Planning a QMD

Planning a QMD

A QMD publication

Bill Fear 2020

These views and opinions are my own and are not representative of, or linked to, any organization or group

The MT Handbook on the ML Training and Assessment can be accessed here

Good planning requires gaining some prior knowledge of the area you will be visiting as best you can (following the textbook requirements that is). This can mean reading guide-books, looking up local history, visiting websites, and perusing maps. It’s all very well to go thundering off along a route planned on a map knowing the gradients of each slope and having a complicated set of Naismith’s Rule timings written down and so on, but that tells you nothing about the wider landscape, terrain, and overall location.

To really benefit you need to able stand outside the narrow corridor of your route and locate yourself in the wider context. This will not only improve your QMDs but will also increase your enjoyment of the Mountains. It allows you to develop options both in planning the route and during the actual QMD. Being locked into a set route because you have failed to take account of the wider area can have consequences ranging from boredom and frustration to potentially life threatening.

Bear in mind a QMD is a day in the mountains that challenges you physically and mentally. You will need to be realistic about how much of what sort of ground you can cover in what sort of weather conditions in a period of five hours or more. Over time your ability to plan appropriate routes will improve as will your ability to cover different types of ground.

To start planning a QMD route first decide on the mountain country you want to visit. Try and get away from the hotspots but if you must go to them be inventive and do something different. If, for example, you decide on Snowdonia bear in mind it is divided into four different areas with 10 to 13 different mountain ranges depending on how you separate them out. The most remote area covers the Rhinogydd, Arenig, Migneint, and Rhobell Fawr and for this reason, among others, these areas are arguably the most interesting and allow for a better quality of QMD. Of course, they don’t have the bucket-list romance of the more popular areas.

Once you’ve decided on the country spend some time looking at the maps and identifying features. In particular look for summits and ring contours, flat places, ridges, cliffs, crags, ancient monuments, paths, streams/rivers, lakes/ponds, and gullies. These features are both interesting and useful for navigating. You may even discover a new, forgotten, or unused route.

The next thing to do is find a start point for the walk. If you’re driving, for example, you’re going to have to park somewhere and this is going to limit your start-point options. You’re probably going to want to finish at your car as well and that means planning a circular walk rather than a linear one. Some areas are well served by public transport and this does allow for more point-to-point options but does mean you will be walking with fixed time constraints.

Decide which features you want to visit and make use of them. QMDs usually include at least one summit as they are, as the name suggests, all about the mountains and mountaineering.

Plan a route that takes in the chosen features making use of any public rights of way, footpaths, tracks, trails, waymark and handrailing features, and so on.

Once you have a good idea of the route check for escapes and alternatives. Escapes are safe routes that take you off the mountain if things get difficult and/or you need to cut the day short. Difficulties range from the route being more challenging and taking longer than expected through unexpected adverse weather that makes the route unsafe to injury, and so on.

Be aware that not all routes have escapes and most routes will only have a limited number of escapes. Sometimes the only escape may be to turn back and you should make sure that is an option. If, for example, the route includes a short but challenging scramble along the way it may not be safe to down-scramble if you have to turn back.

Do a second round of route planning and look for alternatives and options. Alternative paths, alternative features you can make use of, alternative routes. If one way proves to be too difficult and challenging, for whatever reason, is there another way?

Once you have a good idea of the route you want to follow and features you want to visit along the way write a simple route description/plan. A good way to do this is to note features, grid references, distances, and compass bearings, and the rise and fall of the land.

As you become more experienced at QMDs you may want to explore different areas without detailed route planning. This is great fun but bear in mind you will be moving more slowly than usual and will need more time to solve any problems you run into. Don’t be over-ambitious. Do try and find out as much as you can about the nature of the country and the terrain before you go exploring.

Summary of key points in planning a QMD route:

  1. Choose an area.
  2. Identify features: summits; ring contours; flat places, ridges, cliffs, crags, ancient monuments, paths, streams/rivers, lakes/ponds, and gullies.
  3. Check for parking spots and/or public transport.
  4. Plan a route.
  5. Note features of interest, relevance, and usefulness.
  6. Check for escapes and alternatives.
  7. Do a second round of route planning and look for alternatives and options.
  8. Write a simple route plan noting features, grid references, distances, and compass bearings, and the rise and fall of the land.
  9. Go over the route and check for errors, alternatives, and options.
  10. Make notes on the alternatives and options.
  11. Finalise your route plan together with notes on alternatives and options.

Detailed Route Planning

  • Always start a QMD with the most difficult part first (unless you are experienced and/or with an experienced group).
  • Try and arrange an easy but interesting finish.
  • Always know the finish and the options available for the finish. You don’t want to be struggling to find a route at the end of a big day.
  • Avoid big climbs and steep descents at the finish when your legs are tired and you are fatigued.
  • Make sure you know where the escapes are.
  • Note key waymarks/waypoints all along the route and close to the route.
  • Have rough idea of how long the whole route will take you and the legs between key waymarks/waypoints.
  • Plan for where and when you can take rests and be protected from the weather.
  • Identify key features you can use to relocate/reorient.

Planning a QMD using a map

Without doubt the superior way to plan a QMD is from paper maps, ideally using a 1:25, a 1:50, and a 1:40 if available. This will give you a good sense of the country and suitable variations of route. It also means you can switch between maps while you are out. Furthermore, the different types and scale of map have different information on them and that will exercise your sense and your thinking.

Planning from paper maps also gives you a good sense of the bigger picture. Knowing where macro features are is invaluable. For example, knowing that there is steep ground to the north but more gentle ground to the south, or a road on the west, or obstructions in the east, and so on allows you to utilise features using your sense when things get tough. Even just knowing that it is safer to head on a bearing of roughly, say, 2700 rather than 2000 can stand you in good stead. Similarly knowing that actually the feature you are looking for is on your RHS, which is to your west, say, even though the feature on your LHS looks like the one you want, is helpful.

Moving between different maps and different scales can be an enlightening experience and is recommended with all route planning. I remember planning a route around Cadair Idris, one of my very early QMDs, using a Harvey 1:25. It shows a path down to Llyn Cau about 100m east of the summit at c. SH 712130. Good luck. Then I came back up the gully on the west of Llyn Cau, which wasn’t shown as a path on the Harvey but is shown as a path on the OS 1:25. If I’d used different maps I wouldn’t have come down the crags. I might have gone up them, but not down.

When I planned a walk from Brecon up the Epynt Way and back to Brecon, a 30 mile walk, I used a bespoke 1:25 and a bespoke 1:50. This was immensely useful as I was able to ‘zoom in’ using the 1:25 and ‘zoom out’ using the 1:50. And I was familiar with the actual map I used on the walk.

Combining map and software for planning

There is a lot to be said for combining a software package such as OSmaps or Viewranger with paper maps for planning. The risk is that you get lazy and rely on the software, which is what I have done at times with unpleasant consequences. However, if you are disciplined and enjoy exploring the simulated environment it can open up new routes and ways of getting out into the more remote country.

When doing some planning for the Welsh 3000s I found a clear descent at the 610m ring contour just below Halfway House down the spur. It was such an obvious route in a high traffic area I knew there must be well used. On OSmaps I shuttled between the OSmap, Aerial view, and 3D and the path was clear enough until it left the spur. I later recced the path and found it straightforward.

In the same way when planning the 30 mile Nuttalls circuit in the Black Mountains there is a clear ancient path on the western slope of Chwarel y Fan that provides a good lead into the ascent across rough ground. This path is visible on the aerial view and it gives a good idea of the state of the path (barely visible). And indeed, as I write this I am shuttling back to OSmaps and have just spotted a better route from Vision Farm to the said ancient path than the one we used.

However, as I discovered on the Nuttalls recces and on the day itself, relying on the software without familiarity with the available [paper] maps at different scales substantially inhibits your ‘sense of location’ on the day. While the software makes a great adjunct and can provide fresh insights nothing comes to close to familiarity with the paper map and a sense of the wider country that develops using paper maps for planning.

Planning a QMD form a GPX file

GPX files of walks, runs, and QMDs abound in the web. OSmaps, Viewranger, and Strava are littered with them. However, these routes should only ever be taken as indicative. They may be a route someone else has followed, which doesn’t necessarily make it a viable route for you. They may be ‘armchair’ routes, planned on the software but not executed as shown on the ground. Either way, for my own part I can’t see the attraction of staring at a small electronic screen while outside that’ll own outside in the mountains. That’s not why I go out.

What GPX files do provide is ideas and options. Loading a GPX file into one of the software packages and checking the route and modifying it to suit your interests and skills and to challenge you in that country is a great way of developing routes for yourself and exploring the country. Most GPX files can also be modified once loaded so you have the chance to play with and develop the route.

I also tend to track my routes and compare them to armchair routes. This gives a good sense of the difference between the map and the territory and develops your map reading skills and sense. I also tend to modify my tracked routes post hoc which is again a great way of ‘learning to see’ options and alternatives both on the map and on the ground.

Critically any and all GPX routes should be viewed with a paper map also to see the difference between what is on the screen and what is on the map. All of this develops the skill of being able to read maps and the ground in a variety of different ways.

Planning a QMD using computer software such as OSmaps or Viewranger alone

Not advised. There is a risk in that you are unable to see the larger landscape and therefore will not have a ‘bigger picture’ and additional orienting features. The way you ‘move around’ to orient on, and with, a map is different to way you move and around and orient with software. The software has functions that are simply not available on a map. Any planned route should be translated to the map and you should be familiar with the route on the map first and foremost.

Planning a QMD using a handheld device

Not advised. There is an additional risk in that you are unable to see the larger landscape and therefore will not have a ‘bigger picture’ and additional orienting features. There is also and element of deskilling as you come to rely on the device to do some of the work for you and by default come to rely on the device rather than your skills.

Route Descriptions/Plans

Sometimes much is made of writing some sort of templated plan for a mountain walk with the estimated time to cover each leg and so on. I’ve not come across anyone using one and, indeed, I would be somewhat concerned if the walk leader suddenly whipped out a piece of paper with complicated esoteric instructions on it and started peering at it. I also question how much use it would be in the rain.

That having been said, training yourself to write usable route descriptions is, again, a skill that will both boost your mountain sense and open up the country to you. My own preference has been to write (relatively) simple route descriptions with key features and compass bearings that I can follow (an example is given below). I have to add that with hindsight there are times when estimated time taken and/or distance between waypoints would have been helpful.

Whether you use them or not RDs and/or Route Plans are an excellent exercise and should be written and followed regularly in order to maintain and develop the associated skills. Writing RDs will assist with planning and increase knowledge and awareness of the country and how to manage yourself in the country.

For my own part I’ve written RDs both before and after walks and found it equally useful to write up an RD after the walk as a way of revising it and developing my skill set. I’ve written details RDs and made jotted down a few features/waypoints and compass directions in a waterproof notebook, which, by the way, is really an essential part of your kit for both planning and safety. I’ve relied on an RD written by others for a 100 mile challenge walk and I’ve relied on a couple of pages of jotted notes on waterproof paper for 15 mile walks in unfamiliar mountains. As I said, learning to write and develop RDs is an essential skill and should be revisited on a regular basis, which is what I need to do.


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