Everyone gets 'navigationally challenged' sometimes, for all sorts of reasons such as not paying attention, the weather suddenly changing or everything taking a little longer than originally planned and a day walk extending into the night. There must, however, be ways to find yourself again as the hills are not full of people wandering around lost!
The below techniques are all tried and tested and should be carried out in order. Like all these things you don't want to be doing them for the first time for real. I would advise getting out and practicing in a non serious environment. I have also assumed that you already have a sound level of navigation, can use a compass and have a good understanding of contour interpretation.
Navigation novices please see this article: Beginner's Guide to Navigation: Tips, Tricks and Exercises by Ian Hey
Finally, although the article is entitled 'What to do when lost', it is not a magic article and the techniques below will only work if you have a rough idea of where you might be, say within a few grid squares.
1 - Staying Calm
Staying calm is not a technique - more of a top tip - but it is very important. Often people will panic and rush things, which can obviously lead to further mistakes and make the end job of finding yourself that little bit harder. Navigation is ultimately a logical structured process so staying calm and thinking rationally is often the key.
2 - Good Visibility Techniques – Orientate the Map
OK, it is unlikely you will get thoroughly lost on a good visibility day, however orientating your map is a key navigational technique and it can often stop a slight navigation error developing into something a little more serious. Turn your map so is it in line with the natural features around you. Don't use man made features as these often change faster than the maps: focus on contour features like summits and valleys. If you are not happy orientating your map from the features around you then it is simple to use your compass. Use your compass to work out which direction North is and then line your map up with this.
"...Now you can piece things together to work out where you are ... or as is more often the case ... where you are not!..."
Once you have done this take some time to look at the map and see if you can identify what is surrounding you using the features on the map. It is a good idea to focus on the map first and then look for the relevant peak, valley, steep slope etc on the ground rather than the other way around. If you look at the feature first you will often sub-consciously try to make the map fit what you see. Now you can start piecing things together to work out where you are ... or as is more often the case ... where you are not!
3 Bad Visibility Techniques – Go Back!
I don't mean all the way back, just return to your last known point. This is why it is so important to keep paying attention to your map even when the navigation is not difficult. If you have just dropped onto a plateau from a summit and the cloud rolls in, rather than guessing where you are it is often simplest to retrace your steps to the last place you can say 'I am definitely here' and then start again.
Obviously it would be best to have seen the cloud coming in and pre-empted all of this by navigating closely when you left that summit, but it is easy to get deep in conversation and not notice clouds approaching. Although you are retracing steps it is often the quickest way to get back on course and, if you have planned your route to go from obvious feature to obvious feature, (a good habit to get into when walking as it makes your navigation much easier) you may well not have too far to retrace.
"...Once you get to the stage where it is too far to go back to your last known point, or you don't think you could find it, everything starts to get a little more interesting!..."
4 - Use of Linear Features
Once you get to the stage where it is too far to go back to your last known point, or you don't think you could find it, everything starts to get a little more interesting! Luckily there are still some techniques in the navigation armoury. One of these is using linear features (or straight line features). If you can find some linear features near you like rivers, streams, ridges or well defined valleys you can take a bearing down them.
Once you have done this, place your compass on your map and see if the bearing fits any of the linear features in the area you are in. Doing this can often start to remove areas where you are not and place you on a section of ridge, stream etc. From here you can look for some features that might locate you. This technique is useful when you come across a feature while in poor visibility: it helps you decide if you are following the correct ridge or valley.
5 - Slope Aspect Use
If you don't have any linear features to follow, you can still use the shape of the terrain to help work out where you are. Like the above techniques, it requires you to know roughly where you are. If you have a slope then you can take a bearing straight down it. To do this imagine you have rolled a ball down the slope (in winter you might actually be able to roll a snow ball down it, often a good trick to give you some perspective in white outs).
Take a bearing from the direction the ball would have rolled i.e. perpendicular to the contour lines (remember not to point your compass down the slope but keep it flat as if it is not flat it will stop the needle moving properly). You can now place your compass on your map and start to work out which slopes you could be on, as you now know the direction your slope is facing. This technique works even better if you can find an area where the slope direction changes as it will reduce the number of areas you could be.
6 - Search techniques
If after trying the above you still have not been able to locate yourself or if the weather is so poor that you cannot see far enough to carry out the above, it is time to start using a search technique. The principal of searching is to move yourself around so that you might become closer to the point you are looking for and ideally walk straight into it! Like all navigation, however, if this is not a structured process you could just make the situation worse. There are two types of search that you could use depending on the situation.
"...This is a very effective technique and often used by Mountain Rescue teams..."
(a) Line Search: Works well for groups of people who are all relatively self sufficient. Very simply you line up, with the space between each person dictated by the visibility. You then all walk on the same bearing at the same pace keeping the line nice and straight, and keeping the distance between each person the same (much easier said than done in poor weather and rough terrain).
It requires one person to take charge of the search and this person will either be in the middle of the line or actually not part of it but just behind where they can have a full view of the process. You then sweep back and forth looking for the feature you need to find. This is a very effective technique and often used by Mountain Rescue teams. However, it does need a number of people for it to work.
(b) Spiral Search: This search method can be carried out with just one person, so it is very useful if you are out on your own for the day or leading a group. From your starting point you walk on a bearing for a distance (this distance is just under the limit of your visibility). Once you have reached that distance you turn 90 degrees to your left (or right it does not matter as long as you do the same each time) and walk 2 times the first distance, then turn another 90 degrees and walk 3 times the original distance and so on and so on, each time increasing the distance walked.
So there are 6 tips and techniques for locating yourself when you might become navigationally challenged in the mountains, now it is time to get out there and practise them. These, like any technique, will only become effective with practice. There are lots of ways to practise. Try going out with a more experienced friend who can set you challenges and then give some feedback. If you don't have a more experienced friend try heading out on your own or with a friend and a GPS, you can use the GPS to check where you think you are. Both of these ideas can be done out on the hill or, if you have limited free time, try some orienteering. Although the map scale is different, the skills and techniques are the same and you may well get double the navigational legs done in half the time.
Remember, none of the above works if you stand still! You are more likely to find obvious points or little clues if you move around. Stay structured and happy navigating!
About Sandy Paterson
Sandy holds the MIC and runs his own company: Sandy Paterson Mountaineering (www.sandypaterson.co.uk). He offers a full gambit of walking, scrambling, mountaineering and climbing courses in both the summer and winter. He also offers both introductory and advanced navigation courses.
Before becoming a full time climbing and mountaineering instructor he was a Geography teacher for 8 years. He decided he wanted to spend more time in the environment he was teaching about!
He is currently based in Scotland but also runs courses in North Wales during the summer months. To see what he has been up to have a look at www.sandypaterson.blogspot.com.