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Habits for Good Navigation.

Storm Ciara is currently pummeling Wales, so thought I'd make use of the day to get a few words down about navigation and what I think helps to make for an efficient day out walking. This is aimed at people who may be new to hill walking or map reading and want to get out to some new places in non winter conditions. If you are just going for a walk in the mountains, you needn't be at risk of any real catastrophe. Yes, mountains can be dangerous places and people do die, even on walks in relatively tame environments, but with the right thinking and planning, you can reduce the chances of having a bad day to a fairly low probability. Identifying the dangers around you and avoiding them with good navigation is one of the best things you can do to make your time in the hills safer and more enjoyable. Key navigational terms in the blog are identified with Italic writing. I'm certainly not an expert but I use all the techniques here when I spend time in the mountains of Snowdonia and Scotland and I spend a lot of time in the mountains! I teach these navigation skills on my courses in Snowdonia and enjoy it. The basic routines written here, once habitualised during your time outside and developed, will help you explore all the beautiful mountains you see on Instagram and Facebook.


Do your homework. Getting to grips with your route before you even leave the house will make life easier on the ground. Sitting at home on a crap weather day with a map and a nice coffee is a fine way to pass the time and as the old saying goes 'Time spent reading a map is rarely wasted'. That being said, it is 2020 and the quality of digital mapping software is mind blowing. There are many different apps/programmes on the market and different people have different preferences. Personally, I use Viewranger. You can switch between a variety of views, from 1:25 & 1:50 OS map scales to satellite photograph and 3D flyover. The 3D imaging is particularly useful for sections of mountain without any marked paths on the map. Google maps has incredibly detailed 3D imaging and you can even switch to first person view from many summits. Marry all this information with google maps to identify a parking location and drop a pin so your drive in is efficient. Creatinga route plan and familiarising yourself with it at home will pay you back when you are out.

Fold your map to the correct area at home. Don't try and do it in the car park in the wind!

Navigate from the car park. Confirm you are at the correct location before you even start walking.

Use your map. Get in the habit of keeping your map accessible. Either keep it in your pocket, securely strapped to your bag or inside your jacket.

Don't leave it buried deep inside your bag! It's no good to anyone safely stowed away out of sight and out of mind. Don't walk around with a map case tied around you neck. It doesn't look good and you'll be liable to either strangle yourself in or just get slapped about by it when it gets windy. Neither is enjoyable. Buy a waterproof map so you don't need a case.

Orientate your map every single time you look at it. Making sense of the world around you will become so much easier with an orientated map. You will often hear this as 'setting the map'. In simple terms, it means that North on your map is aligned with actual North. Understanding the 'Three Norths' will make sense of why this is important. This is for another blog. Every time you look at the map, you are visualising where you are on that map. If you locate yourself correctly on the map and it is orientated, then what is in front of you in real life should be in front of your hypothetical location on the map.

Every single time you get that map out, you orientate it. Every single time!

Keep your phone for emergencies. Digital mapping is great for planning before a walk but definitely should not be your primary means of navigation on the hill. Phones are unreliable. Satellites are not always accessible. Rain and high wind together will force water into 'waterproof' phones through sheer pressure. Cold will destroy your battery, especially if you have an iPhone. Phones are difficult to use with thick gloves. I can't tell you how many times my phone has been adamant I was in a lake! If you are having a bit of a 'mare, by all means, get it out and have a check to help confirm your location. If you're having an easy day with good visibility and on good paths and only need periodic confirmation, go for it - just don't be fooled into thinking that relying on your phone for primary means of navigation is good. It's not. It's the exception to the rule. Occasionally breaking the rules is ok when you know the rules and know when it's ok to break them.

Track your progress. This is why we keep our map accessible. On my navigation courses, I recommend people carry a waterproof pencil and make small dots on the map each time you confirm your location. If you have a waterproof map, the pencil will write on it in all weather and not wipe off until you choose to wipe it. Back in the day, people used to 'thumb' the map - literally keeping a thumb on your current location. It's far more practical to just leave a small dot on the map. This habit brings two benefits, it encourages you to keep a constant awareness of your location and if you do manage to get a bit off track, you should have a reference point to your last known location (last dot).

Waiting until you are lost to get your map out is a recipe for confusion.

Use easily identifiable features. If you are new to walking in the mountains, then you should mostly be walking on big, obvious paths or along linear features. These might be things like fences/walls (boundaries), forest roads, alongside watercourses and maybe ridges. In navigation terms, this is called handrailing. You are using the feature as a handrail. Along the way, you might reach significant changes in the landscape, these can be things like bends/forks in rivers & roads, changes of direction in walls, crossroads in paths, steep hills, cliff faces etc. These are called 'tick' or 'collecting' features because we tick them off as we see them. When you first start to navigate, this is a very conscious act - you have to think about it - but as you develop your skills, this act of looking/seeing and noting down changes in the landscape will become subconscious - you notice things without looking for them, even while doing something else. This is when you will know that you are getting it!

Confirm your location on the map by trying to identify four features in four directions. Think 'X marks the spot'

Make micro plans. A really important routine to get into is breaking your journey down into sections and making micro plans. In essence, when you get to a known point, or a confirmed location; you look at the next stage of your journey on the map and build up a mental picture of it. Identify tick features or hazards you should see along the way and decide on a catching feature - something that will stop you going the wrong way. When you get there, you repeat the process. I call this the 'navigation loop' and believe it is absolutely key to efficient navigation in the mountains. Think of it like this:

  • Where am I now?

  • Where am I going? (take a bearing)

  • What will I see along the way?

  • What will I see when I arrive

  • How long will it take? (Check the time, too)

Adjust your level of detail according to the conditions. If you are walking in good weather along easy terrain with obvious features, then your loop of information between the map and the ground will be quite simple and might go something like "I'm here on the summit of x mountain, I'm going to walk down this ridge to that lake, take the left side of it and carry on up to the next summit" You can see where you're heading quite far around you, all is well and you can relax.

If the weather is a bit rubbish and you have less visibility, your micro plan will reduce in scale and the detail you build into it will increase. Then it might go something like "I'm here, on the summit of X mountain, I need to walk South for about 200m, taking care for the steep edge to my left, where the path will also get a bit steeper and carry on in a straight line for another 600m where I should cross a boundary. After the boundary, the slope eases off and in another 200m, I should get to a lake. I will aim for the SE side of the lake." It should take me about 15 minutes to reach the lake. Each section that your journey breaks down into is called a leg. When each leg includes a lot of detail over a short distance, this is called 'micro navigation'

You should always have a constant flow of information from the map to the ground and vice versa - the level of detail depends on the conditions and terrain.

Be flexible with your plan/route. Shit happens, be prepared to deal with it. If you have to adjust your route for whatever reason, just stop for a few minutes and sit down. Confirm your current location and make a plan. First look for any alternative paths that head back to your start point. If there are no clear paths or if it would just be quicker, easier or safer, consider turning back the way you came. There's never any harm in turning around. If going forward or backward is not an option, then you need to identify alternative safe ground to travel on, identifying any hazards and planning around them. Going 'off piste' and leaving the paths can be scary and dangerous. Never blindly walk away from paths without checking your map...

If in doubt, stop. Sit down. Spend some time looking at the map and make a micro plan.

It might sound silly, but not getting lost is easy when you always know where you are. That is what this blog is trying to get you to do - to keep constant track of your location. You don't have to locate yourself to 100% accuracy all the time, all day, but a constant awareness of your surroundings is the goal. It might take you a while to get it into your subconscious habits but once it's there, it's there and these techniques, when built upon and refined will help you walk through winter mountains in a whiteout using only your map and compass and personal abilities. That is such an empowering skill. You won't need to rely on anyone to 'take you out' or look after you. It's doable for just about anyone with a small amount of intelligence and commitment. Still it's possible for anyone to have a shit day and get a bit lost but if you've been keeping up with your routines then a few simple questions can help you get back on the right track, so to speak.

  • Where was my last known location? (did you dot your map?!)

  • When was I there? (what time is it now/how long has passed)

  • Which direction did I go?

  • What did I see along the way?

  • What can I see now? (X marks the spot!)

If you are able to go through this thought process, then your ability to figure out where you are (to relocate) will be greatly improved.

To summarise the blog in a few bullet points: Good navigation is based on good routines. Good routines for a day out walking in unfamiliar terrain include

  • Planning before you leave.

  • Navigating right from the car park.

  • Keeping your map handy.

  • Orientating it every single time you look at it.

  • Tracking your progress.

  • Regularly confirming your location and

  • Making micro plans suitable to the conditions.

  • Always being prepared to be flexible with your plans.

Of course, there is more to each of the points listed here than I have written. Some things might make sense and others probably won't! All of this information and more skills such as actually reading the map and using it with a compass are covered in my courses.

Open courses run each month for anyone to book onto and cost £45 per person.

Private courses can be arranged at anytime or location within Snowdonia for £140 per day, for up to 4 people.

Send an email to info@exploringsnowdonia.co.uk or message on social media if you'd like some info about courses.