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Navigation - Learn to Read or Get Lost!

Every year, tourists, walkers and climbers get into trouble in the Scottish Hills due to errors of navigation. If you intend to go into the Scottish hills even low ones, it is essential that you plan the walk using appropriate maps of the area. Harveys produce maps of many popular walking areas that are detailed, easy to read and also tough and waterproof.

Work out roughly how long the walk you have selected should take - this will depend on the fitness of the weakest member of your party and a variety of other factors including:

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 situations in good weather and practising until you are competent in poor weather.

Use a compass with a long baseplate that is easy to read and well damped. Silva UK produce good compasses, as well as a range of other navigational aids. Before leaving your base you may want to work out and keep a note of crucial bearings that you may require on the walk.

Also you should plan an alternative route in case conditions deteriorate or become worse than expected. Do not feel obliged to carry on -remember the safest option is to turn back early.

If you leave a note of your intended and alternative routes with a responsible person, make sure you contact them on your return.

TOP TIP 1 - TIMING: To estimate how long your route will take, calculate the time by using 4 kmph (for a party of reasonably fit adults) plus 1 minute per 10 metres height gain. Add another 10 minutes per hour for stops.

On The Hill

When you are on the hills in good visibility, even when on paths, pay close attention to the map and make sure you are where you think you are and are going in the right direction. Do not wait until you are unsure of your position before you use your map and compass - it could be too late!

In 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 you to reach them. Use timing and pacing to help you. Pay particular attention to the information given by the contour lines on the map. Use your compass to maintain your chosen course.

Take extra care when leaving summits or where ridges meet. Gross errors are made here and when descending slopes in poor visibility - many parties become split up or lost on this phase of the walk.

When Lost

If you become unsure of your position, either retrace your tracks to the last known position, or, after working out roughly where you are and if the terrain is safe, head in the direction that will take you back on course.

If you get completely lost, stop and consider which is the safest direction to get off the hill or 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 Condititons

Some of the most exhilarating mountain days can be had in winter but it is wise to get some instruction in the additional skills of using an ice axe and crampons.

Keeping track of where you are on snow covered terrain and in poor visibility needs a high degree of navigational skill and much practice to be successful. Unfortunately every winter tragedies are caused by people straying onto dangerous ground or falling through cornices. When snow is falling or being blown about and it is cloudy, "whiteout" conditions develop. When this happens it is easy to get disorientated and extremely difficult to navigate.

TOP TIP 2 - PACING: Use a known distance between two fixed points or walk along a rope of known length to work out how many double paces you take over 100 metres Remember to adjust this as you progress onto steeper more difficult ground.

Key Points to Remember

If you would like to improve your navigational skills then see the Mountaineering Scotland Navigation courses. For further advice on 12 key navigation skills to master, see the Navigator's Dozen from the bottom menu; we also have a page of frequently asked questions about the use of GPS devices and smartphones as aids to navigation.

Safety and skills information is provided courtesy of Mountaineering Scotland