Tips on using a Map & Compass

April 15, 2014

As the Ambleside Mountain Rescue teams received 3 calls within an hour the other Saturday from people lost in the fells, a sense of frustration again built up within me.

I do not know the specifics of these cases but I would hazard a pretty good guess that EITHER the walkers had no idea how to use an Ordnance Survey (or Harveys) map or had simply not brought one out with them.

I totally respect the work all the Mountain Rescue teams and know many members well, both in the Lakes and the Dales. As volunteers they are happy to rescue those caught genuinely unawares by their situation or those who have become injured or ill when they are out and about (that is why they volunteer) but they do become frustrated by those they believe are simply not sufficiently prepared to go walking. This may involve the gear they are wearing but more likely they simply become lost or disorientated.

On the 1 day Navigation Courses I run in the Yorkshire Dales I find that there are in general terms 2 types of people that join up. One set have a real or partial fear of a map, its complexities and how to use it and the others want to improve their skills by the use of a compass so they are confident that they can walk away from paths or be confident in cloud or when the mist comes down.

The courses are tailor made for the party that is on that course (never more than 6, usually 3 or 4 which is perfect) but operate to an outline structure of areas that I think will improve the individuals who are there. If the participants leave with an increased confidence and maybe 3 or 4 different techniques then I would deem the day a success. They may also enjoy the beautiful quiet lands of the Dales that we operate in.

Using a Map and Compass is simple, I have included below what I believe are the 10 most important things to learn

  1. Setting a map correctly
    . Either by the lie of the land around or using a compass make sure you are looking at the map the correct way round with the map pointing in the same direction as the land in front of you.
  2. Understand the scale of a map. The most popular map that walkers use is the 1.25,000 scale O/S Explorer maps (orange). Each grid (faint blue line) represents 1 kilometre and a walk on a good path or lane will take roughly 10 minutes. Try it for yourself.
  3. Pacing also helps to understand what distance you have walked . The most accurate method of measuring distance walked, pacing is particularly useful in cloud and/or off a summit when paths maybe marked or not visible on the ground.
  4. The difference between and potential consequences of walking on a Public Footpath or a Permitted footpath. (Aside from one being green and one grey on the 1.25,000 maps!)
  5. Contours and steep ground
    . A footpath running down to Gordale Scar at Malham is for example potentially dangerous for the average walker but can only be recognized as such by looking at the map contours.
  6. Boundaries. Stone walls, fences and hedges are perfect to find where you are on a walk. Even on higher land they make excellent reference points and are superbly referenced on maps
  7. Setting a bearing. Possibly the most messy thing that you will need to do but once achieved takes the fear out of off path walking or walking in the cloud/mist.
  8. Following a bearing. Just take care that you keep following where the compass points – sounds obvious but any distraction can lead you off route.
  9. Until you have mastered the above I would not worry about the mathematical A level that is Naismith’s Rule or the fact that the magnetic north is not True North, unless you want to learn to be an expert they are distractions from the more important issues.
  10. Confidence. Simply learn the key techniques and then practise them on the hills and valleys. Experience will give you the confidence,

The British Mountaineering Club are introducing a new 2 day more ‘official’ navigation skills course which looks excellent but may not be everyone’s cup of tea. All navigation training is good as far as I am concerned  but I would always stick to one where the trainer is properly qualified, the best of which is the Mountain Leader qualification.


New on the Site: I have tried to make finding walkers’ accommodation on the website easier.  This has been done  by adding a filter to the main accommodation page. These places on the site are all great for walkers, welcome walkers and that is why they are featured. Have a look!

Enjoy your walks


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  • Dawn Greenwood says:

    Wondering if me and my hubby could book on the map reading course in April. We love walking and being in the outdoors, I have previously completed the 3 peaks which I absolutely loved , when on the top of whernside the fog came down, you could barely see a foot in front of you, fortunately our group had good navigation skills, it made me realise if I was there on my own I would not have a clue. I want to be able to plan a route read a map and if the weather does change I want to know I would still be safe and know how to navigate safely.
    If the 2nd of April is booked can you let me know the next available dates
    Dawn Greenwood

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