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What Are The Most Important Mountain Navigation Skills?

One of the most important skills mountain walkers need to have in their armoury is a basic understanding of navigation. There are many ways to pick up the knowledge, from taking a

navigation course in Scotland, to teaching yourself some tips and tricks from books and online videos. Here is a brief look at the most important things to start with.

Understanding maps

Many people now rely on a satnav to get around, and rarely look at a printed map. Technology is certainly a useful to provide a helping hand when you are out on the mountains, but it should not be relied on for your sole means of navigation.

Digital devices can run out of power, or be dropped and broken. They may be wrongly programmed, or used incorrectly. Therefore, always make sure you know how to read a paper map of the area and carry it with you on your walk.

Use a good topographical map such as an Ordnance Survey (OS), which has contour lines to represent the height and shape of the ground. The scale of the map represents the ratio between the distance on the ground and the distance on the map, so for example, a scale of 1:50 000 means that 1cm represents 50,000cm (500m) on the ground.

Maps with a lower ratio, such as 1:25 000 includes more detail, but covers a smaller area, so they are most suitable for mountain walkers who will generally be covering height rather than long distances.

All maps are covered by a grid of horizontal and vertical lines, which are spaced to represent a distance of 1km. The grids each have a letter, and the lines each have a number. By identifying the vertical and horizontal number and grid letter, you can find a location by reading the grid reference.

The map will indicate features necessary for route planning, such as paths, roads, streams, gates, forests, and so on, plus other features of geographical or historical interest. The contour lines are the pinkish coloured wavy lines, which represent the relief of the ground. The more tightly packed the lines are, the steeper the ground.

Interpreting contour lines is an important skill for hill walkers, because if you find yourself in thick fog with poor visibility, the lines will give you some idea of the type of terrain that lies ahead.

Planning a route on a map

It is important to plan your route carefully in advance. If you have the map with you and you set off with plenty of time to spare, you can also use the map to make interesting diversions and rest stops along the way. All the features you need to follow your route will be marked on the map with different methods, such as dashed lines, dots, solid lines, and so on.

Study the key so that you become familiar with how each feature is represented. Beware of the difference between a right of way (a dashed green line) and a footpath (a dashed thin black line) because they are not always the same thing.

When you are walking, look out for the features, such as streams, lochs, and ridges, on the map, and check that they correspond with what you can see. This provides extra confirmation that you are on the correct route. It will also give you practice of relating the map to your surroundings, which is a useful skill if you do get lost.

Reading a compass

The other basic navigational skill that you need to know is how to read a compass. When used in conjunction with a map, this helps you work out which direction you need to take if you become lost, especially in poor visibility. Some smartphones include a compass feature, but it is best to back it up with a traditional portable compass as well.

Most compasses will have a magnetic needle which is red at the north point, and white at the south point. They will also have a direction of travel arrow on the baseplate, which you can line up with the direction that you want to travel on the map. There will also be an orientation arrow on the housing.

To set a bearing, you need to place the compass flat, and twist the dial so that the orientation arrow and the red end of the magnetic needle line up with the direction you want to walk in. You can then align the direction of travel arrow with the orienting arrow to check that you are going in the right direction.

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