Police Urge Hikers To Learn Orienteering Instead Of Relying On Smartphones

orienteeringPolice in northern Scotland have issued a call for hikers to learn orienteering rather than relying on their smartphones for navigation, the BBC reports.

Grampian Police have had to lead four separate groups to safety in the past week. The latest rescue included the use of mountain rescue teams and a Royal Navy helicopter to retrieve 14 hikers. The hikers were in the Cairngorms, a rugged mountain range with some of the UK’s tallest peaks.

Police said that the growing use of smartphone apps for navigation can lead to trouble. People are relying too much on technology without actually understanding the world around them. Police then have to rescue them at taxpayer expense.

Hiking with an app sounds to me like the antithesis of hiking. Basic orienteering with a map and compass is not difficult to learn. I’ve been teaching my 6-year-old and his brain hasn’t melted. Not only do a map and compass not have to rely on getting a signal, but they help you understand the land better and give you a feel for your natural surroundings.

So please folks, if you’re going out into nature, actually interact with it!

Abu Dhabi Adventure Challenge underway

Abu Dhabi Adventure ChallengeThe fourth annual Abu Dhabi Adventure Challenge is underway in the United Arab Emirtates. The six-day long, stage based, adventure race pits coed teams of four against one another as they compete on foot, mountain bike, and kayak across a course designed to test their endurance, smarts, and navigational skills.

The race actually got underway on Friday with 50 teams setting out on the first of four stages that are spread out over the course of the six day event. The first two stages were just a warm-up for today however, as the teams are currently taking on a desert stage that combines a 58 mile mountain bike leg and a 75 mile trek that requires them to navigate their way through a sea of endless sand dunes in the dead of night. Tuesday marks the start of the final stage, which will involve more than 80 miles of sea kayaking.

As of this writing, the three-time defending champions, New Zealand’s Thule Adventure Team, is in the lead once again, but with three more days of racing to go, the championship is still up for grabs. The winners of the race receive $40,000 in prize money and bragging rights for another year.

Over the past four years, the ADAC has been the final race of the season for adventure racing teams across the globe. This year is no exception with the event rounding out a busy year for the sport, which has suffered a bit with economic conditions over the past few years. 2011 is shaping up to be an excellent year for adventure racing however, and these amazing endurance athletes will have plenty of opportunities to compete in some of the most remote and spectacular settings on the planet.

[Photo credit: Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority]

Hiking the East Highland Way–the practicalities


Hiking a brand-new trail has both advantages and challenges. The main plus to hiking the East Highland Way was that I had the trail all to myself. I never did meet that mysterious German who was a day ahead of me, and I met nobody else doing the trail. Hotel owners along the route do report a steady trickle of hikers, and that trickle will only increase. In the short term, however, you will get some peace and quiet on this hike. Another advantage is that you get to feel like a trailblazer, helping out with a work in progress.

Some challenges are apparent from the beginning. While the route already has a website and a Facebook page, there’s no guidebook. The East Highland Way guidebook is due out in a month or so and in the meantime author Kevin Langan can offer helpful advice. Check the website for contact information.

Accommodation requires some planning. If you want a roof over your head at night instead of a tent, your options are limited. Most villages only have one or two places to stay so you need to book well in advance to ensure you have a room. Do not simply walk into a tiny Scottish village in the hopes of getting a room that night. Chances are you won’t, and you might have a long walk before getting to your next chance for a bed. Luckily all of the places I stayed on the route were friendly, helpful, and good value for money. Some, like Tulloch Station, require you to reserve meals ahead of time. All are accustomed to serving hikers as a major part of their business and have useful amenities like drying rooms for soggy gear and information about local trails. Many sell hearty packed lunches, which again need to be reserved in advance.As I commented in a couple of previous posts, the trail is having a bit of a teething problem in that a few short stretches have no trail at all and one is forced to walk along rural roads with no shoulder. This situation is be potentially hazardous and will hopefully be solved in due course. I tended to walk along the grassy side of the road, an awkward way to move but at least it kept me safe from the cars.

While there are some pitfalls to this new route, I don’t hesitate to recommend it. The East Highland Way passes through some beautiful and remote countryside and isn’t crowded like some of the more popular routes like the West Highland Way.

Like with all Scottish hikes it is essential to pack clothes for all conditions. The weather can change from hot and sunny to freezing rain, and everything in between, in the course of a single day. Sturdy, waterproof boots are also a must. A couple of days I needed sunscreen! Getting sunburned and soaked in the same afternoon is a very real possibility in the Highlands. Other essentials are the Ordnance Survey maps numbers 41, 42, and 35. In addition to covering the entire route, these finely detailed maps enrich any hike by pointing out spots of historical importance. Don’t rely on them too closely, however. As I discovered on my final day, the OS maps can be a bit out of date. The guidebook will include sections of these maps with the route clearly marked. Also, a good compass and a sound knowledge of orienteering is essential for any long-distance hiker. Forget the GPS. That’s for wimps!

So if you’re looking for some solitude and scenery in the Highlands, give the East Highland Way a try. With sufficient preparation, you’ll have a great time.

Check out the rest of my series on the East Highland Way!

The East Highland Way day six: strange sculptures and cursed castles


It’s the last day of my hike along the East Highland Way and the trail has given me a special wake-up treat, namely this view of Loch Insh in the early morning. I love this photo because it captures the most alluring aspect of Scottish lochs–the way their placid waters reflect and soften the light. Lochs are the magic mirrors of the Highlands, capturing the surrounding trees and hills and turning them into something ethereal.

Like all the villages I’ve stayed in, Kincraig vanishes within minutes of me setting out. I’m soon back in the countryside. Well, almost. First I have to negotiate a farmer’s field made squishy from yesterday’s rain and then stop to admire the Frank Bruce Sculpture Trail. This local artist, who sadly died last year, carved eerie human images out of trees. He left much of the tree in its original shape, so it looks like the people are growing naturally out of the wood. Sorrowful faces, giant hands, and struggling bodies rise out of the ground between living trees in a quiet woodland. It feels like I’m in the middle of a forest in which some of the trees have suddenly come to life. Bruce’s work is social commentary too. A grieving Third World mother holds her starving baby in front of some fat rich men, while nearby two patriots are locked in a life-or-death struggle.

It’s effective and more than a little creepy. The images stay in my mind until something more troubling occupies my thoughts. The route is taking me through an undulating, forested valley between several hills. Trails crisscross the area and I have to be careful to take the correct one. Soon I run into trouble. I come across a paved road where none appears on the map. I know I’m on the right spot judging from the relative position of the surrounding hills, so this road is a bit of a mystery. Next a few houses appear, also not on the map. For the past five days the Ordnance Survey maps have been meticulously accurate, yet now they show glaring lapses. The explanation is simple–this particular section hasn’t been fully updated since 1998. I was aware of this beforehand, but what could I do? The land has changed drastically. New trails are everywhere, curving away out of sight into the woods going who-knows-where.

%Gallery-100361%Time for a compass reading. I know where I’m headed–a small loch called Loch Gamhna and a bigger one just north of it called Loch an Eilein. From there I head pretty much due north to Aviemore, the final stop on the East Highland Way. Studying the topography (with the reasonable assumption that the shape of the hills hasn’t changed!) I see my route will take me through the gap between two hills ENE of my position. If I follow my compass reading I can get there even if the hills are out of view behind trees.

Just as I finish my reading a middle-aged man appears along the trail with his young daughter.

“Are you lost?” he asks.

“No, thanks. I just needed to take a reading because these maps are outdated.”

“Well,” he says in a haughty voice, “You should spend a little extra for the most up-to-date version.”

“I did, but–“

“Nature is a work in progress, you know,” he interrupts.

“Yeah. I was wondering which of these new trails can take me to–“

“Don’t you have a compass?”

It’s still in my hand. I hold it up.

“I’ve taken a reading, what I’m wondering is–“

“If you’re having trouble reading it I’ll check my GPS for you.”

“Never mind, have a nice day,” I say as I turn and leave.

It’s obvious this guy isn’t going to be any help. He’s playing a game of one-upmanship to impress me and his little girl. She doesn’t look impressed, only bored. I know how she feels.

So off I go following my compass readings. Now and then I get glimpses of the two hills I’m shooting for and I see I’m on track. It would be nice to have confidence in the trail I’m on, though. So far it’s been heading in the right direction, but if it veers off on another course I’ll have to slog through the woods. As I’m taking another reading an elderly man on a mountain bike appears. His face looks about seventy but his body appears half that age.

“Do you need any help?” he asks as he pulls up beside me.

“I’m headed to Loch Gamhna. I’ve taken a reading so I know where I’m going but I was wondering if this trail actually leads there.”

I feel grateful he lets me finish my sentence, unlike the previous guy.

“Yes, the OS maps are all wrong for this area nowadays. I’ve spent many an hour lost around here. If you follow this trail for another mile you’ll come to a cairn at a fork on the trail. Take the righthand path downhill and over a stream. Keep following it and you’ll get there. I see the route on your map has you going on the eastern shore of Loch an Eilein. I suggest following the western shore. There’s a good trail and you’ll get a better view of the castle.”

I thank him and he pedals off. That’s how people should treat one another out in the wilderness. Helpful and no attitude. The first guy was useless. If I had truly been lost, Mr. Superiority could have been downright dangerous.

I follow my friend’s directions and they’re right on target. Over the river and through the woods to Loch Gamhna I go. It’s a marshy little loch with tall grass growing in its shallows. The stalks wave in the increasing wind. Just past it is the large Loch an Eilein. As it comes into view its sparkling waters turn dull. The sky has clouded over. Great gray clouds swoop in from the north. I take the mountainbiker’s advice and head along the western shore to a spot across from a small island. Taking up almost the entire island is a low castle built in the 14th century by Alexander Stewart, the infamous Wolf of Badenoch.

During the Middle Ages he was the terror of Scotland, ruthlessly destroying the opposition in order to assert his authority over much of the Highlands. When the Church opposed him, he even sacked the cathedral at Elgin. This devil in armor is said to still haunt his island stronghold. A local woman tells me that as a child she used to row out to the castle with her family and it always felt uncomfortable there. Someone else tells me the castle gives off a strange echo. I try it, standing directly opposite the gate and giving a short, sharp shout. The shout comes back to me a second later, too slow for it to have bounced off the castle. It must have bounced off the opposite shore, but it sounds like it’s coming from within the battlements. Even stranger, the echo sounds louder than my original shout. I shout again and the echo comes back even louder.

Just then the sky opens up in a torrential downpour. I’ve woken the Wolf of Badenoch in his lair and he’s seriously pissed! I hurriedly don my rain gear and slosh on to Aviemore.

And there my hike ends, at a friendly little village at the heart of Scotland’s hiking culture. People with backpacks are everywhere, converging on this spot from a dozen different trails. Yet I have seen none of them on Scotland’s newest trail–the East Highland Way.

I always feel a tug of regret when finishing a good hike, especially one that has given me six days of serene nature, historic wonders, and insights into my own past. I enjoyed it even more than last year’s journey along the Hadrian’s Wall Path. I always treat myself to a long-distance hike around my birthday to cheer myself up, and when I turn 42 (ugh!) next year you can bet I’ll be back in the Scottish Highlands.

Coming up next: Hiking the East Highland Way, the practicalities.

Don’t miss the rest of my series on the East Highland Way!

Outdoor ‘treasure hunt’ puts $40k worth of gear up for grabs

Nationally syndicated columnist Stephen Regenold, best know by his pseudonym, The Gear Junkie, is hosting a scavenger hunt this July, and 300 lucky participants are going to get the chance to win some very cool outdoor gear in the process.

The first ever Gear Junkie Treasure Hunt is scheduled to take place on July 11th in Roanoke, Virginia, and will mix outdoor fun and adventure with the opportunity to go home with new gear from the likes of Sierra Designs, Deuter Packs, Brooks Range, and many more. But in order to earn that gear, participants will first have to compete in an open wilderness orienteering competition that will see them navigating their way through Explore Park, a wooded playground not far from Roanoke.

The rules of the competition are simple. At the start of the event, competitors will be given a map that will be marked with the location of flags that have been planted around the park. They’ll then have two hours to find as many of those flags as possible, earning one point for every flag they discover. At the end of the competition, they’ll be able to redeem those points for gear.

With more than $40,000 worth of swag up for grabs, the Treasure Hunt is sure to offer fun and fierce competition for all involved. Entry is limited to the first 300 who apply, and pay the $25 registration fee, so you may want to sign up as soon as possible to ensure your chance to compete. The registration page can be found by clicking here, and if you would like more information about the event, click here.