Learn Skills Navigation: a few navigation techniques

Navigation: a few navigation techniques


Navigation is much easier in good weather with good visibility. Obviously there’s a higher chance of severe weather in winter conditions, and although the navigation skills required don’t really change, it becomes much more important to get it right first time. This article outlines a few navigation techniques you can practise to stack the odds in your favour:

Walking on a Bearing

If you're just starting out in the hills, learning how to take a compass bearing is one of the most important skills to get to grips with. It involves taking a bearing off the map towards a feature you want to get to, so that you can walk to it using the compass even if you can't actually see the feature. Taking a compass bearing can be fiddly at first but it’s easy once you get the hang of it. Chris Townsend explains how to do it in this BMC TV video: How To Take A Compass Bearing.

To build your confidence for times when you need to perform the skill for real, try experimenting with different techniques on days when you’re not under pressure - such as the last kilometre returning to the road at the end of a successful day. To accurately follow the bearing it might help to steady the compass against your body. Next, site a few markers directly in line with the direction of travel arrow, familiarising yourself with the ground between where you are standing and the horizon. Doing this helps you walk longer distances between stopping to check that you really are going in the right direction.

If you know there’s a high risk or tricky area to navigate on your route, you can take a bearing in advance. In winter conditions the descent from the mountain is most likely to create difficulty. Familiarise yourself with the map, plan a variety of options and write down bearings and distances to lead you from a well-defined feature to your line of descent, for example, “from summit cairn; 68 degrees, 350 metres”.

Attack Points

When you’re homing in on a small target you want to maximise your chances of finding it first time. It’s good to identify a well-defined feature near your target and use it as a starting or “attack point” to find your objective. By approaching your destination like this, if you don’t find it first time you can easily return to your known attack point and start again.

Aiming Off

When walking on a bearing in poor visibility it’s highly likely that errors will creep in and you’ll end up to one side or the other of the target. In this case you will not know which side you are on so it will be guess work to locate the objective. “Aiming off” describes the technique of purposefully taking a bearing to one side and is commonly used when the objective is a linear feature such as a stream, path, wall or ridge.

Estimating Distance

As important as the ability to walk on a bearing, is the need to accurately estimate distance travelled. Pacing and timing are techniques that require practice in varied conditions, and you’ll need to be able to estimate distances going up, down and across slopes on grass, rocks or snow. If your effective estimation of distance travelled becomes second nature it helps free your concentration to make other important decisions when visibility is poor. Mountain Training sell handy timing cards for just £1 which can help with timing, measuring distance and slope angle.

Avoiding Hazards in Poor Visibility

Where a hazard exists which presents a real danger - such as a cliff, cornice, avalanche prone slope or snow-covered water for example - you need a foolproof method of walking around it, without losing your overall sense of direction. “Doglegs” or “boxing” are two easy techniques for doing this.

By doing a “dogleg” you simply go along two sides of a triangle rather than along the single long side. This will mean that you have travelled further, but the method will take you clear of the unseen hazard you identified on the map that was presenting a risk.

“Boxing” is used when you have to avoid a hazard when walking on a bearing. Instead of following a straight-line route you walk around three sides of a box as shown in the illustration. By walking to the side at 90 degrees all you have to do is turn the compass until the needle is aligned with east (or west) without changing the important main bearing. Walk for a distance that is easy to remember (say 100m), continue on the main bearing for the desired distance, then turn west (or east) for 100m to be back on line again.

Remember to get the map out before you feel lost. Take advantage of windows of opportunity such as breaks in the cloud, single distinctive features or changes in the aspect of a slope to continually keep updated about your position. Keep a track in your mind about the terrain you have just crossed - this picture will help you confirm where you are in a way that a single “snapshot” observation will not.