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Monday, August 26, 2013

Walking with a sat nav

Traditional walkers who favour big leather boots and hairy socks still seem to look down on satellite navigation for walkers. Yet bit by bit the practical value of these remarkable products of the electronic age are creeping up on us.

So I recently bought one.

My gadget, from Satmap, isn’t quite the same as a sat nav designed for cars in that it knows nothing of footpaths and how to walk from A to B without getting lost. Instead it has a GPS location map linked to another map such as a digital version of a standard OS map. So basically, the thing is an electronic map which records your route and shows your current position. It does far more of course, but that’s the pared down nuts and bolts of the thing.

In fact there are numerous extras such as a compass, altimeter and facilities for geotagging photos, not all of which I’m likely to use, but modern gadgets are prone to include a host of unwanted frills and I'm used to ignoring the bits I don’t find useful.

My wife and I originally saw the capabilities of these devices while walking the Cumbria Way with a small band of pensioners from our local Ramblers group.

The Cumbria Way is a lovely walk and not at all difficult for reasonably fit walkers. Our route covered eighty five miles in six day. Even though it is a reasonably well marked national route there were quite a few occasions when our leader found his sat nav very useful, in spite of being an experienced walker leading a group of experienced walkers.

For me, the sat nav has three main advantages over a paper map. 
  • I am able to record walks such as those organised by my local Ramblers Association.
  • A large number of walks can be downloaded from a variety of internet sources.
  • I know where we are when the path is unclear. 
As an example of the last point, we recently found ourselves unsure of the right path while walking in Somerset. Apparently confronted with two paths skirting a large field of wheat, our book of local walks said to take the right hand path. Fair enough – off we went.

However, the sat nav soon showed that we were deviating from the OS footpath, so we retraced our steps and soon discovered a signpost to a third path buried in the hedge. Maybe this meant the middle path was the right hand path referred to in our guide?

Wrong again according to the sat nav.

In the end it became obvious that the OS path went straight through the field of wheat but walkers simply skirted the field and rejoined the official path on the other side. The sat nav showed that this was indeed the right conclusion.

Okay – it would have been easy enough to work this out with a paper map, but the sat nav showed us we were going wrong after about fifty feet or so – no messing about looking for landmarks and no need to dig out the compass. Once we’d reached to other side of the wheat field, it also confirmed that we were back on the right path.

Even so, I don’t use the thing without a paper map unless the walk is one I’m familiar with, but the sat nav comes out far more often than the paper map these days.

An additional benefit is that it records miles walked, average speed, time spent actually walking and total ascents.

The last one is a little misleading, because a recorded total ascent of say 2000 feet does not necessarily imply a stiff climb or two. Instead it is the sum total of all the undulations of the whole walk which may have been somewhat less strenuous than a figure of 2000 feet appears to suggest.

In the end, the gadget is a digital map, a GPS system, a route recording system and access to a library of walks on the internet - all neatly packaged in one device. It makes walking life easier and I think a little more enjoyable.

Will these gadgets get more people walking though? Maybe - they do work rather well.

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