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How To Hiking Guide - Navigation Skills

by Sarah Booth |

How To Hiking Guide - Navigation Skills

Posted at 16.30 - 3rd April - Sarah Booth

Well-trodden trails are the safest way to start hiking, yet at some point a desire to veer off into the unknown is in the DNA of any explorer!


Whilst there is no denying that we live in a world where technology leads the way, telling us where to go, how fast we got there, how many steps it took and how many calories we burnt on route, it also has a habit of breaking down on us just when we need it most….


This guide is a cry to wind down your Wazoo, switch off your Strava, shut down your Sunto, dust down your map and compass and get back to navigation basics.

Create a clear picture in your mind of where you are going, what it looks like and what you need to look out for.

Switching off your GPS system and switching on your brain, begins at home. The great thing about a topographic map is that it paints a picture of exactly the kind of terrain you will be traversing on your route. Before you set off on your hike, spend some time studying the route. Identify major landmarks like rivers, valleys, ridges, cliffs and gullies; use the contour lines to figure out the gradient of your walk – the closer together your contour lines, the steeper your walk will be. Create a clear picture in your mind of where you are going, what it looks like and what you need to look out for.


A compass should also be an essential part of any hiker’s tool kit, but it’s about as much use as a stiletto heeled hiking boot, if you don’t know how to use it! Luckily for you, we have found a quick introduction on how to use a compass at

Classic navigation skills take time, patience and an ability to have your senses switched on at all times!


Once familiar with the route on paper, it’s now time to align with the real thing. Classic navigation skills take time, patience and an ability to have your senses switched on at all times. Pay attention! Keep track of where you are by matching what you see on paper with what you see on the ground.


This of course is made easier if you have your map and compass to hand, rather than at the bottom of your rucksack! It may not look particularly stylish, but we love the plastic wallets that can hang around your neck or waist. Not only do they keep your map dry, you can fold the map to correspond with your chosen route rather than having to go through an accordion playing routine every time you open and close your map!

Whilst out on your walk it's a great idea to be aware of landmarks and make time-checks. Make a mental note of what time it is when you pass an obvious landmark for example a lake, river crossing or summit. If you veer off trail, this information will be really useful to help you get back on track. It’s also useful to have an idea of what pace you are walking at in case you get lost and need to know how much distance you have covered from your last known landmark. Pacing takes a bit of time to become familiar with but generally speaking a proficient walker might walk at 4mph on open, easy trails, 2mph through denser foliage and drop right down to 1 mph over very steep terrain.


Some helpful top tips if you do get lost!

  • Stay calm and don’t panic
  • Stay put. Take the time to find out where you are. It is better to take 15 minutes studying your map than an hour walking in the wrong direction.
  • Formulate a plan. If the worse comes to the worse you can always retrace your footsteps.
  • Climb to the nearest high point to get your bearings by using the map and compass to identify surrounding landmarks.
  • If you are on a through hike and the light is starting to draw in, find a place to set up camp and look again in the morning with fresh eyes and daylight.

Navigation is an incredible skill to learn, and will give you an experience with nature that is much more engaging, natural and co-operative than simply following a GPS. Whilst this guide has outlined some simple steps you can take to begin your navigation journey, we recommend that you consider enrolling in a course taken by professional and accredited mountain leaders.


Here are a few well-known courses in the UK.


Happy Hiking and please leave any comments or stories about your navigation adventures!

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