Handrailing – how can it help you?

What is handrailing*? It is following a linear feature, such as a wall, a stream to help you navigate to the point you wish to reach next. It is an ideal skill to learn if you already know the basics of navigation, and want to start venturing out onto more open ground.

The obvious linear features of the Yorkshire Dales are its dry stone walls. Fences too are indicated on an OS map with a black line. Even if the line is broken*, this could still indicate that there is a broken wall on the ground, although take care not to confuse this with parish boundaries (neat and evenly spaced black dots) or the black dashes of a footpath. Also be aware that a newly erected fence might not be on the map at all! You cannot always rely on manmade features when map reading!

*A broken wall could be completely overgrown with moss or grass and still marked on the map as a solid black line.

My family handrailed this ancient (?) wall on a recent walk. Knowing that it would take us to our next known point, we could tuck our map away for a bit, get our apples out and just walk, chat and enjoy the scenery as we went.

So how can you be sure the wall is the right wall, the one that leads you to where you want to go? Well, check it’s direction* – have you got a compass handy to do this? This particular wall ran sort of south west-ish, so we could easily check this quite roughly with a compass. (Bearings – another whole chapter of learning, best done outdoors but south west, well that’s half way between 180˚ and 270˚ ) If the wall had been running east to west, then alarm bells would have rung – wrong wall! Another check you can do, is to look at your wall in relation to other features around you… does it match up? For example, it could be parallel with an edge, a stream, a valley, a road? It might have a kink in it? There might be a sheep fold near it that fits? The slope you’re on might give you a clue too? Is the wall running downhill? Or on the flat? etc.

*What direction does your linear feature lie in?

Ok, so it’s the right wall. How far do you need to follow it for? How long will that take you? What feature will stop you (‘catch you’) so that you can move on to the next leg of your journey? Once you know this, you’re set to handrail the wall. For example, here we needed to handrail the wall for 1.5km, and we knew we generally walk at a speed of 15mins per km on rough ground (it was quite wild here, no path to be seen), a pleasant, easy going pace. So that meant that after around 22 mins, we should be seeing our *catching feature, which in our case, was a hut and a track meeting our wall.

Share your strategy with your walking partner. ‘Don’t let me walk past that hut!’ or ‘Can you time 20 mins for me?’. Get them involved -It’s good back up, and great to share skills too.

Our *catching feature… hut and track.

So what other linear features are good for handrailing? Streams can be useful, although depending on rainfall, there can be more streams in reality than are visible on the map. If in doubt, choose the biggest stream on the ground. That is likely to be the one marked on the map. Look out for stream junctions and tick them off as you go. Check the direction of your stream as you follow it. If it veers off, does that match with the stream you’re following on the map? For more advanced navigation skills try practising handrailing using less obvious features such as contour lines. An altimeter can be useful here. Book a Wolftracks navigation session if you’d like to put handrailing and other skills into practice!

Published by Jo Wulf

Summer Mountain Leader Rock Climbing Instructor Teacher, Linguist Busy Mum Mountain Rescue volunteer

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