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Mountain Navigation - Top Tips & Strategies

In this blog post we are looking to share some top tips towards improving your mountain navigation when out on the hill.

We teach lots of navigation courses and here are some of the things we think are useful in becoming an effective navigator.

Map, scales and storage

Select the appropriate map for the area you are in.

Maps come in variety of scales.

Mostly you will use a 1:25,000 scale. 1cm = 250m so there is lots of detail being shown here

For the Lake District, you can use any of the OL explorer maps from the Ordnance Survey - OL 4, 5, 6, 7 but we find the Dorrigo Dinky+ covers most of the areas we need for the Central Fells here in the Lake District.

Check out Harvey maps, these are walkers maps that come in 1:25,000 and 1:40,000 scale too

Our top tips with maps are to have them folded to the area you are walking and set before you leave on your walk, meaning you have a route plan and an idea of the landscape you are intending to visit.

Having the map small and foldable allows it to be more accessible, as you can store it in pockets or on your person, meaning you are more likely to check it.

Another useful place to store your map is to slide it between your rucksack and your back.

Your map should be stored in a waterproof case - we recommend about A5 size (tablet size)

A lot of maps that are printed on waterproof paper don't have waterproof ink, so it can rub off in the rain!


Here at Lake District Mountaineering we recommend the Silva Expedition, Type 4 compass.

This compass has all scales for measuring distance on your map, these scales include:




It incudes a compass housing that is displayed in degrees, not millimetres. The degrees are useful for navigation as it allows you to estimate the angle of your direction (bearing). e.g east would be 90°, south would be 180° etc

It has a longer baseplate to make following bearings more accurate and this baseplate has a magnifying glass which is very useful when looking at more intricate features or detailed areas.


3km/hr = 20mins per 1km = 2mins per 100m.

Formula = distance x2 (e.g. 400m is 4x2=8 mins)

4km/hr = 15 mins per 1km = 1.5 mins per 100m.

Formula = distance ÷2 + x (e.g. 400 is 4÷2=2 +4=6 mins)

5km/hr = 1cm is 3min

(every 250m takes 3 mins to walk)

Get a timings card

This makes maths and working out your duration much easier when on the hill


Pacing is every double step - you need work out how many paces you do per 100m

Add 10% for every change in terrain. Eg. rough ground, uphill, darkness would account for 10% each time

With practice, you can accurately pace each 100m you travel...

Only to be used over short distances (no more than 500m ideally) and to find a specific point

It is easy to lose track of how many 100's of metres you have travelled (beads are useful for this)

The navigational D's

These are tools to use for breaking down a navigation leg when travelling from point to point

  • Description/Description/Description

Description is the most important. We need an idea of what will happen and what we are going to see along the way - this means we can storyboard our journey.

Along the way we want to identify collecting features, we will tick off each feature as we pass it.

At the end we want a description of what we are intending to find and a catching feature, something that tells us we have gone too far so we know to look at the map and check our location.

  • Distance

We can measure distances on the map to understand how far we are travelling. This is why the compass has to have the necessary measuring scales so we can measure with the correct scale on the appropriate map.

A box is always 1km, whether they are 2cm, 2.5cm or 4cm across - from this we can sometimes estimate our distances. If we are travelling roughly half a box then we are going for around 500m - never underestimate a good guess.

  • Duration

As above for timings. It's important to know how fast we are moving and the terrain we are covering. Add 30 seconds for every 10m of height gain.

Drop pace for factors such as heavy backpack, darkness, rough ground, steep uphill etc

  • Direction

We can identify our direction of travel from the map. We can know if we are heading North, East, South or West so we can leave confidently that we are travelling the right way.

In the mist or the dark our compass will help us, here we will take a bearing that we can follow.

Map Orientation

A map can be orientated when lining up the red compass needle with north on the map (north is at the top of the map)

Place your thumb on the map, when you come back into the map you are in the location of your thumb - this allows for quick identification on the map


Estimate your bearing. North would be 360°, East would be 90°, South would be 180° and West 270°.

This allows for us to check our bearing is correct and we haven't made a 180° error by turning the orientating lines the wrong way.

You can see how to take a bearing here

This video is slightly dated as of today, magnetic variation is currently zero, so we have no declination to account for once the bearing is taken

When following a bearing, stand with the compass directly in front of you, square on and hold it out at belly button height. Move with your compass as you turn it, lining the red needle with the red arrow (red Fred in his bed).

Bring your compass up higher and look down the direction of travel arrow, walk in this direction. Choose a 'sight' along your line of travel, something like a tuft of grass, an obvious rock etc and walk to it. Keep repeating this process to ensure you walk in a straight line, choosing 'sights' that are close enough to not be effected by mist or enclosing cloud, or not to be lost when dropping down into terrain where you can lose sight of where you're heading.


Contours are the most important features on the map - they show the lay of the land and the topography of where we are operating.

Here are some useful things to know:

Contours are 10m intervals on 1:25,000 - ordnance survey or similar

15m intervals on Harvey Maps

Contours are lines of equal height, running across the fall line. Following a contour means you stay at the same height (contouring)

Crossing them at 90° (travelling perpendicular) means you lose or gain height

Index contours are bold = every 50 metres

Contours close together = steep ground

Further apart = shallow or flat

Spurs (ridges) are convex - contours orientated facing outwards

Valley (re-entrants) are concave - contours dipping into the landscape


It is important to break your journey down, into amenable and manageable legs

When relocating, it is always helpful to ask the following questions:

  • Where was my last known point?

  • How long have I been walking since that known location?

  • In what direction?

This should give you a good ball park location to hunt around in.

Now ask:

  • What does the ground look like?

  • Whats happening 10 metres away, 50 metres, 100 metres away

Consider the following:

  • Angle

Am I stood on a gradient or flat ground? How steep is the slope? Is it going up or down?

  • Aspect

Which direction am I facing?

This can help eliminate other slopes that are not at the same orientation as you

  • Altitude

How far have I gone up or down since my last known point? How much altitude have I lost/gained or have I stayed the same?

Altimeters can be useful but the majority are never accurate at giving height in reality as they use barometric pressure which is always changing - they require lots of reference points throughout the day)

These are all good reliable techniques when re-locating.

It is always important not to panic and to work things out logically.

To stay on track, put these hints, tips and techniques into practice and become an efficient navigator.

Want to learn more?

Want to put this into practice?

Read some things you don't quite understand?

Join us for a navigation course

We have level 1, level 2 and level 3 available

This is Intro, Improver and Advanced level

We also run NNAS course on behalf of the National Navigation Award Scheme

Gain an accredited and recognised award for your navigation competence and skill level


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