FRA Navigation Course

Weekend 1st to 3rd March 2024

Report by Laura Rangeley

Over the weekend of March 1st-3rd, myself and husband and fellow Strider Jim headed up to Kettlewell in the Yorkshire Dales for a navigation course organised by the Fell Runners Association, and if there’s one thing you probably know about me by now it’s that I love writing about organised fun, so I wasn’t about to let the lack of an actual race put me off penning a race report.

The course ran from Friday evening through to Sunday lunchtime, and was a bargain at £100 (FRA member price) all in. We were based at YHA Kettlewell – I’ve never stayed in a youth hostel before, and was a little apprehensive at the thought of my first dorm room experience, but upon arrival we discovered that Jim and I had been allocated our own room, which was a nice surprise. The itinerary for Friday night was an introduction to map reading and navigational theory, followed by a trip to the pub. Ideal, especially as I’d prepared for the weekend by spending the afternoon working at the excellent Indie Beer Feast before being chauffeured up to the Dales!

After a welcome from the team, we were split into our instructor groups for the weekend – we’d been able to give an indication of our experience level when applying, and were allocated a group of 3-4 students per tutor. I was in the beginners group – before the course, the limit of my experience was owning a compass and knowing it points north, but with no knowledge of how to actually use it. I was afraid of going exploring, with a tendency to follow, completely useless at remembering routes and my tactic for dealing with getting lost was to stand still until somebody found me. So it’s fair to say I was quite nervous going into the weekend. I needn’t have worried. My tutor for the weekend was the absolute fell running legend that is Wendy Dodds – now in her 70s, she’s still running mountain marathons and has decades of experience at the highest level under her belt. Wendy immediately put me at my ease and was incredibly patient with all my anxious queries. The theory session talked us through understanding a map, basic principles behind route choice and how to use a compass to take a bearing. Then it was a quick pint in the Racehorses Hotel round the corner (Timothy Taylor’s Dark Mild for me, Boltmaker for Jim) over a debrief with some of our fellow course attendees before a relatively early night to prepare for the full-on day to come.

Saturday began bright and early, with a 7am 5k social run up Great Whernside (a pretty hardcore Parkrun replacement!). This was optional, but we were both full of enthusiasm and keen to explore the beautiful hills around us. It was a stunning morning, crisp and cold with snow on the tops. 8am was breakfast – an absolutely enormous Full English, plus buffet bar which included homemade yoghurt and fruit compote, delightful! By 9am we were equipped with ALL the layers and a 10/10 packed lunch (also supplied by the hostel – sandwich [I went for ham salad], posh crisps [Tyrells sea salted], piece of fruit, biscuit [Penguin] and a slice of homemade chocolate and banana loaf), ready for a full day out on the fells.

My group covered about 5 miles during the main tuition session, using the compass and map in tandem to gain a greater understanding of the landscape around us. The weather turned after an hour or so, with heavy rain and some substantial wisps of fog adding to the biting wind. I soon learned why Wendy was carrying four pairs of gloves, although the addition of mittens made following the map and taking bearings that bit more challenging! For this reason my group ended up heading back down the fell to a lower level – we were moving slowly in order to learn and concentrate, and it was just too cold on the tops. I think Wendy was a little disappointed not to have been able to take us anywhere more intrepid, and we had to stick mainly to the paths, but for a beginner like myself this actually proved much more useful. By contrast, Jim was in a group with more confidence and experience and covered around 9 miles including some solo work, which helps demonstrate how the course was designed to be of benefit to all regardless of your prior skill level. As the session progressed I found myself being able to look ahead, identify features, and think about how to get to them, and our group took it in turns to work out our next steps. We worked really well as a team and despite the atrocious conditions the time flew by.

After a brief shelter in an abandoned barn to snaffle our sandwiches, it was time for the first test of our newfound skills – a short orienteering style course, where we were all set off at intervals with a different order to find the checkpoints so we wouldn’t be tempted to blindly follow! I really surprised myself by feeling like I genuinely understood the map, identifying features that had been entirely new words to my vocabulary just the day before, such as “re-entrants” and “shake holes”, and I was able to make sensible decisions to complete the route successfully and independently. It might have only been a couple of miles, but just hours before I’d have had absolutely no idea where to begin, so this was a real confidence boost.

On the jog back to the YHA I selected a flat wet slab to cross a stream on and absolutely decked it, fortunately only in front of Jim as it probably was quite funny. Also luckily, I just missed smashing my knee, hitting the less necessary bit of shin underneath along with the bit of the hand under the thumb that looks like a chicken drumstick, which led to days of anticipation wondering what colour it would go next. Kinda like a more painful mood ring. Anyway, with no serious damage done we had a few hours of rest and time to warm up and dry off over an enormous and very delicious dinner (beef stew with a mountain of mash so large we could almost continue our contour line practise, and homemade apple and berry crumble, where they let me have both ice cream AND custard, the dream) before layering back up for the evening session – night navigation!

Again I was incredibly nervous about this, the weather wasn’t great and glasses, headtorches and rain are generally regarded as a triumvirate of woe. But there was no room for excuses and after a pep talk from Wendy I was paired up with the very lovely Katie who made a great teammate for the evening. Despite the full tum and adventurous conditions we got round the 2 mile-ish course with ease, using a combination of pacing, taking bearings and careful map reading, and I felt pretty triumphant as we returned for a bottle of Ilkley Brewery beer in the hostel’s cosy lounge. Shout out to the instructors who hid themselves around the course, spending hours literally laying in ditches in the rain and hiding behind waterfalls to keep an eye on us!

Sunday morning offered another 7am run option covering the same ground as the night nav to see how it looked in the morning light – Jim sprung out of bed to join in but knowledge of the big test to come and a bit of soreness in my bruised leg meant I chose a lie in instead. After another hearty breakfast it was on to our final activity – a 10k self-navigated course on the open fell. This felt like quite a step up from the previous exercises, and we were back on an OS map as opposed to the more straightforward orienteering style ones, but we had time to plot and plan our routes and check our working out before being set off, again at intervals rather than in a pack.

The previous day’s exploring proved really helpful as it meant I was familiar with the first and last section of my chosen route and had some knowledge of how the map translated to the landscape around me, demonstrating how valuable a recce can be for these sorts of events. It was a bonus that the weather was absolutely beautiful with perfect visibility, and having learned the principles in mizzle and fog this also gave me a little more confidence. The first checkpoint was a good mile of solid uphill, including some clambering through a crevice, so it was slow going to start with but gave me ample opportunity to take in the gorgeous scenery. What a privilege it is to be able to spend days like this! I got my compass out at the first checkpoint to confirm my bearing and it promptly fell into three pieces. Fortunately the needle bit was still intact, but it meant I lost the ability to follow a more specific bearing and had to rely a little more on my gut instinct, which would have been no help whatsoever before the course began but surprisingly came into its own as I carried on along my route. As we reached a knoll at the top of the hill the ground was covered in snow and I was grateful for my additional layers despite the relatively short length of the activity. The middle of the course was by far the toughest, on all new terrain with no paths to follow and a checkpoint at the bottom of an incredibly steep descent. I managed to find my way via a combination of contouring (actual contouring! Me!) and the more familiar Laura Rangeley tactic of sitting in the snow and having a little slide down on my bum. After this challenging section I found myself in a small group, but the clueless runner who’d have been thankful to blindly follow was GONE! We were all still actively choosing our own paths, making up our own minds and taking it in turns to set off from checkpoints, but it was reassuring to know that the choices I was making were the same as others. After a few more sheep folds, a waterfall and a lime kiln, I was back on a path I recognised and was able to pick up the pace back to the finish. I’d actually done it!!

I really can’t recommend this course enough for anyone wanting to improve their skills and grow their confidence on the fells, whatever your prior experience. Full details are available here: – if you’re not a member of the FRA, the next course in Elterwater in September is your last chance to bag a place, but membership is £16 and the course is £20 for cheaper for members – now I’m no Martin Lewis, but the maths was enough to convince me to sign up! Separately I’d also hugely recommend the YHA in Kettlewell, it was comfortable, cosy and in an absolutely fantastic location for exploring, plus the couple who run it are simply delightful. A massive thank you to them and to the instructors who all volunteered their weekends to help us develop our skills, especially Wendy who is an enormous inspiration and who I felt really understood what I wanted to get out of the weekend. A truly worthwhile experience, and very good fun to boot.

…And finally, although it wasn’t technically a race, two Striders completed the final solo navigation exercise as follows:

Jim Rangeley 1.18.51 (chosen route 9.7km, with 477m elevation)

Laura Rangeley 1.51.14 (9.6km, 465m elevation)


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