Making sense of Navigation

By Bill Strachan

By Senior Instructor Bill Strachan.

Whether you’re out in a winter storm or a clear summer’s day, the ability to navigate is a fundamental skill for safely enjoying the mountains. Being able to confidently navigate well literally opens up the mountains. It lets you choose your own adventures without feeling confined to well-worn paths or routes recommended by guidebooks and websites. Making sense of navigation might seem intimidating and complicated at first, but it’s often more straightforward than many realise.

Have you ever been in the position of following a friend in poor visibility? Or watched from the side-lines as they appear to somehow know where they are by using some sort of sixth sense, measuring distance and ticking off features without a tree, path, stream or fence anywhere to be seen? Navigation isn’t a mystery or unattainable skill. In fact, what you witness is the result of many hours of practice. With the right structure, it’s not so difficult to build up your own skill and ability. The key is knowing what, where, and how to practice.

It isn’t possible to capture everything here that we teach during our navigation or hill and mountain skills courses, but we can begin by getting the foundations in place. Your first step is ‘setting the map’.

Setting the Map

We learn from a young age to hold books with the writing reading from left to right and the correct way up. Maps are different. With a map, we rotate it to mirror the ground around us. When you first start doing this, the easiest method is to look at the red arrow on your compass which will be pointing to north and rotate the map beneath the compass so the top of the map (north) is pointing the same way as the red arrow on your compass. If your map is ‘set’ correctly, then it should reflect the features around you on the ground.

We often don’t need to do any more than this to know what direction to walk in. However in poorer visibility the use of a compass may be needed to give you something to follow. The principle of a compass bearing is to tell you what direction from North you’re needing to walk. I’m not going to go into details about taking a bearing here. But trust me… it’s not as difficult as you might think!

Contour interpretation and anticipation

Think about using a road atlas (if anyone still does?!); you automatically create ‘tick off’ points to describe your journey. ‘Pass two streets on the left, then go over the bridge, next right’. By creating these same points on your walking journeys, it forces you to anticipate the ground your travelling over. Importantly, you can react if something’s not right.

In the mountain environment path junctions and streams are not as frequent or reliable as in lower, more urban areas. It’s contours that we use to provide us with all we need. Improving our understanding of contours allows us to pick up on the subtleties in the land that perhaps before we’ve overlooked. They join points of equal height, a fact that most of us know from early geography lessons. But thinking about how we interact with them can help us keep track of our location. If you plan to cross the contours at right angles then you will be going straight up or down. Crossing them at an angle means you’ll go up or down the slope diagonally.

If when planning your route, you notice that you cross the same contour more than once then you’ll find yourself going up then down, or down then up.

The more you look at maps, the more detail you’ll start to see. Even on a path when you know where you are, it’s worth looking at the map when you feel the ground steepening up a little or easing off, building up your experience of relating how subtle differences in the ground will be reflected in how the contours are drawn perhaps a little closer together or wider apart. The more time you spend relating the contour features to the actual ground, the quicker and clearer the features will jump out at you. It is a real pleasure to look at a map and clearly see the 3D relief that you’ll be walking over. Many digital mapping software packages offer this as a feature, and can be a great help when wrestling with contours for the first time.


It’s not uncommon to see folk walking in the hills with pacing beads attached to their rucksack straps. These are used to help keep track of how far has been travelled and rely on the individual knowing how many places they take per hundred metres. With practice this can be a reasonably accurate method over shorter distances. The amount of paces taken will vary depending on the terrain and gradient underfoot. While this method works for shorter distances, three or four hundred metres, it’s not practical for a lot of what we do. I like being able to relax in the mountains and take in the views or chat to my friends, so pacing is just too antisocial for me to use most of the time!

A stopwatch is as valuable as a compass for helping you locate yourself on the map. Like map-setting, timing is a good habit to get into. When I get to a definite point I reset my stopwatch, letting it run in the background. At the next obvious point, I’ll reset it. How many times have you looked at the horizon and been surprised when the actual summit is still a further kilometre away? By having a method of working out how long a section, or leg, of your journey will take then a quick glance at your watch should let you know that you’ve still got perhaps half an hour to go, or hopefully that it is indeed the top.

The stopwatch can also be invaluable when it comes to relocating. If you were walking west for 30 minutes then you can find your last known location on the map; it’s likely that you’re now somewhere around 1 1/2 to 2km from this to the west. Combined with what the ground has done under your feet for that time, relate it to the contours around that area and you’re almost there. You should have enough information now to start making a plan to relocate more exactly


No one gets their navigation right first time, or all of the time. Having a mindset that allows you to go out and practice your bearings, timing, pacing, contour interpretation etc. and make mistakes is crucial. Only by embracing your mistakes and understanding why they happen can we get better. The environment we chose to practice in is key to this process. How can we relax and be happy to experiment with techniques when we know there’s a large cliff somewhere nearby in the gloom? Picking a safe area that for example has a road running across the north of it should help relax any fears about becoming well and truly lost. If it goes wrong, walk north and you’ll know where you are again.


Getting feedback on our performance is another important part of improving our navigation. There’s a few ways we can do this, the most obvious perhaps being a GPS device or phone app. While this will give you a definite fix of your location, I would encourage folk not to look at it after every leg. This takes away the learning and realising for yourself that something was right or wrong.

More useful is using the terrain itself to provide feedback. If you are sure that you’ve managed to get to the top of the ring contour you were aiming for, then pick another obvious feature to find from there. If you get there and the ground between felt as anticipated, then you’re correct. However if nothing after the first point fits, then something went wrong. This is the important part, don’t get the GPS out. Instead, look at the map and try to find the contours that represent what you walked over. Given time you’ll find it easier to relocate and your navigation will improve quickly. Mistakes are a good thing!


Learning the individual skills above is part of becoming a good navigator but applying those skills at appropriate times and having a good strategy is where the end goal is. Knowing how to take and follow an accurate bearing is all very well but it’s just as important to know when you don’t need to use it.

Orienteering is a great way to improve every aspect of your navigation. A morning event will have you finding over a dozen marker points, each leg designed to get you to use different techniques. Feedback is pretty black and white as well… you either find the marker or you don’t!

Remember that being a confident navigator isn’t in the genes, it just takes practice. The MTUK books ‘Navigation’ and ‘Navigation in the Mountains‘ are useful resources, as is Glenmore Lodge run a few navigation courses; Discover Navigation & Mountain Navigation. These combine to make a great weekend ensuring that you will leave with good building blocks and a solid framework to get you on your way to becoming an expert navigator.