Learning to navigate, take bearings and use a map

Given my liking for going off into the hills for a few hours on my own, sometimes late into a summer evening and sometimes in bad conditions, I thought it was probably about time I learned how to use a compass correctly.

I’ve always considered I’m pretty good at ‘map reading’, and by that I mean interpreting what’s on the map (knowing we need need go across a footbridge, or that we should be going through woodland or up steep contours), and working out the general direction we should be heading in. Having said that, I do tend to walk on fairly well marked paths and rarely across featureless landscape, which clearly presents much more of a challenge.

But even after spending about an hour or so online Googling ‘how to take a bearing’ I have never managed to convince myself I do actually know how to use a map and compass in order to find my way. So now with the added responsibilities of being a father, I thought it was time to get wise.

I booked on an Introduction To Navigation course led by Michael and Jane Hunt. Based in Foolow in the Peak District (within reasonable reach of Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds and the East Midlands), Mike and Jane are both highly experienced and highly qualified International Mountain Leaders with years of first-hand knowledge of navigating the mountains of the UK and also abroad. So in that respect they are ideal teachers – plus for just £30 it seemed a bargain.

The day started with a cup of tea and introductions for our group of 11 (from my age to 60s plus), in the tiny village hall in Foolow. We started by learning about different types of maps and some basics about what the most common features denote. We then moved onto learning about plotting a route between features, taking a bearing and plotting distance and how you would then use your compass to ensure you were walking in the right direction.

We spent some time putting this into practice to ensure we understood the basic principles and then headed out into the countryside just North of Foolow, for a walk. One of the first things Mike told us about was pacing, and we calculated how many strides we took for every 100m on a range of terrains. This can be very useful if you are trying to find quite insignificant features or visibility is poor, as if you know you need to go 100m and you take many more than 62 (for me, on the flat) steps, you know you have gone too far.

We then started using our compasses to find some small ring contours we had identified on the map earlier. Working in pairs, we learned about leapfrogging, where you use another person as a marker, which enables you to follow compass bearings accurately in poor visibility.

All the way Mike and Jane give you useful tips, setting little challenges for you, such as using your compass and map to identify the name of a farmhouse across the hill.

After a short lunch break (when thankfully the rain held off), we were given a card that gave approximate times taken to walk distances at different speeds (you can find a similar one here). We then put this into practice, before the real tests started.

From a point on a fairly well marked path, we were tasked with navigating to a hidden sheepfold, across open, fairly featureless undulating land. Working in pairs, following a bearing and using leapfrogging, we completed this, before (for our final task) then being tasked with finding a stone circle on top of a distant hill, using a bearing, leapfrogging and pacing.

All in all it was a great day out with a group of like-minded people, and for six hours worth of instruction and insight it was a bargain at £30. The trick now is to put what I have learned into practice, as this is the key to getting better and making sure I don’t forget any of what I learned.

I managed to do a bit on a family walk out from Wincle in Cheshire yesterday, calculating bearings to check direction, checking distances using pacing, and working out the names of farmhouses on the opposite hillside.

However, more of a test will come on Tuesday 24 April, when I plan to do a crack of dawn walk up William Clough onto Kinder Scout, to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the famous Trespass. After a 5.30am start (well, that’s the plan), once up on the tops, I am thinking of trying to find a few old aircraft crash sites on the featureless moorland using my new skills. I’ll let you know how I get on.

Further Reading

* Navigation in the Mountains: The Definitive Guide for Hill Walkers, Mountaineers & Leaders

* The SAS Tracking & Navigation Handbook

* Hill Walking: The Official Handbook of the Mountain Leader and Walking Group Leader Schemes

* Ultimate Navigation Manual

* Map and Compass: The Art of Navigation



About Wadsterboy

30-something Yorkshireman, living in Manchester, close to the Peak District. Love the outdoors, love her indoors, not so keen on the film Sliding Doors.
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