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Hill Skills Series – Navigation – a basic 3 step strategy for relocation when temporarily lost in the hills

a body of water with a mountain in the background
It’s important when out in the hills to know where you are at all times.
That seems pretty obvious, but unfortunately it is often ignored when hiking through open and mountainous terrain.  Navigation is essentially about getting from A to B, but unless you know where A is then how can you find B?

If, at some point during your hike you no longer know where you are, either because of poor visibility or through a navigational error, then this three stage guide will help you relocate yourself.

1) Don’t Panic

We have all felt that rising sense of dread when we peer intently into the mist an realise that we don’t know where we are, or in which direction we should go.
At this point it’s important to stop, calm yourself down, and think clearly, maybe even have a little snack or a hot drink.  It’s no good heading blindly on in the hope that you might find a recognisable feature, the odds are stacked against it, and you will only make the problem worse.

2) Orientate (set) the map

This is good practice at any time, and should be the first thing you do at the beginning of every navigation decision.
To orientate the map when you have reasonable visibility, align recognisable features, such as hills, cols or rivers, on the map with their counterparts in the landscape.  The map should be rotated until you have a line of sight from you, through the map feature, and onto the physical feature you see before you.

If you have limited visibility, or cannot locate a recognisable feature on the ground, you can set the map using your compass.  Line up the edge of your compass with the north/south grid lines on the map.  Holding the compass firmly in place, rotate both compass and map until the magnetic needle also lines up with the north/south grid lines and the red, (north), end of the needle points towards the direction of travel arrow on the compass housing.

Orienting (setting) the map with a compass


The map is now orientated, but it is approximate, as we have made no allowance for magnetic variation. However, it should suffice for feature recognition purposes.
With the map orientated try to locate your position relative to the features you can see in the landscape.  Once your approximate position is determined it is then possible to plan your next navigational move on the map, and to give yourself a direction to head in.

3) Go Back

If poor visibility means you are still unable to relocate yourself, then you must return to your last known position.

This may be a summit, a col or a distinctive feature you passed. From here you can orientate the map again, plot your route, and determine your next move and your direction of travel.

Position known, decision made, direction of travel determined.


This basic 3 step plan can be used by anyone with minimal knowledge of navigating with a compass. It does not involve taking bearings from the map or walking on the bearing in the direction indicated, as these skills require a higher level of navigational knowledge.
To learn more about navigating with a compass in poor visibility, or to get a grasp of the basics of map reading and route finding, join one of our navigation courses.