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 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?
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:
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:
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:
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 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:
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 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:
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:
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:
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:
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!