Habits for Good Navigation.
Updated: Apr 29
Forming good routines is key to being a good navigator. Doing the same things, the same way every time can really help, especially when the stress levels are up.
Do your homework. Get to grips with your route before you leave the house. 'Time spent reading a map is rarely wasted'. Invest in a digital mapping subscription.
Fold your map to the correct area at home. Don't try and do it in the car park in the wind!
Navigate from the car park. Confirm you are at the correct location before you even start walking.
Keep your map accessible. Either keep it in your pocket, securely strapped to your bag or inside your jacket, not buried deep inside your bag. Don't walk around with a map case hanging around you neck. It doesn't look good and you'll either strangle yourself or get slapped about by it when it gets windy. Neither is enjoyable. Buy a waterproof map so you don't need a case.
Set your map every single time you look at it. Making sense of the world around you will become so much easier with an orientated map.
Keep your phone for emergencies. And photos. Don't rely on it for navigation. It will let you down when you really need it. Check it occasionally if you're not sure about your location. Keep it warm, dry and in airplane mode to save the battery.
Track your progress. This is why we keep our map accessible. On my navigation courses, I recommend people carry a waterproof pencil and make small dots on the map each time you confirm your location. If you have a waterproof map, the pencil will write on it in all weather and not wipe off until you choose to wipe it. Back in the day, people used to 'thumb' the map - literally keeping a thumb on your current location. It's far more practical to just leave a small dot on the map. This habit brings two benefits, it encourages you to keep a constant awareness of your location and if you do manage to get a bit off track, you should have a reference point to your last known location.
Use easily identifiable features. If you are new to walking in the mountains, then you should mostly be walking on big, obvious paths or along linear features. These might be things like fences/walls (boundaries), forest roads, streams/rivers and ridges. In navigation terms, this is called handrailing. You are using the feature as a handrail. Along the way, you might reach significant changes in the landscape, these can be things like bends/forks in rivers & roads, changes of direction in walls, crossroads in paths, steep hills, cliff faces etc. These are called 'tick' or 'collecting' features because we tick them off as we see them. When you first start to navigate, this is a very conscious act - you have to think about it - but as you develop your skills, this act of looking/seeing and noting down changes in the landscape will become subconscious - you notice things without looking for them, even while doing something else. This is when you will know that you are getting it!
Confirm your location on the map by trying to identify four features in four directions. Think 'X marks the spot'
Make micro plans. A really good routine to get into is breaking your journey down into sections and making micro plans. In essence, when you get to an easily confirmable point, you look at the next stage of your journey on the map and build up a picture of it, identifying tick features or hazards you should see along the way and deciding on a catching feature - something that will stop you going too far or the wrong way. When you get to the next point, you repeat the process. This 'navigation loop' is a key routine to efficient navigation in the mountains. Think of it like this:
Where am I now?
Where am I going? (take a bearing)
What will I see along the way?
What will I see when I arrive
How long will it take? (Check the time, too)
Adjust your level of detail according to the conditions. If you are walking in good weather along easy terrain with obvious features, then your loop of information between the map and the ground will be quite simple and might go something like "I'm here on the summit of x mountain, I'm going to walk down this ridge to that lake, take the left side of it and carry on up to the next summit" You can see where you're heading quite far around you, all is well and you can relax.
If the weather is a bit rubbish and you have less visibility, your micro plan will reduce in scale and the detail you build into it will increase. Then it might go something like "I'm here, on the summit of X mountain, I need to walk South for about 200m, taking care for the edge to my left, where the path will also get a bit steeper and carry on in a straight line for another 600m. I should reach a boundary. After the boundary, the slope eases off and in another 200m, I should get to a lake. I will aim for the SE side of the lake." It should take me about 15 minutes to reach the lake. Each section that your journey breaks down into is called a leg. When each leg includes a lot of detail over a short distance, this is called 'micro navigation'
You should always have a constant flow of information from the map to the ground and vice versa - the level of detail depends on the conditions and terrain.
Be flexible with your plan/route. Stuff happens, be prepared to deal with it. If you feel have to adjust your route for whatever reason, stop for a few minutes and sit down. Confirm your current location and make a plan. First look for any alternative paths that head back to your start point. If there are no clear paths or if it would just be quicker, easier or safer, consider turning back the way you came. There's never any harm in turning around. If going forward or backward is not an option, then you need to identify alternative safe ground to travel on, identifying any hazards and planning around them. Going 'off piste' and leaving the paths can be scary and dangerous. Never blindly walk away from paths without checking your map...
If in doubt, stop. Sit down. Spend some time looking at the map and make a micro plan.
It might sound silly, but not getting lost is easy when you always know where you are. That is what this blog is trying to get you to do - to keep constant track of your location. You don't have to locate yourself to 100% accuracy every the time, but a constant awareness of your surroundings is the goal. It might take you a while to get it into your subconscious habits but once it's there, it's there and these techniques, when built upon and refined will help you walk through winter mountains in a whiteout using only your map and compass and personal abilities. That is such an empowering skill. You won't need to rely on anyone to 'take you out' or look after you. It's do-able for almost anyone with a small amount of intelligence and commitment.
It's possible for anyone to have a bad day and get a bit lost but if you've been keeping up with these routines then a few simple questions can help you get back on the right track.
Where was my last known location? (did you dot your map?)
When was I there? (what time is it now/how long has passed)
Which direction did I go?
What did I see along the way?
What can I see now? (X marks the spot!)
If you are able to go through this thought process, then your ability to figure out where you are (to relocate) will be greatly improved.
To summarise the blog: Good navigation is based on good routines. Good routines for a day out walking in unfamiliar terrain include
Planning before you leave.
Navigating right from the car park.
Keeping your map handy.
Orientating it every single time you look at it.
Tracking your progress.
Regularly confirming your location and
Making micro plans suitable to the conditions.
Always being prepared to be flexible with your plans.