Top Tips for Successful Navigation

Article by Nik Cook
Tuesday 11th December 2012

Top Tips for Successful Navigation


For many would be adventure racers and mountain marathon competitors, the navigation aspect of these events can be intimidating and off-putting. However, armed with a bit of basic knowledge and then some practice putting these skills into use, you’ll soon be taking bearings, hand-railing and aiming off with the best of them.


James Mitchell is an Outdoors Lecturer at the University of Derby’s Buxton Faculty. Here, hundreds of students gain unrivalled knowledge and experience on outdoor adventure and countryside management programmes at its outstanding  real-world facilities which include a 58-acre outdoor leadership centre.


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Here are his top tips for successful navigation when training and racing. 


Customise your map- Ideally you want a map that’s easy to manage,tucks away easily, and makes it easy to locate you position. Here’s a few tips:


Cut your map to size- There are usually a lot of areas on a map you will never need. Get rid of them to make your map a more manageable size. Get rid of the hard cardboard cover. Before you cut your map, don’t forget to consider emergency escape routes and make sure you can see some grid reference numbers. Write on the top the map name/ area and mark the magnetic variation.


Laminating- If you’ve cut down a pre-laminated map, seal the edges with tape to prevent water getting in. A good alternative is to buy non-laminated maps and laminate them yourself. A roll of soft laminate, available from any stationary shop works well, and gives you a map which is really easy to fold and manage. Laminating pouches can be used but they tend to be too stiff to fold away and crack easily. A variety of map cases are available in varying qualities. On the whole they tend to be too bulky to fold away. Obscure detail on the map. Reflect light from you head torch making it difficult to see at night. And in windy conditions take every opportunity to slap you in the face or strangle you!


Fold and thumb the map- Fold your map so you’ve got just the area you need, and small enough that you can slip it into a pocket when you need your hands free. When it’s in your hand hold it with your thumb on your current position. That way, you can find your place at a glance.


Draw on your map- On difficult legs, plot key identification features on your map (being careful not to obscure any important detail), using a fine permanent marker.  Markings can be removed later using a variety of substances (toothpaste works).


Locating your position on the map- Being able to identify your current position is one of the most fundamental skills of navigation.  If visibility allows identify four features surrounding your position. The closer the features are to your position the more accurately you will be able to identify where you are on the map. The more features you can identify, the more difficult it is to convince yourself your somewhere your not. Be honest with yourself, if it doesn’t fit with the map, your not where you think you are. A good navigator will be constantly challenging their own assumptions.

Orientating the map- Navigation is a lot simpler if you hold the map so that it is orientated. Once you have identified the feature surrounding your position, rotate the map until the features on the map match up with their corresponding features on the ground. In poor visibility or darkness, the map can be orientated using the compass. Lay the compass on top of the map and then rotate the map until the compass needle (red being north) runs parallel to the North/ South gridlines on the map (the vertical thin blue lines). With the map orientated, identifying the correct direction of travel is a lot simpler. 


Tactics for getting A to B- Now you’ve identified where you are, and your maps orientated, the next step is working out where you want to get to, and how your going to get there. Depending on the terrain and conditions, there are a number of tactics which can be utilized. Familiarity with a wide range of techniques will allow you to select a tactic which offers the optimum balance of speed and accuracy.


Breaking down the journey into smaller navigation legs- The more complex the navigation, the shorter the legs need to be. If your following the same bridleway for the next 3km, to an obvious feature, put the map away and get running. If your in poor visibility on complex terrain, keep sections short, and keep your navigation precise. Don’t forget to ask yourself, are there any dangers you need to avoid


Tick off features- Consider your journey from A to B like a story. What features are you going to pass and in what order. Keep the story in your head, and as you pass the feature, mentally tick it off. If the story unveiling in front of you doesn’t match the one you described, chances are something has gone wrong. Stop and have a re-think. Where an obvious path doesn’t exist, identify a series of features to aim for one after another. Don’t forget to pay particular attention to the features at your destination so you’ll recognize it when you get there.

  • Handrails- Linear features such as fences, walls, escarpments, ridges, valleys can be followed like a handrail, simplifying and speeding up navigation.
  • Funnel or corridor features- Where two linear features converge, a natural boundary is created, leading the navigator naturally to their destination. This keeps the navigation fast and simple.
  • Overshoot features- To ensure you don’t go too far identify and overshoot feature, usually some kind of linear feature. Something which would be hard to miss and indicates that you’ve missed your chosen destination.
  • Taking a bearing- Where a high degree of accuracy is required, often in poor visibility or darkness.Taking a bearing would be difficult to cover in the scope of this article. See for a short video on the basics.
  • Attack points- Following a bearing can only ever be accurate to within 10%. Over longer distances you risk missing your target. It is sometime more accurate to take a bearing to a larger, more defined feature (such as a large woodland boundary) which is closer to your target. When you hit the woodland, take a second bearing from a clearly defined point (such as the corner of woodland boundary). Finding a definite attack point, closer to your target reduces the chances of you missing you final destination.
  • Aiming off-  Where drifting off from a bearing cause you to miss your target, aiming off means that you deliberately aim to one side of the target. For example, if you needed to hit a stile in the middle of a long wall boundary, you could take a bearing which is well to the left of the stile. That way when you hit the wall, you know you have to turn right and then you will definitely reach the stile. Aim off by 20%. Eg. If your target is 1km away aim 200m to the left of the stile.


Distance and time- Being able to effectively measure distance, both on the map and on the ground is an essential skill. It allows you to plan how far/ long your overall journey will be, ensuring you get the workout you were looking for and no more/ less. The ability to measure distance can also dramatically increase the accuracy of your navigation.


  • Measuring distance on the map- As maps are made using a variety of different scales, you need to convert the map scale to be able to understand how the distance on the map relates to the distance on the ground. Here’s an example:


On a 1:25 000 map, remove the last three zero’s to get millimeters to meters.

e.g. 1mm on the map = 25m on the ground.


Measure the distance between two points in millimeters, using the ruler on the top edge of most compasses, and convert the number to meters. 


e.g. 4mm = 100m    


 If your not great at math’s, buy a compass with a roamer scale on (a measuring scale specific to a particular scale of map). The roamer will have the scale eg. 1:25 000 next to it.


  • Timing- Now you can measure distance on the map, you now have to be able to measure distance on the ground. Timing provides one method. Timing is a very personalized method, it depends how fast you walk/ run/ bike. If you walk at 4km per hour, and the turn you are looking for is 1km away. You know when you’ve been walking for 15mins you should be pretty close. If you’ve been walking for 25mins, chances are you’ve passed it. Getting timing accurate is a bit of an art form, the speed you walk/ run/ bike will differ when your tired, going uphill/ downhill, depending on the surface (tarmac, boggy terrain). It is a technique which requires practice. Go out and time yourself on a variety of terrains. The more you do it the more accurate you will get. 
  • Pacing- An alternative to measuring distance by timing is pacing. Find two points 100m apart and pace between the two points counting every time you put your right foot down (don’t stride, use your normal walk/ run). This will give you a magic number that will be personal to you (the average is around 65). For example, if you were looking for a feature 500m away from your current position, simply walk your magic number 5 times. You will need to adjust your number depending on the terrain (uphill/ downhill, boggy, rocky, etc), this requires practice and a bit of practice. 



Generally speaking, the simplest way to measure distance is to estimate where you are in relation to your tick off features.  Timing and pacing are used when a greater degree of accuracy is required. A combination of pacing and timing offers the greatest accuracy, where one helps to confirm the other. 


Contour interpretation- One of the most important representations on a map is topography (the shape of the land). The shape of the land is represented by contour lines (usually brown lines on the map which link points of equal height above sea level). Once you learn how to interpret contour lines, the map becomes 3 dimensional, offering an immense amount of detail. It is beyond the scope of this article to offer a detailed description of interpreting contours. See the recommended reading list for more detailed explanation. Interpreting contours is probably one of the most difficult navigational concepts to grasp. However, It’s definitely worth making the effort.


Linking it all together- Here’s two systems that give you a structured way to plan a navigational leg. Firstly, the 5 D’s


Dangers- Are there any potential dangers en route, which you will need to avoid.


Direction- Which direction will you need to head in.


Description-  What are the tick off features you will pass en route, what does your destination look like, and what will you see if you go too far?


Distance- How far is it to your destination?


Duration- How long will the leg take?


 In addition to the ‘5 D’s’ the ‘5 what’s’ are useful for planning the appropriate skills to be used during the leg.


What are the potential hazards en route?


What are you going to see en route?


What are you going to see when you reach your destination?


What would you see if you went too far?


What are the most appropriate tactics/ skills to use on this leg?



If you can master all of the techniques described above, you’ll be well on your way to becoming a good navigator. The real skill is learning when and where to use each technique to effectively balance accuracy and efficiency. Non of the skills described above are best used in isolation. On any give leg, a combination of skills is required to maximise effectiveness. This article was only written as a taster. There are a variety of books on the market which you can use to add depth of knowledge to this article (see below for a recommended reading list). In reality, experience is the best teacher. Do a bit of reading, and practice until it becomes second nature. If you do, you’ll see the benefits in terms of safety, confidence to explore more remote areas, reduced energy expenditure through picking the most efficient route, and shaving valuable minutes off race times.


Recommended Reading


Navigation in the Mountains- The definitive guide for Hill Walkers & Leaders. Forte, C.


Mountaineering: The Essential Skills for Mountain Walkers and Climbers. Richardson, A.


Mountain Navigation. Cliff, P.





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