Navigation Skills

February 13, 2023

Learning Navigation Skills is an important element when heading in the countryside. There are two distinctive levels of skills you should have. The first concentrates on the basics; map reading and overcoming many of the fears people have when heading into the outdoors. Once mastered learn the second set of skills which will take you further afield, up mountains, in to the cloud and more remote countryside.

This blog explains the key elements to each stage and how leaning the basic skills leads seamlessly to the more advanced one. We offer training courses for both. Many walkers however are happy to stick with stage 1 which will enable them to walk happily and confidently in lowland countryside.

However, as important as courses which train Navigation Skills are, its individual practice which will make the difference. Walking on your own, getting lost, pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone and big dollops of practice all combine to make you confident in any outdoor situation. Your enjoyment of being out walking will be increased tenfold!

On the Beginner’s Course

Starting Off

At the start of the Beginners Navigation Course, which is now in its 10th year, I ask the simple question “Why are you here” The answers inevitably fall in the four categories

  • “I will get lost”, “I cant read a map” and “I have always followed someone else”
  • “I have only followed a guide book”, “I followed some step by step instructions but got lost at the 3rd oak tree”
  • “I am scared I will upset someone (landowner)”, “The countryside is frightening”, “I feel I should not there”
  • “I learned to read a map years ago in Scouts/Guides/D of E and forgotten it all”.

The common thread on all these answers is there is a lack of confidence and in many case real fear in venturing in to the outdoors. For many they get no further and the lost thousands who stay at home never take the opportunity to become healthier (mentally and physically) as well as enjoying a straightforward hobby. Fortunately those who join a course will overcome their fears.

Map and Compass, in harmony

Stage 1 Training. The Beginners Course

The most important thing is to therefore give the attendee ‘confidence’. Confidence comes from a combination of knowledge and practice. Simply opening a map and looking at it is a good first stage (we use the excellent 1.25,000 O/S Explorer maps). Spreading out a map is daunting, to many it is utterly baffling, to most there is a familiarity if not an understanding.

Even those who have used maps will be shown something new. For example what is Access Land, what does it mean to the walker and landowner and how is it shown on a map? Very few people know.

The Three Key Principles

Map reading can be boiled down into three key areas.

  • Scale. How the distances on the map relate to distances on the ground.
  • Where can I walk? This is about Rights of Way/Footpaths (which can be different) and Access/Non Access land.
  • Features. What to look for so you know where you are ie: boundaries/buildings/streams and contours.

There is a lot of information on a map which is unnecessary and can be confusing. Once you have understood what to look for on a map and what they mean, finding your way around a walk becomes much more straightforward. The three key principles listed above quickly make sense. Once understood it is a simple step to plan a straightforward walk. All of this takes no more than a couple of hours.

Recognizing the Features

The remainder of the Beginner’s Training day is spent out and about. The most important lesson is to relate what you see on a map to what is around you. Probably the most common comment I make to those on the course is to “Look around”. It is so easy, with map in hand, not to look around and keep your eyes fixed firmly on the map. However take time to look around, after all that is why you are there!

An example of a key feature is boundaries. Boundaries are the most important feature on a map for those starting off. I always say if you find a boundary (which may be a wall, fence or hedge) you should know where they are. They rarely change (walls have been there for 100s of years) and are clear and obvious to spot. They head off in different directions, have kinks in, corners, meet other walls and create a patterns that is unmistakeable.

Map to Land

Using a Compass

I will introduce compasses in a limited way on the Beginners Course. Compasses are tactile, more exciting than maps and easier to handle. However on any given walk the chances of using a compass are less than 10% In comparison using a map happens on every walk. Compasses, however, are important for two exercises on the training day:

  • Orientating your map. This is simply the most important thing to learn on a Beginners Course, the technique that makes the map mirror exactly the land around. A non orientated map is very difficult to use at best and useless at worst.
  • A Basic Bearing. At the beginners level this is about making sure you are on the correct path. How many times have you come over a stile and found no path on the ground to follow? Or there is a choice of two paths (one may be a sheep/farm track). Taking a simple bearing will make sure you are on the correct path.

And that is it. In one day you should be able to look at a map, plan a walk on footpaths, work out how long it takes and complete it without being constantly concerned you will become lost.

Following a Bearing

Endless Practice

My parting message to those who have taken the course is to get outside (probably on a walk familiar to them) and practice, practice, practice. There is no better way to gain confidence.

When us instructors completed our own training in order to become a Mountain Leader we have to fill in a log book for the period between training and assessment with a number of ‘Mountain Days’. That is simply because it is no good being trained on a course and then not practicing afterwards. Navigation Training is easily forgotten.

Stage 2 Training. The Mountain Skills Course

The Beginners Training course lays the groundwork for navigating on paths and generally lower level walks. Following the course you should be able to read a map and plan/follow a simple route. Anyone who wants to explore the more remote countryside and ‘peak bag’ our mountain areas would be helped by taking some further training. Being confident following a path on a map is one thing, leaving the path in misty conditions is very different. However before venturing on the higher hills make sure you are confident of all the foundation skills.

Trig Point found, Newton Moor

A New Course for the Mountains

Although this used to be called our Intermediate Course I always felt it was more than that. In essence the Mountain Skills Training Course should equip people with the skills to cope with walking at height or in remote country where the weather and terrain may be tricky. These conditions require additional skills.

The 3 Key Skills

  • Advanced Compass Skills. Developing bearings over rougher, featureless, land can be combined with more advanced techniques of back bearing, relocation, leap frogging and distance awareness.
  • Using Contours: The steepness, shapes and direction of contours are key to mountain navigation. Reading the land via contours should always put you in the correct location.
  • Spatial Awareness: This is nothing more than looking around and thinking your way through a route. It comes with experience but also a confidence in being remote and high.

The ability to read the land around has always helped me. Even if you feel a little lost there should never be a need to panic. Panicking will inevitably lead to more mistakes. The answer to being lost will be nearby and in the techniques which you have learnt. Just think through the problem.

Using the Contours

Getting it Wrong

It is inevitable though there will be occasions when you really are lost. You will have messed up (and it will be your fault, not anybody else/or the equipment). Do not panic, think it through and relocate yourself. There will be a feature nearby to pinpoint your position. I once ended in the wrong valley whilst walking the Red Pike ridge above Buttermere in bad weather. The trees of Ennerdale was disappointing (!!!) but not as much as the look on my mates face when I admitted that we were in the wrong place. It was year’s ago but he has not forgotten!

Paper Maps/Apps & GPS

Technology has changed over the years, as has my use of paper maps. I have discussed this more in a previous blog but would make the following observations (2023):

  • Learn to Navigate with O/S 1.25,000 Explorer maps
  • Once learnt the O/S app great for use on the mountain (its free but pay for the £25 a year upgrade to 1.25,000 maps).
  • Do not rely on any app on its own. Your phone may not have reception, they eat batteries whilst in use and get wet.
  • I love planning walks on a paper map, you can spread it out in the quiet at home and the walk becomes alive.
  • I always have the correct paper map in my pack but tend to use the O/S app during the walk. However the paper map is a vital back up (make sure you have a sandwich bag to keep it dry) and can add a lot to a walk. In particular in good weather spread your map out and recognize the views around you.
  • Harvey maps are good, they are clearer to read for those who’s eyes are failing them!
  • I dislike following a GPX route. I want to make up my own routes and not be constantly worried I have missed a waypoint. The enjoyment of a walk is the scenery you are looking at, not just following waypoints.
Harvey Maps

Walking is fun and a chance to explore places, history and landscapes.Joining a Navigation Skills course makes it much more so. Having the basic skills is helpful but BEWARE, once you get in to maps, navigation and compass work it can become addictive. There is always more to learn.

Enjoy your walking


1 Comment
  • John Shipp says:

    I completed the beginners navigation course on Saturday 25th March, something I would highly recommend to anyone interested in learning how to read a map and use a compass.
    Jonathan’s teaching style is excellent, the classroom period in the morning was informative and interesting, who knew learning to read a map could be so absorbing? After lunch the theory was put into practice with a walk around the countryside. Jonathan’s explanation of how to read a map in conjunction with the use of a compass and how to relate this to the surrounding contours and landmarks around us was first class.
    The whole day just flew by, this was not only due to Jonathan but also the other participants on the course who provided humour and companionship throughout.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Discover more from Where2Walk

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading