THE BLOG
27/09/2015 16:19 BST | Updated 27/09/2016 06:12 BST

Where Would We Be Without Maps?

There are many reasons to be proud to be British; Wimbledon, the Cornish pasty, the North face of Ben Nevis and Cuillen ridge, music, comedy, the basking shark and the NHS spring to mind. There are many other reasons why we are a strange and befuddling race; our obsession with the weather (while still being surprised when it rains), black pudding, our ability to go out in board shorts on the first spring day and cricket being just the tip of the iceberg. However, there are few things left that we still do better than anywhere in the world. Broadcast media is one. Mapping is another.

2015-09-25-1443172293-9897839-DSC_552369.jpg

Photo Copyright: Ordnance Survey

I find maps intoxicating. My house is full of dusty sheet maps, sailing almanacs (and I don't even sail), atlases, tourist maps and diagrams that have been sketched on napkins and I dare not discard. Maps are to me the constant, bewitching possibility of exploration. They are the places I have never been, the wild spaces I have never seen, the intoxicating promise of adventures untold. First thing I do when I'm planning an expedition is buy a shedload of maps. Even today, I still feel the same thrill of excitement when I see a good one, and find vacant chunks on it without roads or settlements. When I started out in the field of adventure (I am not pretentious enough to say exploration!) there were still maps of my destinations with huge blank white spaces bearing the legend; 'relief data incomplete'. I can remember the thrill even now.

The skill of map-reading has saved my life. Not in the modern use of the phrase ('Ocado's new home delivery app has literally saved my life darling') but in the old-fashioned way, that I would have died without it. I have navigated open ocean in my sea kayak on nothing more than a bearing and a prayer, teetered around vertical cliff faces in white outs, and avoided crevasse fields in the deep blue alpine half light from the legends on a chewed up chart. A map will never let you down. A map never runs out of batteries or 3G signal. A map doesn't break (though it may eventually turn to mush on a lashing Scottish Sunday - I get the laminated versions now). Of course I have also been lost. Many times. But it has always been my fault; my own failure to obey the simple rules any outdoorsman should know. Over-reliance on modern technology when you're in the hills kills. The paper map rules.

2015-09-25-1443172341-140594-DSC_003154.jpg

Photo Copyright: Ordnance Survey

When I was recently asked to become an ambassador for Ordnance Survey's Get Outside campaign, I literally leapt. Ordnance Survey (OS) has been such a vast part of my past and present, and is something that every Brit should be bursting with pride about. OS have mapped every fragment of our sceptred isle, in a way few other nations could ever hope to emulate. Just to pick up that orange booklet throws me back to childhood yomps up Snowdonian peaks, and to more recent highlands battles in conditions more extreme than you'd expect in our tame little nation, and adventures too numerous to mention here. As part of my role, I recorded a bunch of YouTube videos giving a basic introduction into how to use a map and compass. Once you've learned these skills, you need to put them into practice. Though getting out into the hills and doing night navigation and orienteering is a great way of putting these skills into practice, the real thing that cracked navigation for me, was doing fell runs and adventure races. In these disciplines, you need to navigate at speed and under pressure. You make loads of mistakes, and you get penalized for them. You learn fast, or you end up sneaking over the finish line while everyone else is tucking into the post-race barbecue.

2015-09-25-1443172382-5677419-DSC_005875.jpg

Photo Copyright: Ordnance Survey

As to why I should be so keen that everyone should get outside, and feel the wind in their hair... well that is much more complex, and something I could be a serious zealot about. We are an outdoors animal. In the millennia since we shared an ancestor with chimpanzees, we have always lived active lives under the stars. Well, until the last century; a mere belch of evolutionary time. All of a sudden we embarked on lives inside, without activity, with too much transfat and too little challenge, and our few generations are infused with multitudes of malaise and melancholia because of it. What is that vague disenchantment that lurks in the back of our brains? It's a tribal unconscious brain deprived of Vitamin D, oxygen, dopamine and adrenalin, overdosed on caffeine and sugar. I spend my life with people who climb mountains, study animals and push back the boundaries of our physicality. They are a positive, inspiring, exciting bunch to be around. Fit, happy, charged with a love of life.

2015-09-25-1443172450-5928497-RS22214_SteveBackshall11.jpg

I appreciate that not everyone can get outside and get active. There are so many that do not have that privilege... and that makes it even more imperative that those of us who are lucky enough to be able, should take advantage of it. Get out, walk up a hill, go identify a bird you didn't know, wander the canal towpath and wave to the chugging houseboats, take the next door neighbour's dog for a walk, stroll a local footpath you never knew existed. All it takes, is getting a map of your local patch, closing your eyes, and stabbing a blind finger down onto the paper.

'Find out more about Ordnance Survey's GetOutside campaign and their champions here - https://www.ordnancesurvey.co.uk/getoutside/os-champions/'