Phil Geng

Researcher, Climber, Mountaineer


Back to Basics

Ever wanted to cause a row among instructors? Ask them to narrow down the basics of navigation to only three key skills. Yes, only three skills - not 20, not 10, not even 5. If you had time to explain exactly three key skills to a complete novice, who for ease of the exercise has a map legend alongside their map, which ones would you choose? I find the exercise quite easy, albeit because I have thought about the problem of teaching navigation to absolute beginners on a few occasions.

Although the list here contains more than three skills, I would pick them in priority order for as long as I have time to build up a basic level of navigational understanding.

Setting a map

This might seem blatantly obvious and not really that great a skill, but just because we do things intuitively doesn't mean they are not a skill somebody has to learn. Setting a map is one of the easiest things about navigation and considering there is even a shortcut by using the compass available there really is no excuse for not being able to achieve this. Yet I have come across more beginners than I would care to admit who simply don't understand why a set map is easier to use. Worse even, I have met a fair share of people who don't understand how to set a map correctly - clearly a skill that needs to be taught carefully and effectively.

Map stories (aka ticking features, telling a story)

So the map is set and we are looking at it in context of our surroundings. Time to decide where we're going, what's along the way and what we're expecting to see or not to see. There are many ways of introducing this skill and it will take time for beginners to fully understand the value of this. However, most drivers will be able to relate to their car GPS, as this does exactly that. "In 1 mile at roundabout take second exit" - If 10 minutes later you still haven't passed a roundabout there is probably something not quite right. Similarly if we expect to cross a bridge before the path forks and we get to a fork without having seen a bridge our internal alarm bells should start ringing. Most navigation errors I have seen in lowland terrain could have been avoided by simple use of map stories or ticking off of features.


Alongside the map and compass, a watch is an essential navigational tool - even better if analogue, but we can live with a digital one. While being able to tell south from the sun and an analogue watch is great what we're really interested in is being able to time our legs. This skill is the great secret between somebody who can barely navigate and somebody who seems to navigate with ease, knowing exactly when and where to pay attention while chatting away in between. If we know we're heading along a ridge for 20 minutes before we have to look out for a cairn, then for the first 15 minutes we don't even bother looking out for the cairn. Therefore being able to work out how long a leg will take you and being able to judge and adjust the timings is a crucial skill, albeit only third on my list.

Taking and using grid references

Many might argue that this is one of the most vital skills to teach somebody, as it enables them to call for help and guide said help in to their location. However, I would argue that the skill, as vital as it is, is useless without knowing where you are on the map in the first place. There is simply no excuse for experienced navigators or outdoor enthusiasts to not be able to take or read a grid reference properly. The most common mistake I have seen is swapping the Eastings and Northings around. An easy mistake to make, but highly problematic and avoidable. Top tip - If you ever ask for a grid reference or provide one make sure to ask for or give a very brief description of what is at that location, or near it. This could help in avoiding a team of rescuers being sent onto the Lavan Sands when in fact you're stranded on Moel Eilio - just under 10 miles away.

Taking and using bearings

Ah that dreaded compass work finally rears its head. How something as simple as taking a bearing confuses some beginners to a degree that they flip the table and crush their compass in the process astonishes me. Yes, it is a skill that takes practice and some thought applied. Yes, it is easy to get wrong and make minor mistakes with potentially major consequences. But it is not rocket science and once again there is no excuse for an experienced navigator to not be able to take an at least average quality bearing with confidence. However, I have found that often a bearing is more of a coping strategy in bad or no visibility than a navigation tool I rely on in easy terrain. Granted it can come in very handy in woodland when visibility is severely hampered by trees and that in itself would be very useful to beginners considering woodland often falls within easy terrain.


Finally, the dark art that is pacing. 62, 63, 64 - 100 metres. It is astonishing how a group of skilled navigators will end up in a cluster only a few metres apart when pacing out a reasonable distance. On the other hand it is also astonishing how a group of beginners can not understand the concept of counting every other pace. Or indeed that pace counts vary by individual and are not always 100. But let's be honest, until we had somebody to compare our paces to we didn't know ours for certain. That is unless you are a nut like yours truly pacing on a 100m running track. But that's a story for another time.

All in all accomplishing the skills listed here will provide you with a solid foundation for your navigation and ensure you can grow your abilities. Nevertheless there is one skill that is not so much of a skill but a way of life that is required to glue all of these together - Common sense and old-fashioned gut feeling. If it doesn't feel right, chances are it isn't.

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Categories: Outdoors

Tags: Navigation, Skills, Basics, Beginner, Outdoors

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