Is there still a place in your backpack for paper maps?

Do you still need paper maps to be safe outdoors? And which electronic mapping is the best? This is my review of Ordnance Survey and ViewRanger.

I write this post with some degree of reticence. You see, there’s an unspoken code amongst walkers that you always take a map and compass even if you know where you’re going and you’ve done it a million times. In fact, it’s something even I recommend in my Beginner’s Guide to Hill Walking. I think it’s a good idea. It’s a sensible idea. It’s something I do… some of the time.

If I’m hiking in the Peak District, I have weatherproof OS Explorer Maps for the Dark and White Peak and I take my OS compass with me on every walk. It’s nothing fancy and it doesn’t add a ton of weight for day walks, but if the whole escapade went to hell, I could use them to find my way to somewhere useful.

Having said that, I was in the Brecon Beacons last week to walk Pen y Fan and the Waterfalls Walk and I didn’t take paper maps. Why? Because I didn’t own them and the Brecon Beacons is split across three maps, which starts to add a considerable cost and bulk to packing. Also, I have subscriptions to OS Maps through both the Ordnance Survey website and through ViewRanger. I’m not a massive fan of spending money when I’ve already paid for a thing in a different format.

I’m planning to walk the Pennine Way at some point this year or next and, honestly, I probably won’t be buying all of the maps for that either. Six weatherproof maps take up a lot of space and come in at over £100. Now, I could plan to have maps delivered to me at drop points along the route or I’m sure I could buy them as I go, but it’s impossible to avoid the fact that the bulk still adds up as quickly as the cost does.

 

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The OS Explorer maps that we all know and love

 

The argument goes that paper maps and a compass will never fail you. This is entirely true, with one major caveat: that you know how to use them and visibility is good enough that you can actually see a couple of landmarks. However, while there’s always a Peak District map set in my backpack for weekend walks, I haven’t needed them in five or more years. Electronic mapping is my preferred choice to find my location and bearing, but ask anyone wearing tweed or decked out in Berghaus for the weekend and they’ll tell you that relying on electronic maps is a recipe for disaster. I have to say, I disagree.

If you don’t know how to use a paper map and compass, you’ll get lost if that’s all you have at your disposal. Similarly, if you don’t make sure you’re prepared to use electronic maps, you’re also going to come unstuck.

The main argument against using electronic mapping is that of battery life. If your battery dies, you’re screwed. Again, this is true, but battery packs that can recharge a device multiple times while it’s still in use are a dime a dozen. I have a couple of RavPower portable chargers – one that will charge an iPhone 8 Plus two or three times (it’s tiny) and a large one that will keep multiple iPhones and an Apple Watch charged for about a week. It’s a little heavy, but it’ll easily fit in your backpack while taking up less space than a single paper map.

Based on recent experience, however, I’ve found my perfect setup: it’s a combination of OS Maps on the web and ViewRanger on the Apple Watch. The latter does a very clever thing where it hands off a lot of the battery-sucking duties to the iPhone, which means that neither your Apple Watch or iPhone take a massive hit. What’s more, the Apple Watch is always accessible and exactly where you need it, and it’s waterproof. This means your iPhone can be safely stowed in a drysack and you never need to touch it. I’ve been trying to work out how far I think I could hike in a single journey using this setup and, based on massively unscientific observation, I reckon I could easily cover 20 miles on foot. On my last 10 mile route, my Apple Watch battery went from 100% down to 65% and my iPhone went from 100% down to 82%. I think 20 miles would be reasonable. Beyond that, you’re chancing it without the means to recharge.

“But what if your phone and Apple Watch break?” I hear you cry. Well, if that happens, we’re already having a Type III fun kind of day, aren’t we? My response to this is that if one of those devices fails, I have the other as backup. If both of them fail, the other three hikers I tend to go walking with will have their own phones with the route pre-loaded. If the five devices we have between us all fail… well, yeah, then we’re well and truly screwed. To people who think electronic mapping is the devil, my counter-challenge is this: what if your paper map blows away?

Of course, the other benefit of electronic mapping over good ol’ orienteering is that if visibility is appalling, you’ll still know exactly where you are and which way to point yourself. Finding your location on a paper map depends largely on a line of sight and reference to at least a couple of landmarks… if you’re on Kinder with its famous fog and visibility down to a few feet (as it can often be and, let’s face it, it’s pretty barren on a sunny day), electronic mapping is your surest and easiest bet. Even the satellites can see you through fog.

With all that said, I wanted to use this post to give a quick appraisal of the two apps I use: OS Maps and ViewRanger. They both excel and fall short in different ways, but happily, these failures and strengths complement each perfectly.

OS Maps

Let’s get this out of the way first of all, because there’s no debate to be had: Ordnance Survey maps are the standard and there’s nothing out there that comes close to beating them for clarity and information. All of my route planning starts on the OS Maps website without fail.

 

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OS Landranger 1: 25 000 scale mapping – Ordnance Survey’s most detailed leisure map

 

Using either the OS Leisure Maps or National Parkways maps, plotting a route on the OS Maps website is so simple and pleasingly accurate that it almost raises a smile on my wind-beaten face. The website plots the route between two waypoints, following every twist and turn in intricate detail. For anyone with OCD about the route matching the actual path (ahem, that’ll be me), it’s an absolute godsend. Honestly, it’s really satisfying. Even if you’re not going anywhere, just give it a go and feel good about your day.

Once you get to the end of the route and hit Save, that route becomes immediately available in the Ordnance Survey OS Maps apps for iOS and Android, where you can also download an offline map to ensure you have access when you’re in the remote hills without a signal. OS Maps also has an incredible number of pre-plotted routes from AA Walks, Trail Magazine and myriad other publishers, along with community-created routes – all included in your subscription for no extra cost.

 

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Ordnance Survey overview of snap to route

 

Unfortunately, the place where we hand over to the mobile app is the place where OS Maps and I take leave of each other. As beautifully-designed and easy to use as the OS Maps app is, it leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to actually following your route.

 

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OS Maps on the iPhone

 

This isn’t just a one-off, this is how it always goes for me: load up the OS Maps app in the hills, find the route you previously plotted and hit Follow Route. Simple. Now you start walking. Maybe my expectations are too high, but what I expect to happen next is that the little arrow (which tells me my location) keeps up with me. As I move, it moves. Except, this doesn’t happen. You can walk for one minute, two minutes or five minutes, and that little arrow belligerently stays where it is. Give the screen a poke, move the map a little and the arrow will snap to where you actually are. It’s almost as if it nods off when you’re not looking and then jolts itself awake, pretending that it was with you all along.

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This isn’t device-specific either, I’ve experienced exactly the same behaviour on multiple iPhones. Perhaps Android fares better?

The other issue with using the OS Maps app for navigation is the lack of an Apple Watch app. This means I constantly have to have my phone to hand. In an urban environment that would be entirely reasonable, but not in the hills. You see, you can’t keep it in your pocket because it might meet its demise when it falls out as you’re scrambling. You can’t keep it in your larger thigh pocket because you might bash it on a rock. You can’t keep it in your backpack because it’s an almighty pain in the arse to have to take it off every time you want to check you’re on the route. If it’s raining, that means taking off the backpack cover, opening the backpack, soaking half your stuff which you’d previously secured in a drysack, and then exposing your very expensive iDevice to the elements. I know that you can get those bags to put your phone in that allow it to hang from your neck and survive the rain, but… no. Not when there are better solutions out there.

 

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Lifeventure Hydroseal mobile phone pouch

 

And so, I use the OS Maps website to plot my route, but then I export it as a GPX file and head over to ViewRanger.

ViewRanger

ViewRanger suffers from the exact opposite problems to OS Maps – the website is the clunky part, but the route tracking on mobile is unparalleled. Now, you can plot a route in ViewRanger on the website. You can even purchase a separate OS Maps subscription through their app and plot your routes using OS Maps inside ViewRanger. While this sounds like the ultimate solution, ViewRanger’s snap-to-route function is nowehere near as detailed or intricate as it is on OS Maps, and the route line that’s generated isn’t as satisfyingly smooth. It’s more like an approximation of the route; you don’t get every twist and turn, but you get a line that more-or-less overlays the National Parkways paths. This might be fine for some, but I’m not a fan. I like my routes to show me exactly where I’m going, even if it’s blatantly obvious. To solve that, I just use ViewRanger’s helpful Create Route from GPX feature and import the route I previously made in OS Maps. It creates about a billion waypoints, but I’m fine with that as you only see the ones you add detail to when you’re using it in the field.

 

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If you have a device, ViewRanger is probably available for it

 

In the same way that OS Maps provides routes from publishers like AA Walks, so too does ViewRanger. The difference is that, while the publisher routes are included in your OS Maps subscription, they often cost some money in ViewRanger. So get them from OS Maps if you have that as well.

Now, over to the ViewRanger app. I’ll start by saying this: it’s not intuitive. There are buttons everywhere, they all do things you don’t expect, some of them are in places they shouldn’t be, and syncing isn’t automatic. Once you’ve found the sync button (which only uploads and downloads data, it doesn’t sync destructive edits like deletes performed in the app), your route is available. You can now download an offline version of the map (I always grab Ordnance Survey 1:25,000 maps), sync the route across to your Apple Watch and head to the hills.

 

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ViewRanger on the Apple Watch. My perfect walking companion.

 

Once you’re at the start of your walk, you just hit Start on the Apple Watch and ViewRanger takes care of all the clever stuff in the background. You don’t need to think about it anymore. It’s frugal with the battery, it shows you a map you can zoom in and out of, tells you how much further you have to go, and – as if that weren’t enough – the little arrow updates to your precise location every time you look at it. It even shows you where you’ve been as well as where you’re going, which is incredibly helpful.

ViewRanger is second-to-none for following routes. It really is excellent. As you approach a waypoint you get notified of your next instruction and if you veer off the route by more than a reasonable amount, it’ll notify you to tell you to sort yourself out. I genuinely can’t fault the experience here.

Although it doesn’t directly relate to the experience of using ViewRanger in the wild, whenever I’ve had to contact them for technical support or subscription queries, the staff have always been exceptional. The speed, quality and clarity of interactions with them says a lot about the company they’re building.

Conclusion

Neither OS Maps or ViewRanger is perfect, but their strengths complement each other well. OS Maps is great on the web, but I wouldn’t depend on the mobile experience to get me where I’m going, which is kind of the point. ViewRanger, on the other hand, is incredible once you’re in the hills and ready to start following your route, but everything up to that point is a bit of a chore.

Between them, however, I have the perfect setup. Sure, I have to pay for OS subscriptions on both, but that gets me full UK mapping for £40 a year and the best experience wherever I am. The people who are wedded to their paper maps strike me as being the kind of people who still think using in-car sat navs is cheating. You know the kind – they pull out their AA route planner every few miles so that they can have an argument. For me, anything that makes walking easier, safer and removes distractions so you can enjoy the great outdoors around you is good in my book.

A couple of things to note about this article:

  1. All of the images in this post come from either the Ordnance Survey or ViewRanger websites. I didn’t ask their permission to use them, so if someone gets a bit shouty and this post looks incredibly boring all of a sudden, it was my fault.
  2. I wasn’t paid to write this review, nor was I asked to. This should go without saying; I’m nowhere near popular enough.

 

Bakewell to Chatsworth

“What does Forrest Gump have to do with hill walking in the Peak District?” I hear you ask.

Chatsworth

Have you ever watched Forrest Gump? I’m sure you must have, but it’s easy to forget that it came out 23 years ago and not all of you are in your mid-30s like me – simultaneously astonishing and depressing. For those of you who haven’t seen it, there’s a scene where Forrest tells the story of his epic run across America.

That day, for no particular reason, I decided to go for a little run. So I ran to the end of the road. And when I got there, I thought maybe I’d run to the end of the town. And when I got there, I thought maybe I’d just run across Greenbow County. And I figured, since run this far, maybe I’d just run across the great state of Alabama.

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“What does Forrest Gump have to do with hill walking in the Peak District?” I hear you ask.

“Not a hell of a lot,” I reply. “But there is a tenuous link.”

I’ve been to Bakewell many, many times. Byways Tea Rooms used to be my favourite weekly haunt for pre-walk sustainance before a few average breakfasts sent me hunting for different sausages, the branch of Cotswold Outdoor there is my favourite outdoor shop by a country mile because the staff are incredible, and Bloomers of Bakewell does the best original Bakewell pudding (they just do, and let that be an end of it).

For me, Bakewell was a pleasant place to stop for food and try on aspirational walking kit on the way to a wherever the walk started. It had never occured to me to start a walk from Bakewell before. In that way, it’s a little like Forrest Gump’s run… stumbling upon a lovely route from Bakewell to Chatsworth just kind of happened. You just start walking and keep going.

“I just felt like walking.”

See? Tenuous.

This 7.2 mile walk – it’s much more of a stroll than a hike, though you’ll still need your Big Boots to conquer the mud – starts and ends in Bakewell and will take you to Chatsworth House, which has been home to the Cavendish family since 1549 and is the seat of the Duke of Devonshire.

Standing on the east bank of the River Derwent, Chatsworth House is set in an expansive parkland backed by wooded, rocky hills. It contains an impressive collection of paintings, furniture, Old Master drawings, neoclassical sculptures, books and other artefacts – I’d recommend you plan to visit the inside of the house on another day as I expect, though I’m making assumptions, that they’ll be as welcoming of muddy boots as your average wine bar.

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Chatsworth House in the Peak District, hidden behind the cracked glaze of winter trees.

I recommend doing this walk in winter if you can, although it’s fantastic year-round. In the colder months, you’ll have the frosty meadows to yourself and will have a better chance of seeing wildlife, like the herds of deer that graze in the mature Capability Brown-designed grounds.

There are several car parks to choose from in Bakewell, all of which will cost you about £4-5, but make sure you check the closing times if you’re not likely to be back by 6pm. Some of them, like Smith’s Island Car Park, have gates that are promptly closed and your car will become impounded.

If you like to follow this walk, I’ve made the ViewRanger and OS Maps routes available for free. You’ll find links to both at the end of this post.


Bronze Age Views

Leaving Bakewell, the walk ascends to the windy heights of Calton Pastures via Bakewell golf course. I’ve never been into golfing. A friend took me to a driving range once, but all I wanted to do was hit the ball as hard as I could with the big wooden bat. He said that was uncouth, so I never bothered to go back. If you like your golfing, however, Bakewell golf course must be one of the most scenic in the country.

The meadows here are scattered with 4,000-year old Bronze Age burial mounds, all of which have been fenced off to prevent erosion. It’s still worth standing to admire the view across the Eastern Moors and Stanage Edge that our ancestors must once have enjoyed.

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Live long and wander.

The Russian Cottage

One of the most surprising parts of this walk for me is the black and white Russian Cottage you pass after turning north as you leave Calton Pastures. Looking rather out of place in the landscape, it was built by the 6th Duke of Devonshire to accommodate Russian Tsar Nicholas I in 1844, but the Tsar never visited due to more pressing matters at home.

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The cottage, built for Russian Tsar Nicholas I by the 6th Duke, was never visited.

Capability Brown’s Landscape

From here, you’ll pass through a walled lane through pines before you arrive at a gate to take in what must be one of the finest views of a stately home in the country. As you walk across Capability Brown’s landscape, you might be lucky enough to see Chatsworth’s famous herds of red and fallow deer before you take a route of your choosing up to Paine’s Bridge. This is a great spot to take photos and is ever-popular on the Chatsworth House Instagram account. They were kind enough to feature one of my photos there recently (the one you see as the featured image on this post), which was taken on the walk I did this week.

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Paine’s Bridge

Pudding Time

Once you’ve taken in ‘the Palace of the Peak’ and its grounds, your walk returns to Bakewell via the banks of the Derwent, towards Calton Lees, and finally you retrace your steps across the golf course back to the Bakewell pudding shop of your choice. Rather pleasingly, I literally got to retrace my steps on this walk as they were the only footprints marking the snow in the meadows.

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A little bit of Venice in the Peak District.

Follow Our Route

If you’d like to follow this walk, you can find the route on OS Maps and ViewRanger. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

 

Time to Talk

The voice in my head is an asshole.

Go Green to Beat the Blues

A few months ago, I spent two days with Mental Health First Aid England to become a qualified Mental Health First Aider. Those are two of the most valuable days I’ve spent anywhere.

Mental Health First Aiders are a point of contact if you, or someone you are concerned about, is experiencing a mental health issue or emotional distress. We’re not therapists or psychiatrists, but we can give you initial support and signpost you to appropriate help if it’s required.

It’s easy to forget that everyone has mental health – it’s more of a continuum than an absolute – and you can quickly find yourself on either end of the scale.

But what is good mental health? Well, the World Health Organisation defines it as:

“A state of wellbeing in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.”

In all honestly, I’m more inclined to the deep end of the pool. Depression and anxiety have been around for me for such a long time that they’ve become dependable companions. I have a proclivity for rumination. I tend to see the risks in situations more than the positive outcomes. I’m endlessly self-critical.

In short, the voice in my head is an asshole.

There are two things that have helped me immeasurably when it comes to living with myself – “wherever you go, there you are”. The first is meditation. The second is hill walking.

While this website isn’t about meditation, I’d have just as many good things to say and could talk to you about it at length. It’s been transformational for me, a paradigm shift unlike any other, and if you’d like to find out more it would be my pleasure to have a chat about it with you.

This blog, however, is about walking. Happily, hill walking has been shown to have wonderful benefits for mental health. Remember, we’re not saying it’s going to solve all the problems, but it might be one factor in improving your position on the mental health continuum.

Long Live the Proleteriat!

2018 can feel a little like 1984 sometimes, can’t it? I don’t mean new episodes of Miami Vice and movies like Footloose, Karate Kid, Gremlins and Ghostbusters storming the Box Office. I mean more like George Orwell’s dystopian nightmare.

We all have the unenviable stress and pressure of wage slavery, which many of us attempt to self-medicate through post-work drinks, endlessly scrolling through social media without really knowing why, and wishing there was a more effective way of getting every milligram of caffeine into our sleep-deprived bodies.

The good news is that there’s a much cheaper and more natural remedy. Research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), conducted by Dr Valerie Gladwell at the University of Essex, demonstrated the power of the great outdoors to improve both physiological and psychological wellbeing:

“The value of nature has long been considered to be advantageous to human health. Early examples of this come in the form of urban parks established by wealthy philanthropists during the 19th century, and in the gardens incorporated into hospital designs. Our research supports this, demonstrating an association between improved health outcomes and engagement with surrounding ‘green space’.”

The research showed that just looking at slides of natural scenes could improve response and recovery from stressful tasks and that a simple walk in a green place led to better sleep the following night. Conversely, looking at city scenes had no such effect (therefore vindicating my aversion to London and proving once and for all that I’m not just miserable – London is scientifically awful).

I must admit, I was incredibly surprised to find just how much Ordnance Survey have done to promote healthy behaviours like these. Their challenge to us: what could you do with an hour a day? That’s all you need to get started and see benefits. One hour outside a day. What’s more, their apps for iOS and Android have a Greenspace map layer to help you easily identify parks and other local greenspaces.

You don’t have to walk for miles to feel the benefits. You don’t even have to go near hills. But imagine, if one our a day outside can do so much to benefit your mental health, how much better would regularly getting out into your closest National Park be? There are loads of them.

Another study showed that as little as 80 minutes of hill walking may reduce the risk of early death by around 10%. If you don’t have hills on your doorstep, make that 120 minutes of brisk walking around your local greenspace.

Of course, we’re here to talk about mental health and while reducing your risk of death by 10% is a noble cause, the quality of your life matters just as much as the longevity of it. The study mentioned above by the University of Essex showed that over 71% of participants felt less depressed after the country walk compared to 22% who reported an increase in feelings of depression after an urban walk.

It’s wonderful to see MIND, the mental health charity, still championing their green agenda. People have been advocating that we should all ‘get outside a bit more’ for as long as I can remember, but championing the great outdoors as a therapy in its own right is nothing but good news. Ecotherapy involves getting outdoors and getting active in a green environment as a way of boosting mental wellbeing – it’s not just good advice, it’s a clinically valid treatment option for GPs when assisting patients with mental ill health.

For the Men

Finally, for the men. I know, because I’m one of you, that it’s difficult to talk about mental health. You’re supposed to embody strength, dominate positions of power, and be the hunter-gatherer (this is what we call grocery shopping in my house). You’re supposed to balance that with being the strong and silent type, whilst showing no weakness. You can’t openly talk about mental health or stress online without a keyboard warrior branding you a ‘triggered snowflake’ and looking your best buddy in the eyes over a nice hot chocolate is just going to be dreadful.

And that’s why you should get outside with your mates. There are no keyboard warriors out there. If you’ve got a Jetboil, you can even keep the hot chocolate. You and your mates can just have a stroll and a chat… sometimes that chat can be about PlayStation games and Netflix, but other times it might give you the opportunity to actually help someone. Men are far more comfortable talking to each other when there’s something else to address. If you sit us facing each other and make us talk, we’ll forget how to use words. Put us in a car, both facing forward, or walking through some terrific scenery and navigating puddles of cow excrement, and it’s an entirely different story.

You could even turn walking into Walking+. The Peak District is renowned as a great place to go wreck hunting. Many aircraft wreck sites dating back to World War II can still be found on remote hillsides and moorlands. With a decent GPS and a bit of outdoors savvy, you can find yourself seeking out Lancaster, Dakota, Sabre, Gladiator, Meteor and Superfortress. All the while, you can start that conversation with your mate with three very simple words: “How’s it going?”

Facts About Mental Health

  • The latest estimates from the Labour Force Survey show the total number of cases of work related stress, depression or anxiety in 2015/16 was 488,000 cases.
  • British firms are losing on average 27.5 days of productive time per employee each year because of sickness, according to a report from Britain’s Healthiest Workplace.
  • Women are more likely than men to report that their stress levels are on the rise.
  • The Centre for Mental Health calculated that presenteeism from mental ill health alone, costs the UK economy £15.1 billion per annum.
  • Mental ill health is responsible for 91 million working days lost and costs £30 billion each year, more than for any other illness.

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Mark