Three basic navigation skills that could get you out of trouble in an emergency

The best walking route apps allow you to find or plan your own routes then follow them as you walk.

One great example would be the OS Maps app.

With high quality mapping (not all apps, for example Komoot, have this) and some great routes to follow, OS Maps gives you the ability to explore further with confidence.

Except that apps and devices sometimes go wrong.

Batteries lose power, especially in the cold, and devices lose signal in some remote locations.

Okay so you can download your map and carry a battery pack.

But navigating using an app can sometimes make you go wrong too.

Because it takes your eyes off the bigger picture.

When you use an app to navigate you usually follow a line. When you navigate using a map and compass, you’re always looking at what’s around you, and relating it to what you can see on your map.

In other words, you understand the bigger picture.

A little emergency scenario for you

You left the path ages ago, and have been happily following the line on your app across open country. It’s early evening so you decide to stop for tea. It’s such a lovely evening that this takes longer than you thought it would.

By the time you set off again the light is starting to fade.

That’s okay though. You can follow your app down off the hill. As you walk it gets darker. You stop for a sip of water. You drop your water bottle. It rolls down the hill. You turn on the torch on your phone to help you find your bottle. It takes ages but eventually you do.

Your phone turns off. Your battery is dead.

Now you start to worry. You look around. You know your general route but you don’t know whereabouts you are along it. Because you’ve been hunting for your water bottle, you also don’t know which way you’re facing.

What you need is a map, a compass, and a few basic navigation skills.

The thought of using a map and compass might seem scary but you only need a few skills to be able to stop a slight displacement from becoming an emergency situation. Here are our top three navigation skills to get you out of trouble if your navigation app stops working.

Emergency navigation skill 1 – map and ground

Once you’ve learned to relate the symbols on your map to what you see around you, you might not even need to use your compass to get you out of trouble. Every location is different so learn how to recognise all of these.

  • Blue lines (except blue grid lines) show water. Following a river downstream can be a good way to get yourself back down to civilisation. Lining a blue line on your map up with a river will help you work out some important directions.
  • Brown contour lines show slopes. Close together contour lines show steeper slopes. The brown numbers on the contour lines show the height above sea level. Use these to work out which way is uphill then line your map up so that the uphills on the map match the uphills on the land.

Another useful map symbol is the one for the pub. It looks a bit like a petrol pump. Focus on your emergency navigation, and you might get back before last orders.

Emergency navigation skill 2 – compass basics

  • If you’ve lined your map up, you should be able to decide whether travelling north, east, south or west is going to be your best option. If the map symbols haven’t helped, remember that north is at the top of your map.
  • The red end of the floating arrow on your compass will always point north. If you can’t remember anything else, this will help but the next two steps will make your compass even more useful.
  1. As you turn the bezel on your compass, the numbers and letters that represent direction turn with it . If you want to travel east, line the letter E up with the direction of travel arrow on the rectangular baseplate (1).

2. Hold the compass at right angles to your body with the direction of travel arrow pointing away from you. Turn your body (not the compass) until the floating red arrow lines up with the still red arrow underneath it. Your direction of travel arrow now points east (2).


3. You can follow the steps above to walk in any direction. This video explains the basics of how to use a compass in more detail (but with some US vocabulary).

Emergency navigation skills 3 – judge your distance

In navigation, knowing how far you’ve travelled is just as important as knowing your direction. Luckily for you your map can really help with this.

  • Each blue grid square on an Ordnance Survey 1:25,000 or 1:50,000 map shows one kilometre. At an average pace across flat ground it will take you 15 minutes to walk that kilometre.
  • If you’re walking up, or even down a steep hill, you’ll need to adjust that time. You might also need to adjust it if you’re walking on difficult terrain, or if you are really tired.
  • Estimating how long it should take you to get to your next navigation point (or hopefully back to a track or road) can stop you walking too far, and help you understand your location better.

Emergency navigation 1, 2, 3

So there we have it. GPS isn’t bad but it shouldn’t be your only means of navigation. By focusing on this emergency navigation 1, 2, 3 you give yourself a fighting chance of getting yourself out of a tricky situation.

  1. Details (map and ground)
  2. Direction (map and compass)
  3. Distance (map and timing)

But please practice these skills BEFORE you need them.


This leaflet will give you more information about staying safe outside. Mountain Rescue England and Wales – Be Adventure Smart leaflet






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