Steve Backshall: why I’m an Ordnance Survey GetOutside Champion

Steve Backshall is well known for his love of the great outdoors. Here he tells us why he wanted to get involved with the #GetOutside campaign.

There are many reasons to be proud to be British; Wimbledon, the Cornish pasty, the North face of Ben Nevis and the 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.

I find maps intoxicating. My house is full of dusty sheet maps, sailing almanacs (and I don’t even sail), Atlas’, tourist maps and diagrams that have been sketched on napkins that 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 out blizzards, 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. 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.

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...sometimes it’s all I can do not to grab people by the shoulders, and shake them, screaming ‘It’s so obvious! Nature will solve all your problems!'"

Steve Backshall

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 trans fat 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. I do all I can to try and convey that to people, but sometimes it’s all I can do not to grab people by the shoulders, and shake them, screaming; ‘It’s so obvious! Nature will solve all your problems!’ I am aware this makes me slightly scary, and so far have managed to avoid ever actually doing that.

Steve is known for exploring some of the most extreme environments on Earth

Steve is known for exploring some of the most extreme environments on Earth

When I was recently asked to become an ambassador for OS’s #GetOutside campaign, I literally leapt. 

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. In a building down in Hampshire, vast computer servers whirr and hum, filled with detail of our entire nation down to ten-metre squares. 

Just to pick up the orange OS Explorer Map 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. The pink OS Landranger maps with their larger scale I’ve more used on cycle tours where you cover too much ground for the more detailed 1:25,000 maps. 

As part of my role with OS, I recorded a bunch of YouTube videos giving a basic introduction into how to use a map and compass. Many of my expedition colleagues will stifle a chuckle at the temerity of this. As I've said, I am often lost. While I may sometimes struggle with the practice, the theory at least I am pretty good at! Once you've learned the core skills, you need to put them into practice.

Though getting out into the hills and doing night nav and orienteering is great, the real thing that cracked nav 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.

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.

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