Embarking on a journey into the wilderness can be an exhilarating challenge, particularly when you’re applying the principles of contouring to your hiking route. For those unfamiliar, contouring is the navigation strategy where you maintain a consistent altitude by going around a hill, rather than climbing over it.

This method can often conserve energy, but knowing when to apply it requires careful consideration. Drawing from my personal experience and expertise, I’ll delve into the core factors influencing this decision.

The Steepness of the Slope

The slope’s angle is a pivotal factor in the “over or around” decision. If the incline is too steep, it can create an uneven weight distribution, particularly if you’re bearing a heavy load. One leg may end up supporting more weight, potentially leading to knee, ankle, and hip joint stress, and causing instability that may result in a fall.

Moreover, steep slopes often have multiple re-entrants (streams) and spurs (ridges between re-entrants). Navigating these features could result in slippery crossings and steep climbs, using the time and energy you intended to save through contouring.

Terrain Type and Tactics

The nature of the terrain you’re traversing also plays a critical role. Some terrain types, like boulder fields, are better-tackled head-on. Conversely, softer terrains like grassy scrub and moorland are better suited for contouring.

Why the distinction? You can thank sheep for the answer. In open countries, sheep create narrow, walkable paths that are usually flat and free of dense vegetation. These natural trails make contouring the more efficient option.

Navigating Exit Points

Determining where to exit a contour line can be one of the most challenging aspects, particularly under poor visibility. The theory is simple: set your compass to the desired bearing, and when it aligns 90 degrees with the hillside, you’ve reached the exit point. However, in practice, it’s often difficult to execute perfectly, leading to significant cross-track errors.

Some might suggest setting a waypoint on your GPS, but that detracts from the true art of navigation. Instead, count the re-entrants on the map to your exit point, and calculate the remaining linear distance. Then, replicate this distance on the ground using your average step count (for example, 65 double steps per 100m).

For the next stage of your journey, try to keep the ‘leg’ short to establish an exact position using a clear landmark, such as a track junction, bridge, barn, or stream junction.

Weather Considerations

Weather conditions can heavily influence your path choice. High winds around the summit may pose a risk, especially for those carrying large packs. The cold is another factor to consider: lower temperatures, wind chill, snow, and icy conditions might make contouring a preferable option over lugging the additional gear required to tackle extreme weather safely.

Pro Tip for Navigators

Try adding some exit points to your GPS and practice navigating with a map and compass in low visibility. When you think you’ve reached an exit point, cross-check your position with the GPS. This method helps improve your contouring skills and prepare you for various landscape challenges.

Remember, navigation is both an art and a science, and contouring is a valuable tool in any hiker’s repertoire. Understanding contouring and when to use it forms an essential part of your navigation expertise. Navigate wisely, and happy hiking!