How to Learn to Navigate with Map and Compass

Emily Woodhouse Living Adventurously, Practical Advice

Talking about the All the Tors Challenge, one of the most common comments I get is about navigating with a map and compass.

“That’s incredible that you did it all with a map and compass.”

“You must be really good at navigation.”

“I can’t believe you did it the traditional way.”

This baffles me. Learning how to navigate with a map and compass is one of those skills that will last you a lifetime. It’s a bit like learning to ride a bicycle or drive a car. Sure, you can get away in life without it, but it’s incredibly useful.

How Do I Learn To Navigate?

A lot of people seem keen to learn how to navigate with a map and compass, but don’t know where to start. Or they have this perception that it’s really difficult. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Like anything, you have to get in good practice and try not to get disheartened by throwing yourself too far into the deep end.

The best way to do this is to start young. I honestly don’t remember when I was first given a map to read or shown how to take a bearing. But what I do remember is having to learn to read map symbols in Primary School Geography lessons.

If you didn’t start young, remember you aren’t getting any younger. The second best time to start is right now.

Where to Start with Map Reading

There are UK accredited navigation schemes (NNAS) that do dedicated courses and assessments. Personally, I’ve never done one, but their syllabus is a good place to start for a framework. Start at the bottom with Bronze and work your way up.

Beginner navigation needn’t even start outside. I’d recommend starting with:

  • Recognising map symbols
  • Understanding the different colours on the map (e.g. blue=river, orange/brown=contour)
  • Taking a Grid Reference

After that, I find it helpful to take beginner navigators outside and try to relate the map to the ground. The sooner you can start “seeing” the contours and recognising features the better.

Where to Start with a Compass

Next up, I’d go for another table-top session. This doesn’t have to be indoors, but people (particularly kids) find it easier to take a bearing for the first time when they’re pressing down on a table. The important points to cover are:

  • Name the bits of the compass (this doesn’t need to be done gratuitously, but they need a way to talk about the moving parts)
  • Take a bearing on the map from A to B.
  • Be given a bearing and fit it onto the map
  • Maybe try triangulating, given the bearings

Again it’s good to immediately follow this up with taking and following bearings outside. Then also trying to relocate using sight bearings. I admit my life is made much easier by living in a place where magnetic variation is basically zero. Instead of watching people’s eyes gloss over, you just don’t mention it until later!

Navigating a Route

The next step is to practice being the person with the map on a walk. Even if you’re not the chief navigator, you’re getting time to relate things to the ground and take bearings.

Since I was given a map at such an early age, I got lots of practice looking from map to real life. This meant that as I got older, I was always the one put in charge of navigating because I could read the map. So I got more practice. So I got better.

Have you read Outliers by Malcom Gladwell? This is exactly the principle he’s talking about. If you’re even marginally ahead of your peers in a skill or sport, you tend to be selected to do more of it. Good football players are picked for teams. Good navigators are picked to navigate. You don’t have to be excellent, just a tiny bit better than everyone else there. For example, on my Gold DofE training I was the only one in the group who could read a map. That didn’t mean we didn’t get lost or confused!

More Advanced Navigation

My next piece of advice for learning to navigate would be to get a handle on micronavigation. This is where you’re finding exact points either in the dark or poor weather. Despite people thinking of it as black magic, it is really incredibly simple. You follow a formula and – if you are consistent – you get there.

The most common problems are people letting human brain get in the way. Human brain likes to pick a conclusion and then find evidence to back it up. For example, you might not have reached the end of your formula, but you’ve found a feature that looks similar to what you’re hoping for. Instead of getting to the end of your formula, you try to convince yourself that you’re already finished.

Pretend you’re a robot. Follow the formula.

This kind of navigation can only be taught outside and in the elements. I would highly recommend doing your Mountain Leader Training to gain these skills – even if you have no intention of completing the assessment. It will blow your mind. Alternatively, something like NNAS or just doing an advanced navigation course, independent of a scheme will really help.

Again the key is to get good practice at using these skills. Navigation is 60% confidence. Get that confidence by doing it again and again and again. When I was stuck in the middle of the fog, unable to see more than 10m in front of me, I had to trust that I could get myself out of it. Panic is the enemy of good navigation. Focus and methodical thought is key.

Be the Sole Navigator

After you’ve built up some skills, I’d really recommend putting them to the test yourself. You can do this either as a solo walker, or as a group leader. The dynamic is very different, obviously. As a group leader, your group members are looking to you to direct them through the mountains. You develop a skill of map reading whilst also chatting and reassuring.

Okay, so you do occasionally get someone who will whip out their phone as soon as you look at the map saying, “Are you lost? We’re here.”

But honestly, those sorts of people aren’t worth losing sleep over.

If you’re going on a solo walk, there are higher risks but you come out of it with the confidence that you can deal with navigation – no matter how bad it gets!

How are you learning to navigate (or how did you)? If you haven’t started learning to navigate and want to, what’s holding you back?

As ever, any other questions etc hit me in the comments below.