Map Reading & Navigation – Part 6

Hopefully by now you have had the chance to practice your navigation and map reading skills and have enjoyed a few walks.  It is important that you keep practicing your skills, even after 50 years of map reading, I still find the practice beneficial.

What I am going to cover in this section are the problems of navigating at night or in bad weather, plus looking at party discipline and the skill base required to ensure that everyone in your charge returns safely.


Night & Bad Weather Navigation

Once you have had the chance to get some practice in, you will find that navigating during the day is relatively easy and straight forward.  However, in poor visibility and at night, the difficulty level rises quite considerably.

You are not going to learn any new techniques, these have already been covered.  What you are going to learn is how to apply them in a slightly different way.

Be Prepared:

Anyone who was in the Scouts will know this motto.  When Lord Baden-Powell come up with it, he certainly knew what he was doing.  Preparedness is the most important element of night navigation.

Make sure the route is properly planned.  Each leg has had its bearing, length and timings calculated.  Make each leg shorter than usual if possible.  This will improve your overall navigation accuracy.

Make sure that all features have been identified and marked on the map.  Remember, the features will have to be close to the route as your visibility will be greatly reduced.  You may also wish to select a lot more features

Ensure every member of the party has a fully functioning headlight and a spare set of batteries.  This is not just for finding your way but to allow others, particularly the leader, to maintain visual contact with the entire party at all times.


Practice Your Skills:

This is the one thing I cannot emphasis enough.  You must take every opportunity to practice all of your skills, both basic and advanced.  As I said earlier, I still practice my skills regularly after 50 years of navigating.

By practicing your skills, they will start to become second nature and automatic.  This is very important when you have a lot more things to think about and your accuracy is of the utmost importance.

Timing is everything:

I said earlier, create shorter legs and plan them meticulously, especially the leg lengths and timings.  In the dark or when visibility is severely restricted, time seems to slow down.  You think you have been walking for a minute when only 10 seconds has passed.

It is therefore important to time each leg and count the paces.  If you are in a large group, spread the tasks, getting half to time the leg and half to count paces.  When you have reached the time and the number of paces for that leg STOP!  Do not keep going until you have established where you are.


However, allow each person to complete their paces, ensuring visual contact can be maintained at ALL times.  This should help reduce the errors and allow for a consensus.

Slowly Slowly Catchy Monkey:

An old English proverb that means if you do not rush or if you avoid being too hasty, then eventually you will achieve your goal – in other words, be patient.

The worse thing you can do is go ‘yomping’ off into the wilderness at night, because before you know it you will be lost!  Remember in the planning stage, we said identify a greater number of features than you normally would.  This is to aid slower more methodical navigation.

With the map ‘glued’ to your hand move steadily along your bearing identifying each feature as you pass it.  I often train for this on day navigation exercises, when I try to maintain a fix on my position within 10m at all times.

Remember to adjust the timings for each leg to account for the steadier rate of advance.

Make Life Easy:

Always try to navigate via handrails, aim-offs and attack points.  This way you are using obvious and easily identifiable features to mark your progress.  If it means sticking to footpaths or stream courses, then that is what you have to do.


There is nothing wrong with taking the easier option.  At the end of the day the aim is to get safely from A to B, it is not about how you got there.  By sticking to the stream course, you may not be able to see the stunning scenery – but hey this is night time – you can’t see it anyway!

Don’t Panic:

There will be times when you are not sure where you are.  You have paced and timed a leg and still there is no sign of the waypoint you were heading for.  This is not a good time to panic or go into a total ‘melt-down’.

Stop, take stock of the surrounds, is there any thing you recognise.  Look at the map, assess the contours i.e. the slope of the ground.  Is there anything that tells you where you are?  Can you hear running water?  Is it close? Does this help?

If everything fails, retrace your steps back to your last waypoint.  Once you have re-established your position, take time to reset your thoughts and start all over again.



Remember and believe these bullet points –

  • Practice, practice, practice
  • Trust your map and compass.
  • Use distance estimation – timing, pacing
  • Use the contours – does the slope agree with the map.
  • Concentrate and do not rush – take your time.
  • Take the easier, safer route.
  • Have a headtorch and always carry spare batteries
  • Have an escape plan for if everything goes wrong.
  • And, of course, the bottom line – Stay safe.

Party Discipline & Organisation

At any time when out leading a group, it is important to ensure that they are all well briefed on the days events and what is expected of them.  This is particularly important at night or in poor visibility.

Make sure that each member of the group is responsible for maintaining visual and verbal contact with the person in front and behind them.  Select an experienced walker to bring up the rear of the group.  Distribute various jobs amongst the party such as pacing and time keeping.

Ensure that you have another navigator with you whose responsibilities are to double check all navigation decisions that you make, paying particular attention to all compass bearings and to ensure that you are leading the group in the right direction.

New Forest Navigation
Photo – courtesy of New Forest Navigation

Manitaining the moral of the party is a very important role that many leader/navigators forget.  Yet it is one of the key areas to the days/night’s success.  Moral can quickly fall if the party thinks or senses that you are in difficulty.  Always brief the group on every decision made and why, especially if the groups position is temporarily unclear.

Always make sure that every member of the team feels that they are making a useful contribution to the activities and not just along for the ride.  Make them feel important and give praise when due.  You will be surprised how far a “well done” can go to instil confidence and enthusiasm into an individual or group.

In Map Reading & Navigation – Part 7, we will be covering search patterns and emergencies.

Page 5   —   Page 7


2 thoughts on “Map Reading & Navigation – Part 6

  1. Pingback: Map Reading & Navigation – Part 5 – Hill-Walking For The Over 60's

  2. Pingback: Map Reading & Navigation – Part 7 – Hill-Walking For The Over 60's

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