The Importance of being a Navigator

A few years ago in an interview I was asked by the keen young journalist what my ‘Top 3 Survival Skills’ are. I paused for a moment to consider which I would choose, the immediate needs of water and shelter followed by food springing to mind. But I chose to go in a slightly different direction, and this was my answer:

“For the UK environments? Hmmm… Navigation, First Aid and Fitness for Task.”

This led to a raised eyebrow (wasn’t I meant to be talking about sharpening big knives or tinder bundles?) and more questions. I’ve been asked why I chose those answers, several times since – and this is part of the explanation I normally give.

navigation course ukNavigation is a Lifesaver

A big part of my background working in the outdoors was as part of a North Wales Mountain Rescue team. Like most emergency services, we only tended to meet our ‘clients’ when something had gone wrong, which gave me a good chance to see where most people made mistakes. A quick look over the published statistics of Mountain Rescue England and Wales or the Mountain Rescue Council of Scotland will show a distinct trend – people get themselves into big trouble by not knowing where they are.

Let’s look at a common example; getting lost in one of the busiest places in North Wales – Snowdon. Wales’ highest peak attracts around half a million people to the summit every year. It is no coincidence that the valley below is home to one of the busiest mountain rescue teams in the UK – around 150 or so of those visitors require the assistance of Llanberis Mountain Rescue Team or the RAF Sea King helicopter from nearby RAF Valley every year. Sadly, there also a handful of deaths every year, in all conditions.
So where do people go wrong? As well as not bringing the correct clothing and footwear, or essential items like a headtorch, a common error is not knowing where they are, or how to get safely back down to the valley from where they are. It is easy to find your way to the summit and back on a bright summer day (just follow the crowds on one of the 8 main paths!), but the mountain can become a nightmare in low cloud or when the weather turns. Snowdon is only a few miles from the sea, and as warm, wet air hits the mountain and rises it makes cloud and rain – British mountains are quite literally rain-factories! I have experienced the weather change in Snowdonia from warm sunshine and light winds to snow and sub-zero windchill in less than an hour – and the visibility drops from miles to metres as quickly.
So what happens when you have walked up to the summit via the PYG Track in great visibility and warm weather, but on your return journey the wind and rain are battering you and you need to find that crucial turning off the ridge and back onto your original path? Well if you have prepared properly (both in your kit and your personal skills) then you will take out your map and compass, work out where you are, work out where you need to go, and plan a route to get you onto the correct path safely. Simples. If you haven’t brought a map and compass, or have them and don’t know how to use them then you might be in trouble. You may also soon be meeting my old colleagues in red jackets with Mountain Rescue badges!

navigation course ukBut that’s just the mountains, right?

This isn’t just something that happens in the mountains. One of the callouts I coordinated in my final year in Mountain Rescue was dealing with a call from a rally spectator. He had been watching a stage of the World Rally Championships in Clocaenog Forest, and had found a remote corner of the course to get a good view of the action.

He had sat around until the final car had gone past, and then noticed that it was dark.
That his headtorch didn’t work.
That his phone had no signal.
And that he had absolutely no clue where his car was parked, or where he was.


After a couple of hours of following seemingly identical forest tracks he managed to find a high point and get a phone signal. He phoned 999, spoke to the Police, who contacted Mountain Rescue.
Using a tool called SARLOC we were able to locate him (he had walked a couple of miles further away from the road, and was about in the middle of nowhere as it is possible to be in North Wales) using the GPS in his phone. We despatched a Land Rover to collect him and make sure he was healthy and fit to drive home.
Now this was a warm-ish November evening, and he was well dressed for the conditions. Not so the three guys rescued a few years earlier who had brought plenty of beer but not much gear for a night of ‘wild camping’ in a Scottish forest, only to lose a rucksack in a river and end up being rescued 24hrs later (very cold and wet) when by chance they stumbled into a group of hillwalkers. I know of several people who have become misplaced in the smaller forests of Southern England, and even two renowned wilderness skills experts who became ‘alcoholically misplaced’ in the wilds of London after leaving an unfamiliar pub and being unable to find the tube station. You know who you are guys!

How do I prevent becoming a statistic?

Time for some good news – learning how to navigate in the UK is easy enough, as long as you go about it in the right way. Navigation is a perishable skill – if you don’t use it, you lose it. However you choose to learn – book, articles, online or through a navigation course – make sure that you go out and practice regularly. I always tell my students at the end of a course to go out and buy a map of the area they often walk in, and then just study it and have it to hand when walking the dog or walking back from the shops. I guarantee you will find something nearby that you didn’t know was there, and your overall skill level will improve.

5 Tips for Improving your Navigation Skills

  1. Practice. Don’t be the person who only gets the map out when you need it – regularly consult the map even when you know exactly where you are. It will keep your brain ‘tuned in’ to the symbols and scale of the map, and it means you will be able to make good navigation decisions under pressure.
  2. Challenge yourself. Even if you are confident as a navigator, it is good to challenge your skills and make sure you aren’t becoming rusty. This is the biggest area of improvement we find when working with our military clients – you learn once and then the skills start to turn to sludge in your brain. So pick a point on your route on the map, and try to work out how long it will take you to get there – then see how accurate you were.
  3. Learn about your compass. A good compass should cost more than £10 and be able to have a bearing set by moving a turning ring on the top. There are dozens on the market – my favourite is the Silva Type 4. Make use of the scales to measure distance accurately, and learn how to plot a grid reference to six figures.
  4. Don’t rely just on GPS. GPS devices are cheaper than ever, and most of us have them in our phones these days. They are good for finding your position – as long as the battery lasts, you don’t break it and you know how to use it. Plenty of people have been rescued who are holding a fully functioning GPS, but no idea how it works.
  5. Take the time to learn. Navigation is a skill that is easy to pick up – there are dozens of books out there on the subject, as well as online articles and videos. I normally recommend that people go and book on to a course for beginners, as it is a good way of being shown the basics which they can then go and develop in their own way. Everybody learns differently, and we need to give ourselves time to develop our own skills in our own way – any good outdoor coach will agree with me.

You can learn these vital outdoor skills for yourself on one of our UK navigation courses held throughout the year in North Wales and beyond.

How to use a map and compass
Episode 8 - Living and working in the mountains of Snowdonia with Kate Worthington

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