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Challenge Gear Testing: Stove, Mobile, GPS & OS Maps

Snowpeak Cannister Stove in Scotland

Last week my wife and I were touring the Borders Region in southern Scotland, about 50 miles south of Edinburgh, and just over the "historical border" from England (and the rest of Rome.) We had originally intended to hike the 60 mile St. Cuthbert's Way on this trip, from Melrose Abbey to The Holy Island, but my wife's knees have been bothering her this summer, so we decided to tour the area by car instead. It's quite fine actually, full of abbeys and roman ruins and other historic sites that my wife and I enjoy visiting. Plus lots of live music.

When we were preparing for this trip, my wife caught me packing away a pair of lightweight hiking boots, and from that point on, she knew I was going to try to sneak a few hikes in along the way. My real plan however, was to do a little gear testing in advance of the 2010 TGO Challenge, to make sure that my canister stove, GPS, and mobile phone were all working properly in the UK before I go back to Scotland next May.

Cannister Stoves

For instance, I had heard somewhere that canister stoves from the US were incompatible with the isobutane-propoane gas canisters available in the UK, and I wanted to test whether that was true or false, in case I needed to buy another stove.

However, there's this very handy standard called the EN417 which ensures that canister stoves like my Snowpeak Gigapower Titanium Stove are compatible with the isobutane-propane canisters available in the UK. I bought the one shown above at a shop called It's Great Outdoors in Peebles, Scotland, screwed it onto the canister, and presto, flame. One down.

Blackberry World Edition

I also bought a 5 Lb. Orange SIM-card at the local post office for my Blackberry and got it topped up, so I can call and text people within the UK and abroad. I have a Blackberry World Edition phone which is GSM compatible, and after calling Orange to activate it, my SMS and Voice features worked fine.

However, the directions for inserting and activating a new Orange SIM card are not exactly obvious (don't work as documented), so I'm glad I verified that it works on this trip and got it all set up. Orange will keep your account active as long as you place a phone call or send a text message, once every 6 months.

Garmin Gecko 301 GPS Receiver

Garmin Geko 301 GPS

The final device that I tested on this trip was my Garmin Geko 301 GPS. This is a new refurbished GPS received I purchased a few weeks ago that will complement my maps and compass, by providing an occasional position fix when I walking in the "featureless wastes of Scotland."  At 3 oz and $99, this is all the GPS I really need.

I had to specially configure my Geko for use in the UK with Ordnance Survey Landranger Maps, which are sold by the organization responsible for UK mapping. This is easy to do because the Geko supports many international formats. To test it, I logged a bunch of " breadcrumb"way points on a local hike up Cademuir Hill outside of Peebles.

QUO GPS Waypoint Lookup

When I got back to our hotel, I looked up the way points using Quo, a UK-based GPS mapping package that I've been using to plan my TGO Challenge Route, using online versions of the OS Landranger 1:50,000 maps. Once I figured out how to enter the bizarre OS Grid Reference Format in Quo (ie. not lat/lon), I verified that my GPS and Quo agreed on my way points for the day.

Next, I checked to make sure that I could correlate my GPS way points with the paper-based OS Landranger map I had brought along for the region. I had read about British Grid Reference System but I wanted to practice using it on an actual example.

British Grid Format System

Like I said before, the Ordnance Survey (OS) does not use latitude and longitude to plot locations on a map. Instead they divide the UK into a series of squares based on kilometers and further subdivide these to into smaller and smaller quadrants to generate a Ordnance Survey Grid Reference using the metric system. It's actually rather clever when you get used to it.

OS Landranger Grid Point Mapping

Each map quadrant (see blue squares above) has an origin point at its bottom left corner. You can think of these as X and Y axes, where the X axis is called "easting" and the Y axis is called "northing."

The format of an OS Grid Reference is 2 Grid Letters, 3 Numbers (easting), 3 Numbers (northing). More numbers can be added for a great degree of precision. For example, my Geko provides 5 numbers and that's what I typed into Quo above.

In the map above, which was generated on Multimap (identical to my OS Landranger maps), I typed in NT252402. The NT corresponds to the lettered grid system, 2 images up, which divides the UK into 100 square kilometer quadrants. These quadrants are broken down in 10 square kilometer  quadrants and then 1 square kilometer quadrants. The 1 km quadrants are displayed as blue squares in the Multimap image above, where 2 cm = 1 kilometer (scaled at 1:50,000).

With my OS Grid Reference of NT252402, I can plot exactly where I am in the 100 square kilometer square known as NT, which is 25.2 kilometers east and 40.2 kilometers north. This is actually easy on the paper map where the 1 km squares are lightly numbered in blue. I can plot the additional 2 digits of precision provided by my GPS on a paper Landranger map using the ruler on the side of my compass, if I need too.

Next Steps

I did get out on a few dawn hikes on this trip, in addition to testing my gear, and I'm feeling pretty good about my planning efforts so far for the Challenge. Roger Smith, the co-organizer of the event, just sent me a confirmation email saying that he's received my application and I'm eager to see if I've been accepted for 2010.

Since returning from Scotland, I've been tuning my route plan, trying to shrink my total distance down to 150 miles, so that I have some time to bag some Munros on the trip. These are 3,000 foot and higher mountains and many of them are exposed, high consequence climbs, even in May. My current route has me hiking through three distinct mountain ranges: the southern Highlands from Shiel Bridge to Glen Afftric, the Monadhliath Mountains from Fort Augustus to Balgowan, the southern Cairngorm Mountains via Glen Fleshie and Glen Dee to Braemar. From there, I will hike to Lochnagar in the Balmoral Forest and past Tarfside to Montrose, on the east coast of Scotland.

My route is subject to modification by Challenge vetters and the advice of my local friends. So, while all of these regions have plenty of Munros to bag, I plan to be fairly cautious on this first crossing since I plan to set out solo. Knowing the Challenge, I'll probably hook up with some other participants along the way, which should be a good time.

Next May should be interesting.


  1. Good piece Philip. & good luck with your Challenge route. I like your explanation of the OS grid system – something I take for granted as I learnt it at school.

    With regard to your current route, which sounds excellent, the hills from Shiel Bridge to Glen Affric are usually regarded as part of the Western Highlands or the Northwest Highlands, depending on the guidebook or writer, but not the Southern Highlands which are much further south (the Central Highlands are between them). Your Cairngorms route really goes between the Northern and Southern Cairngorms. Lochnagar is in the Southern Cairngorms. But more importantly these are all wonderful places.

  2. Thanks for the clarifications Chris – I was eyeballing these in Quo, but it's always helpful to get confirmation from a local expert. I have planning (dreaming) this route since last February and I hope I get into the Challenge to hike it.

    While I found the OS Grid System hard to comprehend initially, I find that writing about it has really helped me appreciate its utility. It's quite useful for estimating distances in your head quickly. All that math in school finally pays off. :-)

  3. The problem with the OS system is that maps in other countries don't have it! I remember being horrified on seeing US topo maps without a grid. How was I supposed to estimate distances and work out grid references?

    For distance I count the number of squares a route crosses – every square even if it only crosses a corner. I've compared this with GPS and computer mapping readings and it's pretty much the same.

  4. Here's an excerpt from Backpack45.com that describes how he creates UTM metric grids for the PCT. I came across this just last night.

    "I use National Geographic Topo State software for California, Oregon and Washington to print the maps I carry with me. I also carry a gps which I turn on a couple of times a day when I need an exact location. I display the gps location using UTM coordinates instead of latitude longitude, because everything is in 10ths and easy to estimate. This means that I have to print my Topo maps with UTM grids. It is important to specify that you want your grids at 1000 meter intervals, not miles, so you can easily estimate distance between grids. "

  5. Dear Horrified Chris Thompson,

    Topo maps from the US Geological Survey and US Forest Service have the UTM grid, but only as ticks at the edges of the map. If you really intend to use them it's useful to extend the ticks across the map using a straightedge and pencil. I guess they didn't want the clutter up the map too much.

  6. Hi Jarra, I soon recovered from my shock! And it was over a quarter of a century ago since when I've hiked 1000s of miles with US topo maps so I have got used to them. I discovered a few have grids too.

    Earlylite, that's useful info. Thanks. Computer mapping didn't exist when I hiked the PCT (1982) but I used Topo mapping on the Arizona Trail.

  7. I've found that both the UTM's and the OS Grid are about equally easy. (and the OS grid is the best way to find stone circles and things like that on a moor in Wales) But beware of the grid origin – in Canada they tend to use the NAD27 grid – which is just enough different (about 1/4 km) to make life interesting. I do wish though that the US maps had the km squares drawn on them.

    You can get the UK maps for the fancier GPS units but they are quite costly and come with somewhat crippled software – so I end up going with paper maps (and even compasses) anyway.

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