Map reading

If everyone who went out into the British hills knew how to navigate well the job of the Mountain Rescue teams would be considerably easier. Bad navigation can lead to groups becoming lost and disorientated, getting onto steep, dangerous ground and being out much longer than planned which can cause exhaustion and lead on to hypothermia. Mountain Rescue call-outs are very often the result of bad planning and bad navigation.


Mountain navigation is very different from finding your way through a city with a road map. Navigation in the Lake District or Wales, for example, is also not as easy as in many other countries: once away from the road side there are no signposts cluttering up the British landscape and it is often necessary to be able to navigate across featureless moors with no paths at all. Paths that are marked on the map are not always visible on the ground or there may be more paths on the hillside than you were expecting from looking at the map. Anyone who thinks they can just follow a path to the first left hand turning and take that path to the top is very likely to get lost and confused. You must be able to interpret contour lines so that you can be sure the path you are walking along really is following the same route as the dashes on the map.


GPS units are getting better and better and will inevitably soon become part of most hill walkers’ kit but they are not a substitute for good use of a map and compass. A GPS is an excellent way of finding out your current location (unless your batteries have just run out) but if you want to get from there to your car it can only point you in a straight line; if there is a cliff between you and your car your GPS will send you over it. A competent navigator should be able to not only locate her current position but also decide upon the quickest, easiest and safest route home.


Navigation is a skill and as such must be learnt and practiced. Build up slowly and do not try a high peak in mist as your first walk. Start in a lowland area where you are unlikely to get irretrievably lost and study the map carefully as you go along. Make sure you know what all of the symbols mean and pay particular attention to any changes in the contour lines. Navigation is mostly about excellent map work – you can move on to learning how to use a compass once you have mastered the basics of maps.


And please remember to always take a torch – even the very best navigators cannot read a map in the dark.


The best way to learn is to come on one of our friendly and practical courses. You can choose from:

Beginners’ Navigation Course

Intermediate Navigation Course

Private Navigation Course (which can be tailored perfectly to you)


Published 16/03/2016