Eight Things They Never Told You About Mountain Navigation

There are some things you learn about mountain navigation that only years of trial and error can teach you. These tips have served me well, and they'll do you a lot more good than some of the techniques you'll have read in books.

Into the mist   © Andy Merrick
Into the mist
© Andy Merrick, Oct 2016

Ditch the GPS

Testicles are not a navigational aid; being confident and competent are two completely different things

Okay, you won't like this one. But real navigators don't use GPS. Hand held devices that follow you around through the mountains by using satellites to watch over you like over anxious grannies are for children and amateurs. Real mountaineers use a map and a compass. I'd rather freeze to death ten minutes from a nice warm shelter than switch on one of those robots from hell. I go to the hills to get back into a relationship with the natural world, and you can't do that by staring at a screen.

Let me make it clear that if I wanted to use a GPS I could. I may be old enough to remember when the Wooden Tops first danced across a TV screen in glorious black and white, but I can handle the digital age most of the time, although I will admit to hearing myself say, "It does what!" on an increasingly frequent basis.

Hill  © John Burns
© John Burns

Google Earth cheat number one

Now I can hear you saying, "But you just said..." I'm not suggesting you take Google Earth with you in to the hills but when you are planning a route it does two really helpful things. Here's what I do. If I'm walking in to a bothy I use Google Street View to show me what the start of the walk looks like. You can't visualise that from a map and, especially in the dark, one gated track leaving the road will look very much like another.

I've set off along a track several times only to realise, after 20 minutes walking, that I'm on the wrong route. That's twenty minutes walking in a mistaken direction I'd rather not do. Check out what colour the gate is, if it has a sign next to it or if there is a tree nearby. This little trick has saved me lots of time looking for the right track.

Maps show a dashed line where a path is. Despite years of looking I've never seen a dashed line on the ground

The gates to hell  © John Burns
The gates to hell
© John Burns

Google Earth trick number two

Ordnance Survey maps show a dashed line where a path is. Despite years of looking I've never seen a dashed line on the ground. Zoom in on Google Earth and look at the path you'll be following. You can often find out whether you'll be walking along a well-constructed motorway of a path or something that takes you from one bog to the next and is more a figment of the mapmaker's imagination than a feature on the ground. That's the kind of path that leads you into the middle of nowhere and leaves you there. A quick look at Google Earth can help you to decide if you'll need your lightweight, easy path boots, your big tough, rugged go anywhere boots or, for the more extreme bogs, a pair of flippers and a frogman suit.

Flat  © John Burns
© John Burns

"It can't be this way!"

I learnt this the hard way and it hurt. You are lucky, I'm going to tell you this secret so you don't have to suffer. Well you will suffer a bit, because all hill walking is suffering. Learn this mantra and repeat it frequently… The compass is always right.

I and my three companions peer into the solid wall of water, known in the Highlands as 'light mist.' The compass needle points in a ludicrous direction.

"It can't be that way," I declare, and lead my companions off in what is obviously the right direction. Three hours later, saturated, and despondent my mates look at me with murderous intent as we've all realised that the compass was right after all and I've just caused them hours of misery by leading them off in the wrong direction.

There are many times on the hills whilst navigating that your instinct will tell you that the compass is wrong. Instinct, however, is about as reliable as Boris Johnson's diplomacy skills. Don't navigate by a collection of hen's teeth, the wind, moss on trees, or instinct, that's how you get lost. The compass is better than instinct because the compass is guided by the Earth's magnetic pole and that's not going anywhere. Well it is moving but so slowly we'll all be dead before it makes any difference.

Remember... The compass is always right. At least it's right as long as you don't do what I did a few weeks ago by setting it down on an iron bridge and then spending half an hour trying to work out why the landscape is the wrong way round.

The Map is Upside Down  © tomvet2b
The Map is Upside Down
© tomvet2b, Mar 2011

Check you are not upside down

Being the wrong way up on the hills is remarkably common, and you don't have jump up and down on a cornice to find yourself in that position.

Peter Cliff, who literally wrote the book on mountain navigation, once told me that the most common mistake people make when navigating in the hills is to confuse north and south. You might think that is impossible, but you should never underestimate how amazingly idiotic to most of us are; look at the millions who tuned in to watch the Eurovision song contest.

As you take a bearing pause for a moment to ensure that you have the compass the right way up and remember, everyone makes mistakes, as anyone who listened to Britain's Eurovision entry can testify.

Count your feet

Well not your feet exactly but the number of steps you take. I spend more time than I care to admit blundering about in the dark looking for Highland Bothies. That I actually find some of them is either a testimony to my navigational ability or the consequence of more than my fair share of sheer luck. The thing I dread when most when searching at night for a remote shelter, apart from bumping into an irate Highland bull or arriving at a bothy crammed with Jehovah's Witnesses who have had no one to talk to for months, is walking past the bothy in the darkness.

Steps  © John Burns
© John Burns

The way to avoid that is to count steps. This takes practice as the length of your stride changes frequently in response to the weight of your rucksack, the nature of the terrain or the sight of a pair of yellow eyes glowing at you from out of the darkness.

During the hours of darkness there is always a tendency to think that you have travelled further than you have. Counting steps will allow you to know how far you have come and silence the four year old in the back of your head crying, "Are we nearly there yet."

Turn off your torch

At night when you turn on your headtorch and the world instantly shrinks to the small area of light that the beam picks out, everywhere outside the beam becomes "the great dark unknown." I turn off my torch every now and again. At first, I can see nothing but slowly my eyes adjust to the darkness and shapes begin to appear. It is usually possible to see the outline of hills, provided it's not raining and this gives me more information to help me find the bothy I am searching for and I need all the help I can get.

Testicles are not a navigational aid

It's late and the light is fading fast as a mist rolls in and obscures the hillside. Charles and Jemima are lost. Charles glances at the map and grins, "It's all right my dear, I have a pair testicles, I'll find the way home."

There is always a tendency for one person to take the lead when folk get lost. This is usually the person who is most confident; unfortunately being confident and competent are two completely different things.

When you are in the hills always navigate for yourself, never let one person, even if he has testicles, navigate for you. That way you'll get home and leave Charles and Jemima arguing in the mist.

Those are my hard-won navigational tricks: Anything else is bollocks.

Compass  © John Burns
© John Burns

Loading Notifications...
Facebook Twitter Copy Email