced walker Tony Bishop and I devised such a collection of walks in the book “Walking in the Ronda Mountains, 30 Half-day walks in Andalucía”.

Sheer joy. Photograph: Eva M. Bratek

Longer walks always require more preparation. However, the simple tips listed below are useful on any walk, anywhere. Some may seem obvious, but are often ignored or forgotten by even experienced hikers.

1. When you use a guidebook, read the walk description in advance. Reading it for the first time as you walk means wasting precious time with your nose stuck in the book, and it´s easy to miss or misinterpret vital facts by just scanning the text. Take the book with you, but be already acquainted with the walk description.

2. Compare the walk description with the map in your guidebook until you can envisage which part of the text refers to which part of the map. Even if your mental image of the walk is not 100 per cent correct, at least you will have a rough idea of what to expect.

3. Take your time when reading new maps. Anyone needs time to absorb the symbols on an unfamiliar map and understand the route. Roads, footpaths, firebreaks, railway lines and other landmarks can be shown differently in guidebooks and may not be what you are accustomed to. It is common to mistake the symbols for roads or province borders for footpaths if you haven´t read the map legend.

4. Use Spanish place names. I learned this the hard way many years ago. Having foolishly set off for an all-day ramble without a compass, a map or a guidebook, I tried to describe my desired destination to a farmer. He was very kind but he looked at me with a mixture of sympathy and amusement. It is not enough to know that you are, for example, heading for the “Goatherd´s Leap” if you don´t know this name in Spanish, or can´t pronounce the name of the next village and have nothing with you in writing.  Especially on weekdays you may not meet another hiker on your walk, but you might meet a shepherd or a hunter. With your guidebook to hand, you can point to a place name without necessarily having to pronounce it. Even with good Spanish, there is less chance of an error if you can show someone a map. In addition to the map provided for each walk in your guidebook, a general walking map of the area is always very useful. Spanish walking maps can be bought at Tienda Verde or Stanford´s.



5. A compass is a wonderful thing. It is great fun to know the points of the compass. (Well, that probably tells you I don´t get out that much). Find a website, a book or friend and learn the basics: practice using your compass until it becomes second nature. Which way does your hotel entrance face? Can you identify the points of the compass by just looking at your surroundings back at home?

Into the woods. Photograph: Eva M. Bratek

6. Don´t rely just on waymarks or cairns for orientation. Identify large, visible landmarks on your walk, such as a high mountain peak with an easily recognizable shape, a radio antenna or a distinctive farm on top of a hill. Memorize their position as you start your walk, and look up to place them as you progress, looking back as well as around and forwards. This gives you a sense of being in control even if the path twists and turns frequently.

7. Always be aware of where you have come from and be able to retrace your steps at any time. It is surprisingly difficult to do a walk in reverse if you haven´t paid attention to your surroundings. Stop and look behind you frequently, especially if your path changes directions.

8. Be aware what time the sun sets, especially when planning a long walk.  Remember, high mountains start blocking the sun earlier than you might expect so start a walk early enough to finish it well before dark. Modern head torches weigh very little and one of these should live in your rucksack permanently.

9. Invest in a GPS if you plan to walk quite a lot in the future. At the very least a GPS is invaluable if ever you need to give your exact position in an emergency (dial 112). In Spain the 1950 European system is used so switch your GPS to that system to give your position.

10. Mobile phone coverage is often better higher up than in valleys surrounded by mountains. GPS phones will recognize 112 as a priority number and try to find any network available. You might get a signal from Morocco if you are on a mountain top in Southern Andalucía. Before chatting with a friend about how the walk is going, I always check which country´s network I am on. It may be a good idea to save your battery so switch off your phone until you need it.

11. Never walk alone. Whilst it can be very pleasurable, it is not a good idea, especially in a foreign country, on unknown terrain, far from the nearest village.

12. Do not set off without telling someone where you are going. Write down the location of your starting point and departure time, your intended route and how many of you are going. If you are staying at a hotel, leave a note with reception. When undertaking a long walk covering a lot of territory, this helps to establish the radius of where you are likely to be. Most wildlife areas in Spain are patrolled by forest guards and/or environmental officers (Agentes de Medioambiente) so leave a a simple note of destination, date and departure time on your car dashboard. Don´t leave anything of value in the car if your note indicates that you´ll be gone for a while.

13. Repeat the same walk to get the full pleasure out if it. I believe it takes a minimum of three outings to really appreciate a walk. The first time is for research. The second time you increase your confidence. The third time, you can happily look around you and appreciate the birds, flowers and landscapes without having to focus on finding your way.

Have a good walk!

Views from El Torreón to the distinct Rock of Gibraltar. Photograph: Eva M. Bratek


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