Short Legs!

Short legs don’t refer to my legs, it refers to one of the primary navigation techniques that I use. If you are still interested, then read on!

The Mount Snowdon master plan!

The Mount Snowdon master plan!

The above map is the planned route I used for climbing Mount Snowdon. How does one even begin to follow such a complex route when one is on the ground?

Simple.

The answer is to break the route down into very short manageable legs.

Short legs enable one to concentrate on only a small part of the route at a time. So what is a short leg?

The overall defining characteristic of a short leg is that it must be a relatively short part of one’s overall route. Shorter legs mean that one doesn’t have to remember too many details and also helps ensure that if one gets locationally challenged, the overall area of uncertainty will be very small. From here on in I will simply refer to short legs as legs.

Figure 1 below shows the typical composition of a leg:

Fig 1 - A leg break down!

Fig 1 – A leg break down!

The parts of a leg are as follows:

  • Start Point – An easily identifiable starting location. Start points are typically defined when one can get a precise locational fix on the map. This normally happens when one is at an easily identifiable feature. It is pointless defining a start point if one doesn’t precisely know where one is!
  • Route Features – These are features that one will see as one proceeds down the leg. The idea is that one will compile a mental list of features that one is expecting to see as one walks the route. It is then simply a case of ticking off these features as one encounters them. If these features are not seen, then alarm bells should start ringing and one should consider rellocating one’s self using the map.
  • End Point – This should be an obvious feature and the objective for this leg. End points normally become the start points for the next leg once they are reached. When one is walking the route, one is primarily looking out for the end point and should know when it is likely to appear based on the ticked off route features that are identified on-route.
  • Catchment Feature – This is probably one of the most critical parts of a leg. It is essentially one’s safety net and prevents one from walking too far past the end point. Every leg must have one of these. The catchment feature is normally a linear feature that one will end up walking into – even if one gets one’s navigation wrong. Walls, roads, rivers, hanging valleys and forest edges – all make great catchment features.

Legs can be either predefined – as used for compass navigation – or they can be defined on the fly. In the latter case I tend to define them once I get to a recognisable terrain feature that places me precisely on the map.

In some cases, the end point of a leg and the catchment feature can be one and the same as shown in Figure 2:

Fig 2 - An alternate leg break down!

Fig 2 – An alternate leg break down!

These type of legs are the easiest as one cannot help but run into the end point!

When I first started hiking I would tend to identify where I was on the map and that was it! I had to mentally stop myself and force myself to think in terms of a leg. Where is the end point? What am I expecting to see? And what will I run into if I go too far?

Nowadays this is second nature. Every time I get a map fix, I mentally go through the process of creating a leg in my head.

To help reinforce the ideas behind a leg I have provided four examples below. These are real legs that I have used on my walks.

First up is a leg that I used to get to the start of the Watkin Path when I climbed Mount Snowdon in Figure 3 below:

Fig 3 - Getting to the Watkin Path.

Fig 3 – Getting to the Watkin Path.

The leg to the Watkin Path essentially follows two roads. The start point is at the T-Junction of a track and road – so is easily identifiable. This is a low risk leg as one is essentially following two roads.

There are a number of route features that one can use to make sure one is headed the right way. These include a bridge over a river, a T-Junction with a main road (hang a right here) and the main road itself with buildings on the left.

The biggest risk on this leg is overshooting the turn off to the Watkin path. To help prevent this, a catchment feature is defined, which in this case is a bridge over a river. This means that if I find myself on a bridge once I’m on the main road, I have gone too far and must turn around.

Catchment features like these provide peace of mind that one will never walk too far from the planned end point.

Here are some photos from this leg – use these in conjunction with the map above to see how legs work.

The start point for the leg to the Watkin Path is a T-Junction at a road. Again an easily identifiable feature.

The start point for the leg to the Watkin Path is a T-Junction at a road. Again an easily identifiable feature.

The route features here are the road that we are on and a bridge crossing a River.

The route features here are the road that we are on and a bridge crossing a River.

As I get on to the bridge, the main obvious feature is the River!

As I get on to the bridge, the main obvious feature is the River!

We are now following the main road North by North East. Again the main features are the road itself - which we are following - and the buildings on the left. As I proceed down this road I'm continually thinking about the catchment feature which in this case is a bridge crossing a river. So if I find myself on a bridge, I know I have gone too far and should turn around!

We are now following the main road North by North East. Again the main features are the road itself – which we are following – and the buildings on the left. As I proceed down this road I’m continually thinking about the catchment feature which in this case is a bridge crossing a river. So if I find myself on a bridge, I know I have gone too far and should turn around!

The end point is in sight! The start to the Watkin Path as pointed out by the sign. If I had missed this and carried on walking I would have reached the obvious catchment feature which is a bridge running over a river. The other clue here would have been the fact that the road is starting to curve to the right - another sign that I have gone too far, if I should reach it!

The end point is in sight! The start to the Watkin Path as pointed out by the sign. If I had missed this and carried on walking I would have reached the obvious catchment feature which is a bridge running over a river. The other clue here would have been the fact that the road is starting to curve to the right – another sign that I have gone too far, if I should reach it!

The next example leg is one where the end point is also the catchment feature.

This is a leg that I used whilst following the Miners’ Track to its end on my Snowdon trip. See figure 4 below:

Fig 4 – The last leg of the Miners’ Track from the Mount Snowdon climb.

Fig 4 – The last leg of the Miners’ Track from the Mount Snowdon climb.

Again, this is a low risk leg because one is essentially following a well defined track. As an added bonus, the catchment feature is the end point, so that it is practically impossible not to realise when one is at the end point!

In this case the end point is a car park and main road – both of which would be hard to avoid.

Note, that despite the fact that I am simply following a track, I still create a leg for it. Legs help provide confidence that one is where one thinks one is!

Here are the photos from that leg – again compare the photos with the map in figure 3 to help visualise the leg.

The two main route features here are the rather obvious path(!) and the pipeline to the right - both as marked on the map!

The two main route features here are the rather obvious path(!) and the pipeline to the right – both as marked on the map!

There are many route features here. There is the track, plus its direction. There is also the Llyn Teyra lake and the general shape of the hills - high to the left, low to the right.

There are many route features here. There is the track, plus its direction. There is also the Llyn Teyra lake and the general shape of the hills – high to the left, low to the right.

This leg has a combined end point and catchment feature. In this case it is the main road at Pen-y-pass. This catchment feature also features a car park. So in theory one just keeps following the trail until one reaches the car park and main road. In addition to the catchment features, there are many route features which can be used to confirm that one is in the right place! The main feature being the distinctive shape of the main road and the trail below it.

This leg has a combined end point and catchment feature. In this case it is the main road at Pen-y-pass. This catchment feature also features a car park. So in theory one just keeps following the trail until one reaches the car park and main road. In addition to the catchment features, there are many route features which can be used to confirm that one is in the right place! The main feature being the distinctive shape of the main road and the trail below it.

The next example is a little more subtle. There is no easily defined trail – unlike what the map shows – and the end point is a contour feature – in this case a hill draw. See Figure 5 below:

Fig 5 - A more subtle application of the leg methodology.

Fig 5 – A more subtle application of the leg methodology.

One thing that I haven’t really mentioned up until now are contours. Practically every leg is affected by contours. They define the topology of the current leg.

Unlike other features, contours rarely change over time – so they make excellent route features and can be used to confirm one’s position even where other more transitory features have disappeared!

In many respects, contours are the most important markings on the map, despite the fact that they are often overlooked!

The end point of this leg is a draw – it is solely defined by the contours on the map. In some respects it is also a catchment feature as one cannot really miss it. However, in this case I defined several additional catchment features to provide an additional safety net.

Here are some photos from this leg:

This is the start point for this leg on the way to Mount Snowdon. The start point is identifiable as a stream at the end of Llyn yr Adar. It is easy to get to the start point from here, all one has to do is follow the lake edge. This lake is also very easily identifiable by the island that it has!

This is the start point for this leg on the way to Mount Snowdon. The start point is identifiable as a stream at the end of Llyn yr Adar. It is easy to get to the start point from here, all one has to do is follow the lake edge. This lake is also very easily identifiable by the island that it has!

At this point of the leg, the trail seems to have disappeared. However, there are no worries! The slight uphill walk and the steep elevation change from left to right, with the right hand side being high and the left being low are standard clues that one can correlate with the map. In addition one can also check one's direction of travel using a compass!

At this point of the leg, the trail seems to have disappeared. However, there are no worries! The slight uphill walk and the steep elevation change from left to right, with the right hand side being high and the left being low are standard clues that one can correlate with the map. In addition one can also check one’s direction of travel using a compass!

This is a major on-route feature. In this case Llyn Llagi. It is easily identified as such by its shape and the wall structure running off it. One could even take a compass bearing off the lake to determine where one is on the current route - if required.

This is a major on-route feature. In this case Llyn Llagi. It is easily identified as such by its shape and the wall structure running off it. One could even take a compass bearing off the lake to determine where one is on the current route – if required.

The end point is in sight! The main feature of the end point is the shape of the land - a hill draw. The end point would be at the bottom of this draw. The other feature of this end point, though not very visible here, is a track which follows the draw downward. The additional route features of two walls help confirm position. The catchment features indicating that I have gone too far are a climb after reaching the bottom of the draw, a small lake - which can be seen in the distance - that is then followed by a descent. If I had run into any of these more subtle catchment features, I would have known that I had gone too far!

The end point is in sight! The main feature of the end point is the shape of the land – a hill draw. The end point would be at the bottom of this draw. The other feature of this end point, though not very visible here, is a track which follows the draw downward. The additional route features of two walls help confirm position. The catchment features indicating that I have gone too far are a climb after reaching the bottom of the draw, a small lake – which can be seen in the distance – that is then followed by a descent. If I had run into any of these more subtle catchment features, I would have known that I had gone too far!

The last example is the most subtle in terms of navigation. It is a leg on the desolate moorland on Dartmoor. I used this particular leg on my North Dartmoor walk in May 2013.

Figure 6 shows the map of this particular leg:

Fig 6 - Compass only navigation on Dartmoor.

Fig 6 – Compass only navigation on Dartmoor.

There are no trails to follow on this leg, so a compass must be used to define the direction of travel.

This type of leg navigation primarily relies on contours to work out where one is. There are other features, but as can be seen on the map, these are far and few between.

One defining feature of this route Southward is that it is surrounded by steeper descents on three sides. I know that the end point of Dinger Tor will be reached before any of the steeper descents are reached.

So if I find myself suddenly descending, I have either overshot Dinger Tor or I have found myself headed in the wrong direction. The latter can be prevented by using the compass.

Although the contour shapes make a good catchment feature – if the slope steepens I have gone too far – I also wanted a more substantial catchment feature defined. In this case I selected a stream to the South East.

This stream is long enough that if I miss Dinger Tor and fail to notice the steepening descent, I would end up at the stream, even if I was off track by a few degrees – the perfect catchment feature!

Once again, here are the photos which should be used in conjunction with figure 6 above:

The start point in this case is the most southerly part of High Willhays Tor. Note, that as with most start points, it is easily identifiable.

The start point in this case is the most southerly part of High Willhays Tor. Note, that as with most start points, it is easily identifiable.

There are no trails to follow for this leg. So we create an artificial route feature, which in this case is a compass bearing of 152 degrees. The only other feature visible here is the slight incline downward - this matches up with our expectations based on the map contours.

There are no trails to follow for this leg. So we create an artificial route feature, which in this case is a compass bearing of 152 degrees. The only other feature visible here is the slight incline downward – this matches up with our expectations based on the map contours.

Dartmoor requires more subtle observation skills. At this point the only feature we have to go on is the slight slope of the land. The map shows that the area of this leg is constrained on three sides by steepening hills. So if we notice that we are suddenly going down hill we have effectively gone too far!

Dartmoor requires more subtle observation skills. At this point the only feature we have to go on is the slight slope of the land. The map shows that the area of this leg is constrained on three sides by steepening hills. So if we notice that we are suddenly going down hill we have effectively gone too far!

This is a photo of 'B Rock' as marked on the map. This is a great navigation aid as one can take a bearing off of it which when crossed against our planned route should provide a rough position. Other features are the stream in the distance, plus the sudden drop off as the hill steepens downward.

This is a photo of ‘B Rock’ as marked on the map. This is a great navigation aid as one can take a bearing off of it which when crossed against our planned route should provide a rough position. Other features are the stream in the distance, plus the sudden drop off as the hill steepens downward.

At this point one can see the end point - Dinger Tor. Again, the only real route feature here is the slightly downward slope of the land. Ahead one can also see a clue in the form of trampled grass - someone has been here before! Not all trampled grass will take you the right way, so make sure you take a compass bearing on it or at least visually verify that it is headed in the right direction!

At this point one can see the end point – Dinger Tor. Again, the only real route feature here is the slightly downward slope of the land. Ahead one can also see a clue in the form of trampled grass – someone has been here before! Not all trampled grass will take you the right way, so make sure you take a compass bearing on it or at least visually verify that it is headed in the right direction!

Here I have reached the end point - Dinger Tor. This is further confirmed by the track route feature. In the distance the catchment feature would have initially been the steeper downward slope, followed by running into a stream - both of which would have alerted me that I had gone too far!

Here I have reached the end point – Dinger Tor. This is further confirmed by the track route feature. In the distance the catchment feature would have initially been the steeper downward slope, followed by running into a stream – both of which would have alerted me that I had gone too far!

Hopefully these examples will prove useful and get readers into the habit of not just working out where they are, but also to think in terms of where do I need to go?, what will I see?, how will I know that I have gone too far?

By thinking in the above terms, it will provide one with confidence and reassurance that one is headed in the right direction on one’s route!

Laters
RobP

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About RobP

Got into backpacking in the spring of 2012. I started as a couch potato then made my way through walker, hiker and now backpacker! As you can see from below I have far too many hobbies! :)
This entry was posted in Backpacking, Hiking, Navigation and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Short Legs!

  1. Kevin Riner says:

    Reblogged this on Faith Deblistered and commented:
    Great blog on shortening long distances into smaller legs to make a long trip more manageable. Start Point, Route Features, End Point, and Catchment Feature.

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