Navigating using Apps and GPS


I once did a math calculation in my head, a simple multiplication, I was faster with the answer than all the young people around me who were firing up their apps. One looked at me amazed and asked how on earth had I done that. Well, I spent my early years learning my times tables and that stuff never leaves you. Another didn’t bother doing the calculation because she didn’t have an app on her phone and anyway someone else would have the answer.

Recently on social media there has been lots of posting about using Ordnance Survey’s phone app for navigating in difficult weather conditions or when the user was not sure where they were. It’s a good app, I have OS Maps on all my devices, iphone, ipad, Macbook. I use the app on my Mac to reproduce routes to 1:50k scale for my guidebooks. The ipad is good for sitting in bed and exploring new routes without spreading out my 1:25k map, it sort of keeps Alison awake if I do that. I put the map on my phone because I could, it is rare that I use it and to be honest its just taking up space.

What has intrigued me about the different postings and threads is that they all seem to default to the use of apps when the going gets tough, bad weather appears to be the most common reason, getting lost a close second. And there is nothing wrong in that. But what would the person have done if the phone had not worked and why is the app now the default for getting out of a sticky situation?

I was taught that the easiest way to know where you are, is, to know where you are. And that means having the map to hand and following your route, ticking off features, tracking distances and timings, knowing what is ahead and around. That way I knew where I was at all times.

The use of technology is great, if it gets people out exploring then that is a good thing. What I detect now is a growing reliance on technology and a disconnection with map, compass and the landscape. The map and compass are now somewhere in the rucksack. The app has become a shortcut to navigation. The problem is that using a phone or an app or a device removes so much from the skill base to my mind. When I look at a map I look at a far wider area than my walk route. I see the little nooks and crannies that look so interesting its worth exploring them. Little bits of information on the map draw my eye and I build up a picture of the terrain, it’s an exciting thing to do. And I carry that information in my head and use it on the walk along with the map.

Using a map and compass is a hill craft that is a part of a much wider range of skills, how to move over difficult ground, what to take on a walk, how to plan a route that does not lead to exhaustion, escape routes when things don’t go to plan etc.

In truth, it’s not necessary to use a compass in good visibility, all the information is on the map. Compass comes into its own in bad visibility when used in conjunction with a map. Or, and here is a confession, checking which way to go after walking to Ben Macdui, having lunch, relaxing, moving around and then setting off back in the wrong direction. Thankfully saved by a mate who had switched his brain on. They say the hardest part of any walk is always getting out of the car park in the right direction and often it’s true.

Using technology is good, but relying on it is not so good. And that is what I am seeing more and more of. Recently on social media and in the press there have been several reports of people having to be rescued by Mountain Rescue teams because they were reliant on an app. Along with battery failure there is often an inability to cope with the terrain and to be poorly attired for a day on the hill.

What now seems to be happening is a transfer of responsibility to technology and when that fails a transfer of responsibility to other humans. Isn’t it much better to have the skills to navigate out on the hill using a map and compass? Use the app if you want, but don’t make it the default device. Don’t be reliant on technology.

My best time out on the hill navigating was doing my triennial MR navigation assessment in visibility of no more than three metres on Saddleworth Moor at night in winter. Five check points spread across 8 square kilometres each one a 25cm stick painted brown stuck into a peat grough, 2 hours to complete using only map and compass.


If you want to learn navigations skills using a map and compass these two outdoor professionals will be able to teach you.

Everyday Adventures 

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OS Triangulation Points

In the 1700’s the first baseline for triangulation was measure on Hounslow Heath. It first used wooden then iron and finally glass rods for better accuracy to measure the baseline of the first triangle. Subsequent triangulations formed new baselines, then in 1936 a whole new system of triangulation was developed by Ordnance Survey along with a whole new set of markers on the ground for the triangulation points.

The last triangulation of Britain took place between 1935 and 1962 with the now familiar triangulation pillar being used for the first time. Along with the pillars there were several other types of markers employed for the survey points.

Buildings were often used, especially ones which would not probably be pulled down in the future, churches were a favourite, Bakewell was one, as was the Hunting Tower and its flagstaff on the Chatsworth estate.

Fundamental Benchmarks were the cornerstone of the whole system, these were protected by iron fencing. The FBM as they were known were seated on bedrock and were used as definitive levelling points as the one on the Mortimer Road on Broomhead Moor.

Surface Blocks like the one at Hollingworth Head, there is also one near Big Moor formed part of the triangulation measurements. They lie close to the surface but are hard to find as they are often covered with grass. Even harder to find are Surface Bolts such as the Laddow Rocks one. It is amazing that a small bolt has survived all this time.

And sometimes a triangulation point just isn’t one. This is the case of the Hey Edge Pillar which is marked on the map as a Pillar, but does not have the blue triangle on the map. That is because whilst it was built it was never used for triangulation. It was used for levelling, but as I have said that is a totally different set of measurements. Hence it does not qualify as a trig point to Ordnance Survey.

Nowadays with GPS triangulation by hand is no longer required and the Ordnance Survey network of triangulation points is falling in to disuse, apart from a few that is. The Triangulation Pillar at Harland South forms part of the Global Positioning System network, as does the Fundamental Benchmark on Broomhead Moor.  So even though GPS is now the dominant measuring system for position, it still relies on spots on the ground for accuracy.

Triangulation Points

I like collecting things. Triangulation points are a favourite along with benchmarks that can be found along a walk or near to one.

There is something very satisfying about reaching a trig pillar, partly I guess because they invariably involve a walk up hill and a reward of sweeping views, weather permitting. There are 84 pillars within the Peak District National Park boundary and many more triangulation points and thousands more benchmarks.

Some are not shown on maps with the traditional blue triangle, the one at Hey Edge for instance, built but never used for triangulation, but was used for levelling, so does it not qualify for the blue triangle.

Some triangulation points are not even pillars. One of my walks takes in the Hunting Tower on the Chatsworth Estate, the triangulation point being the flagstaff. Another is the centre of the spire of All Saints Church in Bakewell.

With the advent of GPS the triangulation pillar network became largely redundant, but a few still do have a purpose. The pillar at Harland South, levelling bracket number 2998 is part of the Global Positioning Network and as such is protected by Ordnance Survey. A plate informs the visitor that any damage should be reported to the phone number.

Triangulation points always come in a minimum of three so a favoured walk of mine takes in the Hunting Tower at Chatsworth, the pillar at Birchen Edge along with the Three Ships and the pillar at Harland South, passing Hobs House, one of the first ancient monuments to have legal protection in the UK, on the way. Two pillars, one part of the Global Positioning System and one flagstaff on a hunting tower. Not bad for a day out.

Ordnance Survey Benchmarks

Benchmark at Moscar SK 2305 8759

This is a levelling benchmark placed and used by Ordnance Survey. Its location is SK 2305 8759 at Moscar on the footpath from the A57 towards Stanage. The mark was made in 1961, is of the third order of surveying and is 600mm above ground level. Its datum is Newlyn. Originally the mark and boulder were on the west of the footpath but time and boots have now placed it east of the path.

There are some 500,000 benchmarks on the UK mainland, most no longer in use. They identify the height at a given point. The base line is the tidal measuring station at Newlyn in Cornwall, that is the point where all height measurements are taken from, including the 190 Fundamental Benchmarks which were the first order and therefore the most accurate, set in chambers deep underground on bedrock , these benchmarks are still in use today by the Global Positioning System for calculating the accuracy of the height calculation.

SK 24532 94653 Broomhead Moor Fundemental Benchmark TP0526 Chamber
SK 24532 94653 Broomhead Moor Fundamental Benchmark TP0526 Chamber