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Mountain navigation – an introduction

Navigation in the Scottish mountains can be challenging. Our mountain weather is susceptible to change with little warning. A blue-sky day with good visibility can very quickly change to one of poor visibility, demanding good navigation techniques. It is also worth noting that there is not a culture of ‘way marking’ in the Scottish mountains as in some other mountain areas, and just because a path is marked on the map does not guarantee that it exists on the ground.

Check out our navigation skills advice on these web pages to give yourself a great grounding in the basics and remember:

  • Study the map and plan your route so that you know where you want to go and how long it will take
  • Always set the map in relation to the ground
  • Learn to use the compass before you need to use it for real
  • Have the map and compass to hand during the walk
  • Check your position regularly - know where you are
  • If you leave a note of your intended route and time of return with a responsible person, remember to check in with them

Book a course!

We run a series of subsidised one-day navigation training courses which are the ideal preparation for safe navigation in Scotland’s mountains.

Map and compass: the key navigational tools. Photo by Neil Reid

Essential navigation skills

The map & how to use it

Learn about map scales, grid references to describe a location, and contour lines to describe the shape of the land.

Planning & following a route

Choosing a route, setting the map, taking and following a bearing, ticking off features, measuring distance, timing, pacing and assorted tricks of the trade

When navigation goes wrong

Sometimes, despite all your efforts, you realise you're not sure where you are. Learn useful relocation strategies and 'tricks' such as aspect of slope

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Can you always trust a compass?

It's rare, but your compass can come a cropper and be almost 180 degrees out. Find out why 'reversed polarity' happens and how you can avoid it.

Electronic navigation

GPS and satnav devices are becoming more and more common, and while they're a great navigational tool you still need to know how to navigate and how to make the best

Route cards

Route cards - a note of where you are intending to go -  can be an invaluable aid if you don't turn up, giving rescuers a good idea of where to look for you.

Planning to climb Ben Nevis? Take a look at our advice for a successful ascent and a safe return, from weather conditions and equipment to navigation. It is essential to have an understanding of mountain navigation skills when heading for Scotland's highest mountain. Walkers often get into difficulties when the cloud lowers or snow covers the track making the route less obvious...

Read more

What next?

If you would like more detailed information, we would recommend the official handbook of the Mountain Leader scheme, Hillwalking (ISBN: 0-9541511-0-0)

You can also visit the website of the National Navigation Award Scheme, a personal performance, non-competitive, incentive scheme for all ages to learn navigation skills and gain confidence to get out and enjoy the countryside. NNAS courses are delivered throughout the country by over 500 approved providers.

Alternatively, you may wish to employ a professional outdoor instructor who may be able to offer more flexible arrangements for venues and dates.