Do the hills hold a magnetic attraction for you?

By Heather Morning, Mountain Safety Advisor, Mountaineering Scotland

If you are reading this article on the MWIS website, likely the answer is yes as you will be one of thousands of people who enjoy getting out into the hills and mountains of Britain. However, 'magnets' of a different kind are creating a worrying danger for those who venture into the hills. Heather Morning, Mountain Safety Advisor with Mountaineering Scotland has been investigating an alarming trend in the outdoor retail market - the increasing use of magnets as a modern alternative to traditional forms of closure on outdoor equipment such as velcro.

Magnets can now be found in gloves, helmets, jackets, belts, karabiners, rucksacks - and I'm sure there is more. They're manufactured by some leading names in the outdoor market too - Marmot, Outdoor Research, Sealskinz, Osprey, Petzel and Black Diamond.

And that's worrying.

Compasses, our essential tool of navigation, operate on the earth's magnetic field, and when a compass is in contact with, or close to, another magnet it will be affected - either temporarily until it is moved away from the magnet or permanently, which is what we call 'reversed polarity'. Reversed polarity renders the compass useless and indeed dangerous, as the red needle which should point to north will be reversed and point to south, with possible life threating consequences if the compass is being used near a steep drop such as a corniced edge in winter. In the winter of 2018 three people lost their lives in the Scottish mountains walking over a cornice in a 'white-out'. There's no suggestion that magnets built into kit were involved in these cases, but it emphasises the absolute necessity of being able to rely on your navigation equipment.

Reversed polarity did cause a mountain rescue incident in 2017, in the Glen Shee area of Scotland, which resulted in hundreds of hours of mountain rescue and police time. The incident involved a group of walkers who were caught in low cloud and headed east instead of west, becoming totally disorientated and ending up miles away from a road. Fortunately, no-one was hurt - just pride dented - but it could have turned out so much worse if the mountain conditions had been more severe.

The reason for the error was the magnet in a mobile phone case reversing the compass needle. The compass had been stored in a pocket next to the mobile phone case, which had a magnetic closure on it, and the magnet had reversed the polarity of the compass needle, so that the north arrow pointed south.

Clearly a compass stored next to an item in your rucksack which has a magnet in it is of serious concern. You can picture the following scenario easily occurring - a compass stored in the lid of the rucksack, climbing helmet in the top of the main pocket of the rucksack with a magnet on the chin strap. Topping out on that winter route in a white out where navigation with a compass is essential and the compass has been reversed. This scenario could have very serious consequences.

Modern technology is great. The resources available now to keep us warm and safe in the mountains has never been better; but my advice is to steer well clear of any garments/equipment utilizing this latest trend of magnetic closures or you could end up with an expensive bill for replacing your compass or - worse - a life threatening navigation error.

Heather can be contacted at heather@mountaineering.scot

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