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Common Navigation Mistakes and how to avoid them.

Over the years, I have taught thousands of walkers the art of navigation, and have come to the conclusion that nearly everyone makes the same mistakes. For example, most people think the compass is the most important navigation tool, whereas in reality, it is the map. After all, you may be able to follow a bearing, but unless you can relate this to a map, it is meaningless!

Modern maps are so detailed that many people have difficulty in extracting the most relevant information in a structured way. So here are my top tips to help you avoid the most common map-reading pitfalls…

  1. Study the map carefully. Modern maps are incredibly detailed, and give an accurate picture of the landscape. However, they also contain masses of information that is irrelevant for walkers, and this gets in the way! Whenever you look at your map, use the magnifying lens on your compass or, better still, use a small sheet magnifier. You will be amazed at the difference it makes.
  2. Use a structured approach to avoid missing things, and to prevent becoming over-faced with random information. Use the layer system. This involves dividing map symbols into layers, then building up your picture of the ground layer by layer, exhausting all the information in one layer before moving on to the next. In order of increasing importance these layers are…
    • Layer One = Symbols for things that aren’t there! (sites of battles, boundaries, etc).
    • Layer Two = Area Symbols (water, vegetation, etc).
    • Layer Three = Pinpoint Symbols (trig points, small pools, etc).
    • Layer Four = Linear Features (streams, paths, etc).
    • Layer Five = Contours (the most important symbol of all).

    Start with layer five to get the shape of the land, then add information from layer four, then layer three, and so on.

  3. Work from ground to map rather than from map to ground. Particularly in poor visibility, working from map to ground means you are more likely to “make things fit”, whereas this is less likely if you work from ground to map. It also forces you to be observant – a definite prerequisite of effective navigation in any conditions!
  4. Set your map. This means turning it so that everything on the map is in the same direction as it is on the ground. This is extremely useful because it allows you to do everything by line of sight.
  5. Ignore vertical scale at your peril! Many people consider only horizontal scale, which is only half the picture! Rather than thinking about numbers, try to visualise what scale actually mean…
    Horizontal scale (e.g. 1:25,000). On a 1:25,000 scale map, 1mm = 25m, so visualise something that is 25m long. – perhaps a swimming pool? On 1:50,000, 1mm = 50m. Remember, too, that grid lines on maps are always 1km apart, which allows you to get a quick impression of distance.Vertical scale (e.g. the height difference between contours). A vertical interval of 10m is about the size of a house. Particularly in poor visibility, a 9m climb or descent will seem huge, and will not necessarily be reflected in the contours!


Kevin Walker is the author of a number of Navigation books, and runs navigation and hill-skills courses from Crickhowell. Further details are available at:

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