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Navigation Tips

So there you are on the start line of that big AL Lakeland race you always wanted to do.  A real classic.  The instructions in the book said it was NS (navigation skills required), but that’s ok as although your knowledge is a bit sketchy you know where north is and can always follow someone.  You’ve made it through kit check; shown your map and compass, food and clothing.

Parts of a compass

 The clag is down to 300m and it’s drizzling.  Ok, so you’re not that hot with a map and compass, you decide to follow some locals.  And we’re off!  You’ve tagged on to a good group of 5.  Just after the second summit cp three of the runners split and head off in different directions.  That leaves you chasing the two remaining runners who are pushing quite hard.  Then your laces come undone.  Quick as a flash, they are retied.  You look up to realise that you’ve lost sight of them.

At that point get the map out….

To me, the art of navigation is a real skill and makes my visits to the hills, whether racing or otherwise, much more interesting. It improves my mountain/fell experience and helps me explore the wilder places away from the paths.  In a race, I always prefer a point to point rather than a marked course as it means the fast guys slow down a bit.  And it is even better if the clag is down.  I like to think about it as running chess perfect for the thinking runner.

To others, navigation is a dark art.

Let’s be honest here, anyone can navigate.  Everyone does it at some point. They follow the same principles and techniques. If you think about when you head out to drive to a place you’ve never been to; you check which road you will drive along, where the turn off is “..second right after the Huntsman Pub onto Long Road; carry straight on passed two sets of traffic light….”  Well, navigating in the hills uses exactly the same principles you just need to concentrate a little more, and get some practice.

Over the next two issues I’ll try and break down some of the key components of navigation and hopefully answer any of your questions along the way.

Let us start with the Basics


To navigate successfully in all weathers and over all terrain it is important you have both map and compass.  In bad weather it is vital to use both together.

Compasses come in all shapes and sizes but to be honest even the most basic does the job.  As long as it has a needle pointing north and it has the ability to take a bearing measured in degrees it will work.  You can pay a bit more and get one that is dampened so the needle settles quicker or one with roamers and magnifiers.  Unless you are a practiced orienteer then I would stay away from the likes of thumb compasses until you have developed your skill.

Using a romer scale on a compass

Maps can be more of a headache.  We all have our favourites.  Ordnance Survey and Harvey’s are the most popular although I tend find people gravitate to the map they started out with.

Map Scale is the other issue.

Larger scale maps have more detail but cover a smaller area and can appear cluttered.

Smaller scale maps have less detail but cover greater area. These can also appear cleaner.

Map scales

I’m happy with a smaller scale map in a big mountain area where valleys/crags/streams/hills are more obvious  but in the Peak District, where there are less obvious features, I’d prefer a 1:25,000.

Grid references

All the maps we use have a grid system of squares called the National Grid.  We can use this to identify any position on a map.  Each of these squares is 1 kilometre by 1 kilometre.  Using the numbers, 00-99, found across the bottom and up the sides of the map to identify which square we are in gives an accurate location.  By dividing the square by 10, we can get an even more accurate position of within 100m.

Remember to always give the numbers across the bottom first, then the numbers going up the side.  An easy way to remember this is to go along the corridor and up the stairs.

The number we are after is where the gridlines converge in the SW corner of each square.  For example, the top of Scafell Pike would be 215 072.  It’s important to note however that the 100Km grid is repeated around 55 times.  This means the grid reference is also repeated 55 times.  Each 100km square is therefore given its own letter grid.  You can find this in the corner of the map or at the boundary of the 100km square.  The grid reference for the top of Scafell Pike now becomes NY 215 072.  Remembering to add these letters is vital when giving a grid reference to the emergency services.

Some compasses come with roamers which will aid you in getting a more exact grid reference.


ContoursContours are lines on a map that join points of equal height.  They are usually 10m apart although they can be 15m or 20m on some maps so make sure you check.  Index contours appear with a thicker line every 50m, and again, check your map as some race maps tend to have 15m contours and 75m index.

Contour heights are the ONLY notation that may be written on a map upside down. The reason for this is that the higher ground is always above the written number.  Using contours is an art and much can be worked out quickly with a keen eye.

If a rise doesn’t cross a contour then it isn’t shown. Look at the diagram below the contours are the same for both examples but the actual land is slightly different. On some race maps a significant rise is sometimes shown as a broken contour.   More on this later.

Basic Techniques

Setting the map

This is the key to simple map reading.  Always have the map orientated to the land around you that way the features to your left will appear on the left of your map and those on the right, on your right.

There are two ways to do this.

The first is by matching the features around you to the map.  This means positioning the map so that all the features are lined up with your own location as the central point.  What is in front of you on the ground will be in front of you on the map, what is to your left on the ground will also be to your left on the map and so on.  The writing on the map may be upside down or sideways but that’s ok: reading upside down is a small price to may for the benefits of having the map set properly.  You can now view the map as a three-dimensional model which you have lined up with the features on the ground.

In good visibility you may be able to set the map by eye.  If you’ve just set off from your car you will probably be able to set the map by using the road and another linear feature, such as a path.  These features will form a T-junction which can be used to set the map.  A good exercise is to keep the map set and then move yourself physically around the map: so your body moves, not the map.  Once on the hill, you will need to identify prominent features, such as hills, ridges, valleys, tracks or even a distant village, and turn the map so that the features on the ground line up with you at the centre.

Setting the map

If identifiable features are not visible such as in hill fog/snow or even during night navigation, you will need to use the second option and get out a compass.

Use the magnetic needle to find north.  Line up north on the map with north on the ground.  There is no need to make any adjustments or bearings with your compass – you are just using the magnetic needle to find north.  The side edges of the map will also be pointing north.

Keep the map set when you change direction.  As you turn to face another direction you turn the map to keep it correctly set.  If your body turns to the right, your hands must turn the map to the left.

If this all sounds a bit abstract, think about how a satnav displays a route.  The arrow (you) always points forward even when you go round a corner.  The arrow remains unaltered but the map rotates around it.

Taking a bearing

This will show you which direction you need go to get to your destination.

Taking a bearing

First, align the edge or one of the directional lines on the compass along the direction of the leg A→B on the map.  It’s important that the direction of travel arrow on the compass base plate is pointing the way you want to go.  Keeping the base still, rotate the bezel housing (that’s the twisty round bit that surrounds the needle) until the lines on the base of the needle (the northing lines) match the grid lines running north to south on the map (conveniently also called northing lines).  It’s worth checking that the base plate hasn’t slipped at this point.

Now, take the compass off the map and hold it level in front of you with the directional arrow on the base plate of the compass pointing away from you.  Turn slowly until the red needle lines up with the red northing arrow in the bezel.  An easy way to remember this is to ‘put the red into the shed’, the red arrow looks like a shed.  The arrow on the base plate now shows the direction of travel.

Earlier on in the article I mentioned how everyone navigates in the car.   Well, using the same principle it is possible to navigate between two points on a map.  It doesn’t matter where you are, and even if you know exactly where you are going, you should always go through this exercise so eventually it will become second nature.

Every time we navigate from A to B we need to remember the 5 D’s


This could be simply west, south east or a more specific 275°.  It sounds obvious but so many people charge off without checking.


How far are we going to travel? This could be for the whole leg or just between features.  Is that 300m, 2k, 5k?


How long should this leg take? This will help when we get close or can let us know sooner if we have got it wrong.

More on estimating time and distance in the next edition

Handrails and tick features


What are we going to see on route?  Now, this is very important and often overlooked.  The route we take tells a story.  Read that story and you reduce the chance of getting lost. For example along the way you will expect to cross a stream, passed a sheepfold on the right, go over a col, past a crag on the left etc This is also referred to as ticking features. If your route is progressively climbing yet suddenly you are descending alarm bells should ring.


What are we heading for?   It could be something big like a trig point/path junction/road crossing/pub.  Or, especially in a mountain marathon or orienteering events, it could be a sheepfold/stream junction/re-entrant.

Also look beyond your destination for a catching feature.   If you miss your destination this could help.  It could be a sudden change in the angle of a slope, a farm house or stream.

We will now start building the basic skills to help whilst navigating

Basic Techniques

Hand railing

As the name suggests, a hand rail is a linear feature you can easily follow.  This is the simplest way to navigate and one we use all the time.  A path or road are the more obvious features but a river/stream, wall line, ridge, wood boundary will work equally well.

Aiming Off

Aiming off

There are times when you may need to walk across an area of featureless terrain.  Alternatively you may not be able to see any features due to bad visibility.  You take a bearing, say to a stream junction, and follow it.  You arrive at the stream and there is no sight of the junction but we have no idea which direction the stream junction is.  The answer is to aim off.  We deliberately aim to miss the checkpoint so when we hit the stream we now know which side the junction is.  We then hand rail the stream to the junction.

Attack points

An attack point is simply an easily located feature near to the objective.  Aiming for this makes route finding easier by shortening the distance travelled on a compass bearing.

Using Attack Points

Look at the diagram below.  Let’s assume it’s thick of fog and from our location 2 kms away we need to find a sheep fold. Taking a bearing straight there in 20m visibility, we would do well to hit the sheepfold.  The plantation is a much bigger target and easier to hit.  We could therefore aim off.  We can tick off the stream on route to gauge how far we’ve gone.  Once we pick up the plantation we can handrail the boundary to the corner. This is our attack point, a known feature where we can take a bearing to the sheep fold 50m away, this will be a lot more accurate.

Measuring Distance and Duration

There will come a time when you will need to know exactly how far you need
to travel along a path, stream or ridgeline in the mist or dark or when
there are few, if any, features to tick off.  The two techniques used for
this are pacing and timing.  Both are very accurate after some practise.
I tend to use pacing under a 1000m but move to timing above this distance
- counting out 3000m metres can be somewhat tedious to put it mildly!

Pace Calculator


In pacing you count just every second step.  For me, on the flat 30 double
paces is 50m.  This changes dependant on angle and terrain so the best way
is to measure your own paces against a fixed distance.  If you or a friend
has a 50m rope, go out and lay it over various terrain, count your paces
and make a note.  You will soon work out how many you take.  It is
important to note that you need to take a “normal pace” and not an
exaggerated one. One way to make the counting easier is to fasten 5 button
toggles to the lanyard on your compass or rucsack and slide one along
every 100m, once you have moved them all you have done 500m and you can
continue the count by moving them back. You can buy a counter that clips
to your compass.

Timing notes

For timing, I use a variant of Naismith’s Rule.  This is designed for
walking so you need to check your times over a set distance if you are
running.  Again, measure it out on the flat first then do the same
distance on a climb and note the difference.  A Bob Graham pace will
obviously be different to a two hour score event, so  practise and take a
note book or download the blank pace file below.  Once you have this
information you can make an algorithm which is very accurate.  Make a
small card and have it attached to a compass or rucsac ready to be used.
Below is the version with instructions I hand out on my navigation course
as a guide.  You need to work it out for your own stride length and pace
however feel free to scan/laminate it until you can make your own.

You can download a pacing sheet with a blank table below

Pace notes download

I think you now have enough to get out and do some practice.

Only by practice will this become second nature.  Find a safe area where you can practice with defined boundary.  It doesn’t need to huge.  Find a friend to join you.   The next time you go out on a club run get the map out and follow your route even if you know it well.  If you stop for a drink on a high point, have good look round at the bigger picture and relate the ground to the map and visa versa.

A final thought.  The number one mistake I encounter with beginners is having their head in the map to the detriment of observation.  The check point is marked on the map but you won’t find it by looking only at the map.  Open your eyes and look around you!

Walking with the map set

In the next installment we will look at navigation in a greater depth.  We will cover some more advanced techniques, tips and advice.

If you any specific questions please get in contact and I’ll do my best to respond promptly.

Can I thank MTUK for their kind permission to use the graphics.

Ian Winterburn is an experienced outdoor instructor, professional Mountain Leader and a member of Woodhead Mountain Rescue Team.  He runs his own navigation courses, is a National Navigation Award Scheme assessor and has worked on the FRA Navigation course, he runs for Dark Peak Fell Runners.

This article was published in The Fellrunner Summer 2013

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