Navigation Top Tips


There is a lot to learn on the journey to becoming a competent navigator, but we’ve selected 10 navigation top tips that are key for every hill goer.  We really hope you find them useful.

Being a competent navigator, as well as being an essential skill for safe mountain travel, is also a joy.  It feels so empowering to be able to find your way around the hills and mountains efficient;y.  Some of the techniques required are easy enough to learn.  Others take many long days on the hill to master.  Good navigators serve a lengthy apprenticeship.  

An article like this can’t cover even a fraction of the skills needed, but there are some key tips to aid your nav journey.  How do we know? Because all of them have been hard won on our own nav apprenticeship.  We could have added far more, but we’ve just selected ten favourites.  

Keep Concentrating

Often it is when you are tired at the end of the day or when you think you know the rest of the journey and stick your map in your pocket.  Suddenly, you’ve headed along the wrong path or are descending the wrong side of the mountain.  It could be that an error leads you onto dangerous ground or simply leads to a time consuming backtrack.  Either way it won’t make the ideal end to your day.  Staying focussed at all times is key.

Orientate The Map

The top of the map points to north but you aren’t always heading north.  The trick then, is to keep your map orientated to the ground by turning it in your hands.  This ensures that, when you look at the map and then look up to the ground ahead, what you see matches.  If you can’t see the ground due to poor visibility or darkness then you can orientate your map using your compass.  Just line the north arrow (the floaty one rather than the one marked on the housing) of your compass with the top of the map and you’ll be        

Learn How To Estimate Distance Travelled

Timing or pacing are key navigational methods for estimating distance travelled.  They both have situations where one would be preferable over the other and so both should be in your nav toolbox.  It isn’t also the case that you need to be pacing or timing all through your journey.  It is a tool you pull out when it is appropriate. 

Contours Rule

A key principle of our navigation courses is to focus learners on contour interpretation. This is one of the most important navigation top tips we can share.  We know that navigators who can visualise the map as a 3D picture will find their way with more accuracy and confidence.  That’s because contours show so much.  Of course they show the ups and downs, but also the steepness and they give clues about the nature of the terrain.  They show where the gullies lie and where ridges soar.  They are the key to effective navigation.

Understand Map Scales

If you can measure the distance travelled on the ground, you also need to be able to measure distance on a map.  This skill is easy enough if you understand map scales.  Having said that, there are lots of other reasons why understanding scales is key to good navigation.  Basically, learn about scales!  

Trust Your Compass

If you can make the calculations reliably and your compass is working correctly, then you should trust your compass.  When I say working correctly, be aware that compasses can occasionally become depolarised (sometimes called reverse polarity).  This is caused by subjecting the compass to a strong magnetic field.  They can also be temporarily affected by the magnetic nature of  electronics like mobile phones.  Similarly, magnetic rock types like Gabbro on Skye will cause problems.  If none of these factors is causing an issue though, trust it.

Observe Everything

It is easy to get focussed on putting one foot in front of the other or following your compass.  Suddenly, you have lost awareness of what’s around you.  This means you can’t interpret the land and take clues from the terrain.  It also means, of course, that you can’t appreciate what’s around you.  And that, surely, is one of the reasons you are out in the first place.

Navigate In All Conditions

I was once told that anyone can navigate in good visibility.  I think that isn’t totally true, but it is certainly the case that poor visibility adds many additional hurdles.  Whether in a whiteout, at night or when ensconced in cloud, it is essential to hone your skills in these conditions.  Essential, and also great fun.

Learn To Relocate

There’s that saying that navigators never become lost.  Just misplaced!  I’m happy to own up that I’ve been lost more than a few times, but luckily developing some relocation skills should get you back on track.  The first key tip is to try and not panic.  You are somewhere and so it’s just a case of narrowing it down.  Once you are composed, try to think through the last part of your journey.  When was the last point you definitely knew where you were?  What have you done since? Did you make an error with a bearing or miss a path junction?  Orientate your map if it isn’t already.  Have a really good look around you to get a clear picture of the terrain and features.  Then study the map to see if you can match what you are seeing on the ground.  If none of that works, start to make an onward plan.  Is there a linear feature like a road or fence line (although sometimes fences can be unreliable features) you can aim towards.  Where will you end up if you deliberately travel, for example, due south? Maybe this will get you to a feature you can use to get you back on track.   

Consider Carrying A GPS Device

While there is no substitute for good map and paper nav skills,  the use of a GPS can make your adventures both safer and simpler.  A simple satellite based relocation system such as OS Locate can be downloaded onto your phone for free. This gives a six figure grid reference and we have found it to be very accurate.  There are also many great GPS units that will cost from not too much to many hundreds of pounds.  You need to consider battery life, do your homework and make your choice.  But, in a tricky situation, you’ll think the investment was well worth it.

Practice Makes Perfect?

In reality, practice makes permanent.  If you practice an inefficient technique over and over you’ll become efficient at repeating that same technique.  It doesn’t mean you are doing it right.  However,  practice following high quality technique training makes perfect.  In which case, once you know what are doing, practice like crazy. It is the most important of any navigation top tips we can offer.  Practice in all weathers, in all visibilities and practice at night.  You’ll learn something every time you go out and everything you learn is helping you move from apprentice to Jedi master.

So, there are 10 navigation top tips that we hope you’ll find useful.  Of course, if you’d like to learn them in the hand of a professional please do consider joining one of our broad range of navigation courses.  We’d love to share your learning journey with you.

We’ve written some other tips on navigation that you may find useful.  Our advice on waterproof map paper and Knee Map Tables are well worth a read.