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#ThinkWINTER navigation

Before you tackle navigating your way around Scotland's mountains in winter it's usual to have a fair degree of experience in summer conditions, so that winter is a step up on what you're already accustomed to rather than a whole new experience.

Regardless of what equipment you use to follow your route, you should still carry and be able to navigate effectively with a paper map and compass. You need to be able to understand from the map what the terrain will be like, choose suitable routes from it and be able to make decisions about changing your route if you need to. For example, in the winter, there may be a dangerous cornice where a summer route runs close to the edge of the cliffs above a corrie. Plans may also change, the weather may close in, heavy rain might mean that a burn won't be crossable, there may be an accident. All such eventualities can’t be pre-programmed into a GPS, so everyone needs to be able to look at the map – whether on paper or a screen – and work out the best way to adjust any route to deal with changing situations.

In essence, navigation is navigation, regardless of the season. But in winter you have to be much more precise because your route planning will have to reflect possible avalanche risk in some areas which would present no problem in summer, and it is likely that snow will blot out much of the detail in the landscape, making following your route that much harder.

In the photo here not only a well-trodden footpath, but also a whole loch have disappeared under the snow. There may be a trail of footprints on the snow, but it’s sobering to stand on a windy day and see how quickly those tracks can completely disappear.

Where in summer you may use streams, walls or other small features as something to aim for, a covering of snow in winter means these may be harder to see or even completely covered. You will have to use larger scale landscape features such as cols, ring contrours and ridges.

You will also have to be comfortable using techniques such as timing and pace counting to gauge the distance you have walked in navigation stages.

Steepness of terrain also becomes more important in winter because of avalanche danger – particularly if the slope angle reaches that critical 30 degrees. It's worth finding out more about gauging slope angle from the map and from missing contour lines.

And if you DO lose track of where you are... don't panic. This can be serious in winter conditions, but even without GPS or other electronic aids, as long as you have a map and compass there are several relocation strategies you can use to retrieve the situation.

Many people choose to use electronic navigation aids, especially for being able to check your location in poor visibility, but there are still pros and cons about relying entirely on them, and you can read more below.

Using GPS and smartphones as navigation aids

GPS devices and smartphones are increasingly being used for navigation in the mountains.

Many devices will let you pre-plot a route using mapping software on your PC (such as Memory Map, Anquet etc.), or download a prepared route from elsewhere, such as the Walkhighlands website. The line of the pre-planned route can then be shown on the screen.

It sounds the ideal solution for finding your way safely about the hills, but it’s important to realise there are limitations to technology and that safe navigation involves the skills to read and interpret a map rather than just blindly following an arrow. Mountain rescue teams respond to many call-outs because of GPS/smartphone failure or because people are unable to use the technology properly.

Electronic navigation aids are currently available in a handheld GPS, watch or smartphone format

There are too many devices on the market to advise readers which one is best. Functionality varies enormously depending on the brand, model and price, so you should research carefully prior to purchase.

The following tips may help you choose the right device for you:

  • For use in a mountain environment a major consideration is ‘battery life’, particularly in a cold environment when batteries will drain quicker. 
  • It is tempting to go for the smart phone option: that way you are only carrying one device.  But be wary, as your smart phone is also your emergency communication device; if the batteries are drained using it as a navigation aid then it may not be functional for an emergency call.
  • Can you read the screen in bright sunlight?
  • Can you use the touch screen with gloves on?
  • Consider how robust the model is. Would it survive an unintentional drop onto a rocky surface or be waterproof?

It is recommended that you also carry a power pack with a USB connection so that you can recharge your device. You should remember, however, that it may be difficult to do this in rain or extreme weather.

Whichever option you choose, you should take the time to learn how to use it well and understand both how it works and its limitations. This should be done in a safe/low level environment where you can easily find your way off the hill if the technology (or your knowledge of it!) falls short.

Most dedicated GPS devices are of rugged construction and are reasonably waterproof. Smartphones can be much more fragile, though waterproof cases are available and they can be used with care. Some smartphones are 'rugged' models which may be waterproof and better able to stand up to knocks - probably a good choice for those wanting to take them into the outdoors.

Download the free OS Locate app onto your phone. A simple, quick tool which shows your location in a OS Grid Reference format which you can transfer onto your map to confirm your location.

Remember, any form of modern navigation technology should be viewed as an additional ‘tool of the trade’ to add to your navigation tool box.  It should never be relied upon as a stand-alone method to navigate.