Navigation Essentials | The Basics You Need To Know - Outdoors Magic

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Navigation Essentials | The Basics You Need To Know

The basics of navigation aren't just about knowing vaguely how to use a compass and read a map...

There are a few must-dos in life; having fish and chips when you go to the seaside, never looking or speaking to anyone on the Tube and speaking loudly and slowly in English when talking to someone who doesn’t speak English, to name but three. There are also givens in the outdoor world too and one of those is to always carry a map and a compass. As the writer of two books on navigation skills for the outdoors, you won’t get me objecting to that of course, but what else should you always consider when it comes to navigation?

Setting Off Right

Over the years, I’ve led guided walks to some of the most iconic walking destinations in the world and count myself to be pretty experienced in the outdoors. So imagine my embarrassment when walking a section of the Appalachian Trail with a group one year. We clambered off our bus at the start and after boots had been laced and rucksack straps tightened, we set off. Five minutes later we were back at the bus after I realised I’d set off in the wrong direction! Come on we’ve all done it.

“My compass, by contrast, has never run out of batteries nor has my map. They work in low light, in foul weather and don’t need rebooting.”

So what could idiot Hawkins have done to prevent being the butt of my group’s jokes for the next few hours? Actually something quite simple; setting my map. If you know nothing about a map and indeed a compass, you will know that the top of the map is north and the red end of your compass needle posts north. Setting you map takes a fraction of a second and involves placing your compass on your map and turning yourself, map and compass around until the red end of the needle points to the top of the map. Simple, quick and effective and guaranteed to prevent you setting off in the wrong direction. During your walk, whenever you stop to refer to the map, repeat the process and again you’ll cut out probably 95% of all your silly navigational errors.

When Doubt Creeps In Stop

Getting lost is an interesting process; I recommend it sometime (under supervision of course)! Over the years, I have helped many a person get themselves lost. I love the exercise and it is a valuable one for the navigator, allowing them to evaluate what they were thinking, feeling and doing as they became lost. The one thing in common I see from the majority is the almost blind assumption that the place they’re looking for must be nearly there. That search takes over rational thought and things like the distance or time they’ve been walking become irrelevant. “It must be just round the next corner!”


When a whiteout strikes, compass can be the difference between life and death. Credit: blyjak

The art of the good navigator is to keep a section of your brain always attuned to time and distance.  Work out how long a section will take (or how far it is) and if you’ve travelled that distance then your destination can’t be just round the corner, or the next one or the next one.

As soon as that little nagging bit of doubt creeps in, stop and reevaluate. Look at the map, where have you come from, where should you be now, what have you seen along the way? Does all that concur with the map? Can you relocate yourself or do you need to retrace your steps to the last place you were certain of and have another go?

Technology Is The Answer…

I love a bit of tech; the house is full of it. My rucksack isn’t, however. I carry my phone; no self-respecting hill-goer who owns a phone should not have theirs with them, but I rarely get it out of my pocket. As for GPSs I’ve used them over the years, and indeed written a guide to navigating with GPS, a book which will now be gracing the shelves of many a good second hand bookshop, as its no longer published. The last time I used a GPS on the hill was when I was updating my navigation book for its second edition.  However I do not use them as a matter of course.


Satmap's GPS device.
Suunto's popular GPS watch

As a user of tech I know tech goes wrong. Yes I grant you GPS tech has improved over the years and devices are more accurate and reliable but it is still tech that is being used in rain, hail, sleet and snow.  My compass, by contrast, has never run out of batteries nor has my map. They work in low light, in foul weather and don’t need rebooting. A map and compass is a reliable tool – aways has been and always will. Forget that at your peril.

Know How You Use Your Map And Compass And Practice

Having pontificated in the last paragraph I do have to qualify that. Carrying a map and compass is no good if you don’t use them and most importantly if you don’t know how to use them. I run the Silva Navigation School and over the years have taught thousands how to use a map and compass properly, following the syllabus of the National Navigation Award Scheme’s Navigator Awards (  There is nothing more pleasurable (OK I can think of a few things!) in life, than seeing the delight on someone’s face as the penny finally drops and they successfully navigate a course. They have finally got the skills to navigate and can now enjoy the freedom and magic of the outdoors.

But like any skills, knowing it is not enough. Having a book on your shelves that you can refer back to is ideal of course, but I have one final suggestion for you. A couple of times a year don’t go out for a walk, go out for a navigate instead. You might choose to go for a walk around one of the many permanent orienteering courses around the country, setting yourself a course and seeing how accurate your navigation skills are. You might do a similar exercise on a challenging bit of moorland or fell top using natural features instead of the orienteering markers as your destinations.

Wherever you choose it’ll be time well spent, honing your skills and keeping the rust at bay;  you never know quite when you might have to call on your navigation skills and the less you have to think about them and the more automatic they are, the better.

Pete Hawkins is an author and navigation tutor who runs the Silva Navigation School.  His second book Navigation; Techniques and skills for walkers has just been republished in its second edition by Cicerone. 

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