What’s the best way to learn map and compass skills?

Learning complex new skills, and getting outside more often both help us to age well. So what better way to combine the two than to learn some map and compass skills.

A double whammy you might say.

Never too old to learn

Learning to navigate using a map and compass in my forties has given me so much more than the ability to find my way when I’m lost. It’s given me the confidence to explore, a renewed interest in outdoor exercise, and a whole new career in outdoor writing.

It’s also stopped me from getting lost in the first place.

Using a compass with a map

Navigation is exactly the type of complex skill our ageing brains need but don’t let the challenge put you off. At its heart, using a compass with a map is really quite simple. It comes down to three things.


With a compass you don’t even need a good sense of direction. Which is just as well because I haven’t got one. Like most skills, success in navigation is a case of learning to use the available tools.

The best way to learn map and compass skills?

By far the best way to learn how to use a map and compass to navigate is to sign up for a navigation course, and get walking. There are plenty of courses out there but if you’re worried about finding the right one for you, I’ve got a few tips below.

  1. Check the instructor’s qualifications. You’re looking for Mountain Training England’s LL (Lowland Leader), HML (Hill and Moorland Leader) or ML (Mountain Leader). All three will guarantee enough navigation know-how to get you off to a good start.
  2. Ask about the instructor’s recent experience. You’ll find a range there but someone who has worked with your age group or even gender before might suit you better.
  3. Go for a course that’s in the type of terrain you’ll be walking in. Navigation skills are just as useful in town as they are up mountains but it helps if your training matches up with your plans.
  4. If you want to find out more about your local area, it makes sense to choose a local navigation course. Most instructors have plenty of stories to tell and information to share.

Can I learn map and compass navigation skills online?

Well yes!

And no!

Navigation can seem complicated so you will eventually need face-to-face support but that doesn’t mean you can’t start practising your map reading and compass skills using some of the great online tutorials that are available.

Ordnance Survey and Steve Backshall have got together to create a series of clear and easy to understand map reading and navigation videos with everything from choosing the right map (1:25,000 scale for most walking) to taking and walking on a compass bearing.

Some outdoor activity organisations offer free online courses with the hope that you’ll sign up for their paid courses once you’ve finished. Online learning might not leave you feeling all that confident about your abilities but it will give you the opportunity to find out whether or not a company’s training style suits you.

Can I learn map and navigation skills from a book?

We’re back to yes and no here.

Book learning is great for some people but pretty rubbish for others. I prefer to gain skills in the presence of an instructor but also love reading about those same skills once I’ve got the basics.

I recently asked Cicerone, the walking guide specialists, if they could recommended a basic navigation techniques book. I was quite pleased with the pocket guide they sent me (and not just because I didn’t pay for it).

My favourite thing about this particular navigation skills book was that it would be small and light enough to fit in my rucksack if I wanted to learn outside.

My next favourite thing was that it only took one flick through to find a new tip I hadn’t already tried.

One thing I would say about instruction books, is that they don’t necessarily give training in the order I would deliver it on a course. That said, this one is written by a recognised and experienced instructor, has all the required information, and is a really good way of consolidating previous learning.

A few tips to help you learn map and compass skills

  • Practise somewhere you know well before adding the stress of being in unknown territory
  • Allow yourself plenty of time. Learning to navigate will slow you down more than you think
  • Learning with someone else can be fun but only if they are supportive, and don’t want to walk quicker than you
  • Try looking at the details on your map before getting your compass out
  • Carry a separate copy of your map legend to save you from having to refold your map
  • You’re more likely to get lost by walking too far in the right direction than by walking in the wrong direction
  • If you do get lost (you probably won’t) head back to your last known point


As an outdoor writer, I’m used to being asked to write walking routes in beautiful places but I was particularly thrilled to write this ‘How not to get lost’ guide for Countryfile Magazine. It went down very well, and hopefully encouraged a few more people to learn these rewarding and fun skills.

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