Whether you are navigating in the dark by accident or design, our night navigation tips will help anyone finding their way in the mountains at night. We really hope you find them useful.
You want to squeeze in an extra multi-pitcher on Gable Crag but it takes longer than you thought. Someone in your team is struggling with fatigue near the summit of Glyder Fawr and you have to snails pace it back to Ogwen Cottage. At sunset you find your path blocked by fallen rocks and the alternative route involves a 7km detour.
Although good planning and solid daytime navigation are your first defence against getting caught out after dark, there are loads of reasons why darkness can catch you out while still far from basecamp. The problem is that darkness and disorientation are two primeval human fears. If you throw in bad weather or injuries and it’s easy to see why many mountaineers find these situations such a daunting prospect.
So, how do you get back safely and efficiently when you can’t see past the end of your torch beam and the shadows are making every contour feature look like the Hilary Step on Everest?
Luck Favours The Well Prepared
Never leave the valley without a reliable headtorch. LED torches have all but taken over nowadays and it’s not hard to see why. They offer night vision friendly light, great performance, fantastic reliability and great battery life. You really don’t need to look any further.
There are loads of superb torches out there. One great example is the Petzl Swift RL which we reviewed here. Petzl make plenty of other great models though and their Actik Core is one of my all time favourites. Whatever make or model you use, it’s worth ensuring it has a few key features. Models with several light output levels help conserve battery power. They also help avoid dazzling you when you’re looking closely at the map.
It’s also useful to have a beam that can be changed between a spot focus to help and a wide-angle beam. The spot will help pick out distant features and the wide is perfect for illuminating the ground in front of you. Good weather resistance is also important in our ‘interesting’ climate. Finally, make sure the head attachment system is secure so it doesn’t keep toppling off your head.
One final thing that many torches seem to suffer from is fiddly control buttons. They are hard to use with cold fingers or when you have gloves on. Take your Everest thickness mitts along and check the buttons out in the shop. You may get some strange looks but you won’t regret it when you’re descending An Teallach in the early hours.
Having discussed torches it’s worth mentioning that navigators are often very quick to flick their torch on at the first sniff of darkness. You can sometimes travel safely using moonlight instead. Once you start using your torch you’re pretty much committed. Your night vision takes time to readjust if you turn it off again.
In terms of other equipment it helps if your compass has some of those little luminous markers on. Also, choose a watch with clear digits and a stopwatch for timing distance. I also find an altimeter particularly useful at night. It can help determine your position on features like ridges and gently undulating featureless terrain. I also often use a GPS as it allows you to relocate if you do find yourself ‘temporarily misplaced.’ I always take spare batteries for my torch and any other devices. A final point is that it may be worth carrying a spare torch in case of technical problems.
If you laminate map sections or use a map case try to find coverings with a matt finish. Some of the shiny plastic types really bounce the light back. You can also reduce this effect slightly by shining your torch onto the map from the side if it’s causing problems. Remember to keep your torch away from your compass if you are holding it in your hand though.
Practice Makes Perfect
You became proficient at daytime navigation by practicing. That’s also the trick with the night time version too. The problem is it takes a bit more commitment to head out after dark but it’s worth the effort. For your initial forays choose an area with plenty of interesting features to navigate between. A good relocation feature like a road is a good safety back up in case things go pear shaped. Once you are completely comfortable navigating in this sort of terrain you can up the ante and try more challenging areas. It’s also worth initially choosing nights with good weather so you don’t have too much to deal with at once.
An easy way to get quality practice time without the worry of having to spend a night out is to go out a few hours before sunrise. That way, if you do get lost, you can just wait for daylight to arrive. This also means you can fit your navigation practice into a bigger walk. It should also give you more motivation to actually put the practice time in. After all, you won’t be having to make a special effort to get out in darkness.
It’s a good idea to carefully plan your route in advance. To do this effectively it’s essential to understand the way features are represented on your map. How steep is that slope? Will you end up at the top of that cliff or standing at the bottom of that outcrop instead? Working all this out beforehand ensures there is no confusion once you are under way. Go with someone else if possible. Don’t forget to leave a route plan with someone too.
Time & Distance Perception
Most people feel time passes quicker than it actually does when they’re estimating elapsed time at night. Trust your stopwatch and don’t be tempted to ignore its information. The more you practice and become comfortable with the situation the less it will be an issue.
It’s also common to think you have travelled further than you have when you are measuring distance by pacing. Practice will allow you to decide if your night paces are covering the same distance as your day paces. If there’s a difference you can adjust accordingly. Remember that paces will be affected by challenging terrain or conditions.
While we’re talking about time, I always slow down my decision making and double check all my calculations for night navigation. I figure the extra time it takes is preferable to having to relocate because I’ve rushed into a bad choice. It’s also worth getting your partner to make their own calculations and compare the results too.
I once sat in a motivational talk given, very bizarrely, by one of the Power Rangers. He pointed out was that breaking challenges down into manageable steps helps you to achieve your goal. Never has that advice been more relevant than when navigating at night. Two of your key techniques will be compass bearings and careful distance measurement. These techniques are very accurate but they are also prone to error. Imagine if you walk too far, not far enough or stray from your bearing. To minimise the risk break each navigational leg into small sections. Also use obvious features to aim for. That way, you should still be able to work out where you wanted to be even if you’ve gone a bit astray.
For night navigation it’s also worth thinking of each leg as a journey. You can then identify individual ‘tick off’ features to identify on the way. Tick off features give you the confidence that you are on track. They also allow you to quickly address the problem if the features doesn’t match your journey plan.
I followed a 176 for 150 then handrailed the wall to the attack point. If you listen to a bunch of orienteers recounting their course you could easily be mistaken for thinking you are listening to a different language. They love jargon! But, the terms they are using only refer to navigational techniques you already use all the time
I use ‘attack points’ a lot for night navigation. They are especially useful when you are breaking a journey into small sections as mentioned earlier. The target you want to find is 100 metres to the side of the small tarn. Rather than take a long compass bearing directly to it, you could walk around the edge of the tarn then use the bottom of it as an attack point to the target. This makes it far more likely you will get to the point you want. They also make it easier to retrace your steps if you don’t find it.
Try to choose features that also have a catching feature beyond. I’ll head for that stream junction but if I go too far I will come to the wall 50 metres beyond. Linear features, or ‘handrails’, are long features that can be useful at night. They can be things like landscape features, streams, roads or walls. Features that are usually easily identifiable on your map and the ground. However, at night it is essential that you use some handrails with great care. They can sometimes follow dangerous terrain that you can’t see with your headtorch. For example, streams that drop down steep gullies or ridge lines with steep walls on either side.
A gathering feature is two line features that join such as 2 walls or streams and they can provide useful confirmation of your location. I’ll follow the stream (line feature) until I get to the stream junction (gathering feature). Even better if you also have a catching feature incase you go too far.
‘Aiming off’ is a useful way to avoid compass bearing deviations turning into a major problem. Rather than trying to take a compass bearing straight to a wall junction, aim off by taking the bearing to the right of the junction. Then, once you meet the wall, you will know you just need to turn left and follow the wall along.
In daytime you probably travel on your compass bearing by sighting along your line of travel and picking terrain features to head for. You can use the same method for night navigation even though you won’t be able to use features so far ahead. If the terrain is completely featureless you can send your partner in front and sight on them.
Everyone gets temporarily misplaced sometimes. It’s how you deal with it that really matters. The first priority is to keep calm. It’s easy to start getting panicky. Remember there is no more reason to be nervous at night than there is in daylight. The same things are there The strategies available to you are the same as those you’d use in daylight. Stop for a few minutes, study your map and the features around you and make a plan. Having a drink and some food may also provide a bit of comfort and feed your brain cells. Then, when you’re ready, put your plan into action and see how it goes. If it doesn’t get you where you want to go just make a new plan.
There really is nothing to fear about night navigation. Infact it can be a very liberating experience. There’s a real buzz of being able to get around the hills safely and confidently in the dark. The other advantage is you’ll almost certainly get the mountains to yourself!
If you want some extra input you can always book on to a navigation course but check that a night navigation element is included as many courses just run in the daytime. Our Advanced (Gold) Navigation course includes a night nav session. If you can’t find a course that fits the bill most instructors will be happy to run a private session for you.