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Navigation

Key Points

  • Study the map and plan your route
  • Set the map in relation to the ground
  • Learn to use a compass before you need to use it
  • Have a map and compass to hand on the walk
  • Know where you are
  • Inform and check in with a responsible person
  • Top Tips:
    • TIMING – To estimate your journey time, use 4kph plus 1 minute per 10 metres of height gain. Add 10 minutes per hour for rests.
    • PACING – Use a known distance between to fixed points to work out how many paces you take over 100 metres. Adjust this according to the terrain.

Introduction

Every year, tourists, walkers and climbers get into trouble on the Scottish Hills due to errors of navigation. If you intend to go into the Scottish Hills, even the low ones, it is essential that you plan the walk using appropriate maps of the area.

Work out roughly how long the walk you have selected should take – this will depend on your fitness and the capability of the weakest member of your party along with a number of other factors:

  • STEEPNESS OF THE GROUND – you may have to zigzag your route
  • TERRAIN – walking is often harder than the map would suggest due to boulders, scree or boggy and vegetated ground
  • WEATHER – bad weather and poor visibility can dramatically affect estimated times
  • STREAMS – these can quickly become swollen and impassable in heavy rain

Plan Ahead!

If you are inexperienced and/or you do not know the area, seek local advice about the route. Get instruction and learn how to use a map and your compass, starting in easy conditions and practicing until you are competent in bad weather. Use a compass with a long base plate that is easy to read and well damped. Silva UK produce a good compass as well as other navigational aids. Before leaving you may want to take note of crucial bearings you may require on the walk. You should also plan an alternative route incase of unexpected conditions or emergencies. Remember, don’t feel obliged to carry on – it is safest to turn back early. If you leave details of your routes with a responsible person before you leave, make sure you contact them on your return.

On The HillÂ…

While on the hill, even in good visibility and on paths, pay attention to the map and be sure of your position. Do not wait until you are lost before you use your map and compass – it could be too late!

Poor Visibility

If mist or cloud begins to close in, note the ground features, estimate their position and distance from you and judge how long it will take for you to reach them. Use timing and pacing to help you. Pay particular attention to contours and try to stick to your chosen route. Take extra care when leaving summits of where ridges meet. Gross errors are often made here and when descending in poor visibility. Many parties become separated or lost at this phase.

When lostÂ…

If you become unsure of your position, either retrace your track to the last known position or head in a direction that will take you back on course if it is safe to do so. If completely lost, stop and consider which is the safest way of the mountain. Use the compass to travel carefully in that direction, using the map and ground features together until you recognise features and relocate yourself.

Winter Conditions

Some of the most exhilarating mountain days can be had in winter, but it is wise to obtain extra instruction in the skills of using ice axe and crampons. Keeping track of where you are on snow-covered ground and in poor visibility needs a high degree of navigational skill and much practice to be successful. Unfortunately, tragedies do occur in winter when people stray onto dangerous ground or fall through cornices. When ‘whiteout’ conditions develop due to snow being blown about and cloud, it is easy to become disorientated and it is extremely difficult to navigate.

Using a GPS

A handheld GPS unit can be a useful additional tool to have at your disposal, especially in difficult low-visibility situations. However, a GPS is only useful if you know how to use it. This may seem an obvious point but it is not uncommon to hear stories of mountain rescue calls where the caller was carrying a GPS but was unable to interpret their position from it. As every GPS unit is different you should familiarise yourself with the features and user interface of your own model. Read the instruction manual and practice using it outside your home before you start using it for real.

Note that you should always still carry a paper map and compass and know how to use them, partly because a GPS alone is usually not as useful as a GPS accompanied by a map and compass, but also because it is inadvisable to be dependent on your GPS.

  • On-screen maps are rarely as useful as a real paper map, due to issues such as small screen size, slow update intervals, or poor map quality.
  • The onscreen compass is also no substitute for a real one, unless your GPS unit also has a magnetic compass built in, which many units do not have. (This is because GPS is a tool for measuring your position only, so it needs you to be moving in order to see how your position is changing and hence what direction you are going in, so it can then tell you where north is relative to that direction. The compass reading is therefore also affected by the accuracy of the GPS position, which can be poor at times.) 
  • Your GPS may stop working for numerous reasons ranging from flat batteries to cold or wet conditions or even physical damage.
  • Often a GPS is most effective when used in conjunction with a map and compass as follows (especially useful in low visibility):
    1. Use a GPS to get your current co-ordinates
    2. Find these on the map to see where you are
    3. Now you know where you are use a compass to take a bearing from here to a point you are aiming for on the map
    4. Follow the bearing using the compass
    5. Periodically check the GPS to confirm you are following the bearing accurately
    6. If you have veered off course carry out the same procedure again from your current position
    7. Arrive at the point you are aiming for (confirm by GPS). Take another bearing if necessary.

The following Garmin PDF is worth reading (even if your GPS is made by a different manufacturer):
Using a GPS in conjunction with paper maps

Warning re. Smartphones

The fact that many people now have smartphones means many more people have a GPS with them, since most smartphones have one built in.

Smartphones can be useful for mountain navigation but BEWARE:

  • Standard smartphone software (e.g. Google Maps) is not suitable
    • it doesn’t provide detailed enough maps for mountain navigation
    • the maps are only downloaded when you try and view them
    • you almost certainly won’t have a strong enough phone signal to be able to access the maps when you need them
    • you’ll most likely end up with a blue “you are here” dot on a blank screen with a “loading map…” indicator – not helpful!
    • what’s more standard maps apps like this won’t usually give you your Grid Reference so you can’t use them to check your location on a paper map.
  • Smartphone batteries often don’t last long enough for you to rely on them
  • The batteries run out even more quickly when you are in a low-signal area, as the phone is trying hard to find a signal all the time.
  • Touchscreens usually don’t work properly when they get wet (i.e. when it’s raining) and are hard to read in bright sunlight.

TOP TIPS for all hillwalkers who own a smartphone:

  1. Install an app on your phone which tells you your position as a Grid Reference in Ordnance Survey British National Grid co-ordinates (e.g. iPhone: GridPoint GB, Android: Grid Reference). Do this BEFORE you head out to the hills and TEST it, get an OS map for your current location and look up the grid reference the app gives you. Check it’s right.
  2. When going out in the hills, make sure your phone is fully charged at the start of the day. Keep your phone off or in “Airplane mode” to save battery, so you have plenty of charge left if and when you need it. With most smartphones you can enable only the GPS receiver whilst keeping the phone’s other antennas turned off, saving battery power.
  3. Consider getting an app which allows you to download and store OS Maps on your phone, and shows your GPS position overlaid on them. This is very nice to have BUT make sure you can store the maps on your phone before leaving home, so you don’t need a phone signal to view them!
  4. Note getting a mapping app as mentioned in point 3 is not essential, what’s important is being able to get a grid reference from your phone (point 1) – then you can simply refer to a paper map (also uses less of you’re phone’s battery too).
  5. Keep your phone dry! Most phones are not waterproof and can easily get damaged by moisture. “Waterproof” pockets of jackets and rucksacks are not sufficient protection from Scottish mountain weather – if you can, use a proper drybag (ideally an “aquapac”) or a fully waterproof phone case. If you have to improvise try a plastic ziploc sandwich bag!
  6. Remember never to rely on a smartphone (or even a standard GPS) for navigation – always know how to use a map and compass and traditional navigation methods!