Navigation 101 – Advanced Navigation – Beyond the Intermediate & Basics by Mountain Run


In the first of our Navigation 101 articles (HERE) we covered the Basics of Navigation , this encompassed maps, compasses, setting your map & how to set a bearing. 

The second article we looked at intermediate navigation (HERE) & it consisted of the following information & techniques: 

  1. Declination/Magnetic Variation
  2. Grid Numbers/Plotting a Grid Reference
  3. Back Bearings
  4. Re-Orienting/Re-locating
  5. Thumbing the Map
  6. Hand-railing
  7. Catching Features
  8. Aiming Off

Now in the final article, which compliments the interview in Talk Ultra Episode 73, we look at Advanced Navigation techniques for Ultra, Trail & Mountain Runners.

In this article we cover the following techniques:

  1. Resection
  2. Rough Navigation
  3. Pacing & Timing
  4. Reading the map whilst running
  5. Memorising the map
  6. Night or poor weather navigation

Remember that we’re not just looking to learn these simple techniques, but more so turn them from a skill we have to think about, into something that becomes 2nd nature & we naturally do, without thinking.

Lets look at each one in more detail:

1) Resection:

A resection is the next step on from Relocating. It might sound technical, but its easy to do, as long as you have the clear vision around you to be able to take bearings at a distance!

You find yourself not where you thought, not lost, but certainly miss placed on the map. Maybe you weren’t thumbing the map, maybe you made a navigation error & your only just picking it up now, no matter, whats important is to pinpoint yourself back on the map! So what do we do?

Orientate your map!

Now assuming you can see summits around you, the easiest & quickest thing to do is take 3 bearings from 3 peaks/summits in view. This is by sight, not by applying the compass to the map. Take each bearing & apply it back to the map, remembering to subtract the Mag Variation, should there be one present, so your bearing is accurate. Draw a line from the summit you have identified as a feature, from the one you are assuming/have located on the map & do the same for the next 2. By doing this you will have 3 lines coming together in 1 point on your map, or at least you will have 3 lines crossing, making a triangle of sorts on your map. You are either at the point the 3 lines cross, or in the triangle. Or at least you should be, assuming you are identifying the peaks/summits you see around you to the map you have in your hand, correctly!



So what happens if you can’t see the summits or you realise you are in the clag and you are lost? First thing is not to panic, as this will induce fear and adrenaline and then you will spin. Next have a good look at the map & then have a good look around you. Can you see any features to take a resection from? Buildings, crags, tarns, ponds, sheepfolds etc. If you really can’t see anything, your only option is to drop down until you are out of the cloud & then perform a resection on what you can see.

Remember, Orientate the Map!

2) Rough Navigation:

Why use rough navigation when you can be 100% accurate is the first question you should have springing to your mind?

The reason is that 100% accurate navigation is not always necessary to be honest, sometimes you just need to know you are traveling in the general direction, rather then running completely on an accurate bearing. Plus rough navigation is very quick & can be employed more easily whilst you move at speed.

So how does it work?

You are moving from A to B, along a path. You really just need to know the path your running on is going in the right direction, so a quick rough bearing can be taken from the map as you move at speed & applied to the track your are on. It doesn’t need to be 100% accurate, unless there is a multitude of tracks, all running in a similar direction to the one you are wanting. This is unlikely.

You might also need to cross an expanse of open ground, but there is a ‘line feature’ – (remember from Intermediate Navigation – Handrails are line features!) to catch you, so you don’t need to hit an accurate point, as when you hit the line feature, assuming you were ‘Aiming Off’, you will turn the direction of travel you want to along the line feature. With this type of crossing, its not important to be working on pinpoint navigation & therefore you can just use rough navigation.

If each time you want to take a bearing it has to be extremely accurate, you will find that you will be stop starting all the time & this will take plenty of extra time, meaning you are not as fast as your competitors. Rough navigation, as with everything, comes with practice & confidence at what you are achieving.



3) Pacing and Timing:

This is a very personal thing. Not meaning you should be out of sight when you are doing it, but that you need to work out your own pacing especially & get a good handle on timings.

I find pacing very useful & don’t really use timing, but we’re all different & we all like different methods. Timing might suit you better, but I find pacing more accurate.

To work out your pacing a GPS can be handy. You need to walk for 100m over differing terrains & count the number of paces you take, as you do this. Start with flat ground & then maybe get some rough ground, an incline, a decline & more. Count every step or every other step, your choice & then make sure you write it down.

Pacing is to be used for crossing small expanse of open ground & generally you will only use this technique in the dark or when the mist is down. Start going over 500m & your pacing will be come less accurate, so either only use it for small legs, or take the distance into account with your accuracy settings in your brain!

Use pacing once the Attack Point has been established, or in the case or Ultra Running, to keep ahead of the game so you know when the next junction in the track is coming. Use in conjunction with ticking off features as you run to your destination.

Timing is great for longer distances, where a general time scale will be more accurate, but never 100%. Great for switching off & switching back on as you are running. Navigation, especially when you have to be on it, can be very mentally tiring & a pretty intense experience, especially when the mist is down.

I find the best way to use timing is to have a ‘Timing Card’. Hand up if you crap at Maths on the move! (My hand is up!). So have a quick & simple card to view, meaning you don’t have to think & you can concentrate on the navigation, rather than the maths.

Timing Card

4) Reading the map on the move:

This is a definite skill. Some find it easy, some find it really tough. I think the only way to learn this is to practice, its not something that can be taught really & its as simple or as hard as it sounds to you. It can make the difference between winning a race or not.

The ability to run across rough ground, whilst reading a map takes plenty of time. There are certain things that facilitate the concept & these are:

  • Having focus for the map & the ground at the same time (I like to call this Macro/Micro Focus)
  • Thumbing the map – if not done, its very hard to see your location on the map at speed across rough ground!
  • Being able to see only the important information & blocking out the rest

Whilst running with Shane Ohly (OMM Elite Winner & Owner of Ourea Events), we discussed map reading on the move. He breaks the map down in his mind to find the really important bits of information in order to simplify the whole map reading skill. He told me of a elite orienteer who simplifies the map to such an extent that he only see’s 4 or 5 key features on the map, memorises them & makes directional changes once he has reached each feature. This is combining the next technique as well, but in essence, this allows him to view the map very quickly, at top running speed & keep up with navigation & map reading whilst on the move.

The best advise is to get out there, and try reading your map whilst walking on different surfaces, once you have got this bossed, try a gentle run. The more you do, the easier it will get.

5) Memorising the Map:

Its easier than you think, but it takes time to get sorted & longer to trust yourself whilst racing. Really top level orienteers memorise vast sections of maps on slower, longer races. The same applies to mountain marathon runners. The less time you spend looking at your map the better, as you can then concentrate more on your running & trying to maximise on your speed.

How do you get better?

Sit at home and practice. Read your map for 10 seconds, memorising all the features you see on the map from Point A (where you are) to Point B (where you are traveling to). Now turn the map over & make a simplified drawing of the map & see how many features etc you remembered accurately.

Now get outside & practice whilst running, when ever you are out. Because repetition really does work, it might be tedious sometimes, but drilling something into your mind means when you are cold, hungry & tired, you still will revert to good practice!

6) Night Navigation & Poor Weather Navigation:

Its really simple, you know it already. You’ve been practicing it (I hope), from the first 2 articles in this thread. Remember these:

  1. Thumbing the Map
  2. Hand-railing
  3. Catching Features
  4. Aiming Off


Thats all it is really, combing all the skills that make up Basic to Intermediate Navigation & then removing the FEAR and giving yourself full confidence by practicing when ever you can.

Remember, Fear is the Mind Killer!


So all we really need to do when the clag is down or the night starts to roll in, is move away from Rough Navigation and advanced techniques and take things back to basics. Follow handrails, use all the features at your disposal, tick everything off you run past & make sure you know exactly where you are by thumbing that map.

Wow, thats a lot of techniques to employ, but as long as you practice them all, every time you run, you’ll be a master in no time!


Please remember to be safe out there. Practice your navigation in a group, make sure you get the basics dialled before heading out in the clag or dark. Mistakes often make you learn quicker, but its not desirable.

Experience counts for everything, but if your struggling to get it all sorted, there is nothing like booking on a course, designed to teach you the necessary skills. Look out for our Navigation for Ultra Running courses in the new year, or the joint TalkUltra/MountainRun Navigation weekend coming next Spring!

Information and article provided by Charlie Sproson at Mountain Run 

Mountain Run

Navigation 101: Intermediate Navigation – Beyond the Basics by Mountain Run

Mountain Run

This is a second article in a trio of interviews with Ian Corless, about Navigation for Ultra Runners & more. Read article one HERE

all content ©mountainrun

In the first interview we covered the Basics of Navigation, this encompassed maps, compasses, setting your map & how to set a bearing.

The second interview was moving into intermediate navigation & it consisted of the following information & techniques:

  1. Declination/Magnetic Variation
  2. Grid Numbers/Plotting a Grid Reference
  3. Back Bearings
  4. Re-Orienting/Re-locating
  5. Thumbing the Map
  6. Hand-railing
  7. Catching Features
  8. Aiming Off

So lets start with:

1) Magnetic Declination or Magnetic Variation: 

There are 3 points at which north is seen. 1) True North, 2) Grid North & 3) Magnetic North. We are concerned with Grid North & Magnetic North.

Grid North is what is detailed on a map, its where the North/South grid lines show us the direction of north, according to the grid lines printed on the map. This is almost the same as True North, so we will group True North & Grid North the same. These are fixed points & do not move.

Magnetic North is what your compass needle points towards, being magnetised & this is not a fixed point, it moves over time. Magnetic North is explained as so:

“The North Magnetic Pole is the point on the surface of Earth‘s Northern Hemisphere at which the planet’s magnetic field points vertically downwards (in other words, if a magnetic compass needle is allowed to rotate about a horizontal axis, it will point straight down). There is only one location where this occurs, near (but distinct from) the Geographic North Pole and the Geomagnetic North Pole.

The North Magnetic Pole moves over time due to magnetic changes in the Earth’s core.[1] In 2001, it was determined by the Geological Survey of Canada to lie near Ellesmere Island in northern Canada at 81.3°N 110.8°W. It was situated at 83.1°N 117.8°W in 2005. In 2009, while still situated within the Canadian Arctic territorial claim at 84.9°N 131.0°W,[2] it was moving toward Russia at between 34 and 37 miles (55 and 60 km) per year.[3] As of 2012, the pole is projected to have moved beyond the Canadian Arctic territorial claim to 85.9°N 147.0°W.[2]

Because we have a variance between True North & Magnetic North, we therefore need to use something called the Magnetic Variation. This is described as follows: 

“Magnetic declination or variation is the angle on the horizontal plane between magnetic north (the direction the north end of a compass needle points, corresponding to the direction of the Earth’s magnetic field lines) and true north (the direction along a meridian towards the geographic North Pole). This angle varies depending on position on the Earth’s surface, and changes over time.”

It is also explained more formally, Bowditch defines variation as “the angle between the magnetic and geographic meridians at any place, expressed in degrees and minutes east or west to indicate the direction of magnetic north from true north. The angle between magnetic and grid meridians is called grid magnetic angle, grid variation.


Depending on which country you reside in will then depend on what the Magnetic Variation actually is. For example, if you live in the UK then the Magnetic North is 1.5 degree’s at the start of 2014 west of True North. The reason it is west is that we sit to the east of the Agonic Line or line of Zero Declination where Mag North & True North are the same. There are several points where this occurs around the world. Its a bit technical, but all you need to remember is that the Mag Variation is printed on all maps in the UK to advise what the Mag Variation is at what ever year the map was printed.


In order to correct your bearing to take into account the Mag Variation, you must adjust the compass 1.5 degrees east of the bearing you have taken, or more easily remembered, add 1.5 degrees on to your compass bearing you have just taken from the map. To make life even more confusing, the Mag Variation in 2015 is 0, therefore Mag Variation need not be corrected for that year, so it is almost not worth making this correction for the next year & certainly if your navigation is broken down into small legs. It really only comes into play right now, if you are travelling over large expanses of land, without any catching features, hand rails etc.

Transversely, if you are using the Mag Variation, remember when making a sighted bearing, whilst relocations, you might want to subtract 1.5 degree’s off your bearing in order to get an accurate bearing when you place the compass on the map. It all depends how accurate you need the bearing to be? Are you looking at a mountain summit? If so, is your bearing really that accurate anyway.

So Mag Variation in the UK is not really necessary right now.

If you are in Europe or other parts of the world like the US, then your Mag Declination/Variation will be different. It should be on the map you are using, if not consult a website like Wiki for more information.

North & South of the Equator. 

If you buy your compass in the northern hemisphere, then it is not set to work in the southern hemisphere & visa versa. Silva produce 3 types of compasses to work in 3 different magnetic zones. The best piece of advise is if you are traveling, then buy a compass for use in the zone which you are traveling. Best to contact a company like Silva to get the right compass.

Can I set the declination on a compass, so I can forget about the Mag Variation? 

Yes is the answer, but they don’t come at a small price. Most compasses, of reasonable value, like Silva 2NL-360 Explorer will have a Declination Scale on the bevel base plate, this can be used for quick adjustment. If you want to set the mag declination, then you need to purchase a compass capable of doing this, like the Silva 15T-360/6400 Green military compass. Its not really necessary for general use, especially in the UK right now.

Ok, so the confusing Mag Declination/Variation is done. Use at will, just remember to check on the country you are in as to what the variation is & apply it if necessary. Its list on the map you have in your hand, or at least the one you will be using.

2) Grid Numbers & Plotting a Grid Reference

Grid numbers are applied to the grid lines. These are a squared matrix applied to the whole country to divide it into different sections. They are laid out to make squares 100k by 100k, these squares are then broken down to have a further matrix applied giving squares of 1km by 1km. These are the lines/squares printed on your map. The lines running from east to west are numbered from south to north, these are the ‘northings’, the lines running from north to south are numbers west to east, these are called the ‘eastings’. A grid reference is made up of these printed numbers.


So on the image pictured to the left, we have Eastings along the bottom & Northings running up the side. In order to find a certain grid we need 4 of these numbers. This a 4 figure GR.

We are always given the Eastings first & the Northings second.  A 4 figure GR would read as 17 45

Once we understand this we can move to a 6 figure GR. This is done by breaking down each of the squares into a further 10 divisions on either scale, making 100 squares inside the existing square and will allow us to pin point a location to within a 100m square on the ground. A 6 figure GR would be something like 175 454.

This can be taken into a further pin point of 10m squares by using the same logic & so on.

A roamer on your compass can be of great help here to pin point 6 figure GR’s.

Not following? Book on a course….

3) Back Bearings. 

Very useful in either re-locating yourself or using a feature to make sure you are looking at what you think your looking at. A back bearing is taken by using a sighting of an identifiable feature, be it a path, summit, building or  large reentrant & applying it to the map. This can help you do one of 2 things. 1 – re-locate yourself on a line feature (its hard to relocate with this technique exactly, but it can help your judgement or give you a rough location) or 2 – help you to make sure the feature you are looking at is the same one you are looking at on the map.

Remember that when taking a back bearing, you might need to subtract the Mag Variation to make sure its correct. 


To take a back bearing, line the direction of travel arrow at the front of your compass with the feature, make it as exact as possible. Then swivel the rotating bevel so that you line the red end of the needle in the red house/shed, remember the Red in Shed. This is now your bearing set. Next put the compass on the map & line the front side up with the feature you think you are looking at, and move the compass until your orienting lines on the base plate match with the N/S Grid Lines on the map. You should now be able to locate yourself somewhere along the side of the compass.

A back bearing works best if you are already located on a line feature, as this bearing will then cross the line feature at some point, giving you a rough location of where you are on that line feature.

4) Re-Orienting/Re-Locating.

A very necessary skill, used to either make sure you are where you think you are, or as it sounds, to actually re-locate. Once you are adept at this skill, it should be used throughout the day, as you progress through your race or just through the mountains to keep a check on your position, but of course if you are thumbing the map, then it will be a whole lot quicker & easier. When you’re really good at it you will re-locate whilst on the move.

Clients on a recent OMM Mountain Skills Day relocating on Place Fell, Eastern Lakes


How to do it: 

Use everything at your disposal. This means look for all the identifiable features you can see, summits, paths, streams, woods, walls, buildings, ruins, sheepfolds etc. Orientate your map, if it is not already! Now match the features on your map to the ground, or visa versa. If your still not sure, then use a back bearing by locating a summit or other feature & take a bearing from it by following what was discussed above.

If you are not on a line feature you will then need to start really assessing the contours & because you have studied your contours well at home, you have a good handle on how to interpret what you are looking at to the features/contours on the ground. Are you in a reentrant, or is there one close by. Is the valley in the right place in front of you in relation to the map.

Re-Location requires lots of practice, the more you do, the better you will get until you can re-orientate whilst on the move.

5) Thumbing the map. 

Thumbing the map with compass in hand.


A very simple, but very useful technique. Once you start to get a handle on navigation, map reading & compass work you will be able to fold your map smaller, so not needing so much of it in view. The smaller you can have your map folded, the easier it is to thumb the map. By doing this we mean, fold your map in half, half again and so on until you have a manageable size to hold in your hand. Obviously make sure you can see the area you are in. Now, knowing where you are on the map, put your thumb over this location. Having the map oriented correctly in your hand is very important. As you walk/run along your chosen courses/bearing, you simply move you thumb small increments to keep up to date with your progress.

Why is this useful? 

Because you need to be able to locate your rough position on the map at a split second or whilst on the move. When you want to check your surroundings against the map, just pull it up to have a look & your thumb will be placed near to where you are, you can then re-locate very quickly & keep a track of your progress from map to land or the other way round. This is how you will learn to re-locate whilst on the move!

6) Hand-railing. 

It is as it sounds, using a handrail to help you on your way as you travel across the land. So what is a handrail? It a feature on the map that allows you to use it as a hand-rail. It is always a line feature & can be as simple as a path, or as obscure as a blind ridge line (by blind I mean rounded & not obvious). Once you have established the handrail is going in the direction of travel you want you can walk/run along it until you need to make your next decision.

Examples of Hand Rails


How do you know when to stop? Use the next technique, a catching feature….

7) Catching Features. 

A catching feature again is as it sounds, its a feature that catches you. It can be designed to wake the brain up to say your nearly at your destination, next direction change or just as a marker to what is coming next. You can have as many catching features as you like along your chosen course. Don’t pick too many though, as it will be hard to remember. Try to limit them as wake up calls, or direction changes, but you can still use them as markers to track your progress.

Plenty of Catching Features in the image below: 


A catching feature might be a wall corner, building, junction in a path or river or a crag that you are moving past. Used in conjunction with thumbing the map & hard rails, you can see that you can really track your progress as you move forwards.

8) Aiming Off. 

The last technique in our intermediate navigational skill set. We use aiming off to catch a line feature, that we may then use as our next bearing setter or as a handrail until we reach the next catching feature.

To aim off we use a bearing slightly off to the side of the line feature we are heading for. This can be either left or right, but it need to be obvious, otherwise you might miss it.

Aiming Of below so you don’t miss the control, best practice in foul weather!


Lets say your travelling across open ground south to north, there is a tarn in front of you running from west to east & you want to catch this feature, but keep moving past it. The weather is in and visibility isn’t what you want it to be. You want to pass the tarn to the east, so you need it to be on the western side of you. How will you know you have passed it, if you can’t see so well due to mist? The tarn might be 500 m long, west to east. By aiming off, rather than passing the tarn on a bearing and checking it off as you go, you are better aiming off your bearing slightly to the west & hitting the tarn, this then gives you an identifiable feature to break up your leg & confirm you are where you think you are. You can then take your next bearing to the location you want to reach, using the techniques of handrails, catching features & possibly aiming off again.

Get these skills dialled in good weather & you can now be ready to head out in to the open fell in inclement weather. Get them dialled in bad weather & your getting ready to head out at night.

Still not got it? 

Are you interested in an UltraTrail Nav Day or a Mountain Marathon Skills Day?

Send us your details here:


Navigation 101 – A basic introduction


Navigation with a compass is not something that is difficult to grasp. In reality, it is as simple as 1,2,3.

In a new series of Navigation 101 tutorials, we are teaming up with Charlie Sproson from Mountain Run to provide a simple series of articles in conjunction with audio interviews to help guide you to safe navigation.


If you are heading to any trails, mountains or if you are in a new area looking to explore, a detailed map of the area (1:25.000) and a compass should be part of your all important mandatory kit. More importantly, the knowledge of how to use a map with a compass is essential.


A compass is a magnetic needle floating in liquid that responds to the Earth’s magnetic field. It’s amazingly simple but equally amazing. Several options are available when purchasing a compass, for running (or hiking), an orienteering compass is ideal.


I personally recommend a compass with a magnifying glass; it’s not essential but can certainly help when fine detail is required.

Your compass will have:

  • A base plate, depending on your make and model, it may have one ruler or several.
  • A rotating bevel marked with N, W, S, E and 360 degrees around the circle.
  • A magnetic needle. This will usually be red.
  • Cardinal lines.
  • A direction of travel arrow.


North (N), West (W), South (S) and East (E) are your key elements of a compass making up 360 degrees and as one would expect, they are 90 degrees apart (4×90 = 360).

Taking these four key navigation points one step farther, these degrees are also split into finer tuning such:

North East (NE) – 45 degrees

South East (SE) – 135 degrees

South West (SW) – 225 degrees

And North West (NW) – 315 degrees

These principal points add to the 4-main directional points and thus provide 8-pricipal points that we are able to use in basic navigation.

Making oneself familiar with the compass and these 8-key directions points is a great way to start.

Compass Face

We can take the compass one step on and break it down into 16-points such as North North East (NNE) or East South East (ESE), however, that will come in a later post when we progress from basic navigation to intermediate navigation.

Taking a Bearing


First and foremost, ensure you have the appropriate map for your area in a suitable scale: usually 1:25.000 is ideal.

Remember, North is the top of the map. It’s imperative you orientate the map correctly.

To take a bearing you need to know where you currently are, point A and where you would like to go, point B.

It’s as easy as 1, 2, 3.



1: On the map align the left or the right edge of the compass base through landmarks. In this scenario we will use A and B. Make sure the direction of travel arrow is pointing toward B.



2: Turn the compass dial until NORTH on the compass lines up with NORTH on the map. As a tip and help, the meridian lines on your compass should line up with the maps North/ South grid lines (if available).


3: Now rotate your body, compass in hand and align the direction arrow with the red compass needle. Read the bearing* and follow the direction of travel arrow to your destination, in this scenario, point-B.




Easy isn’t it?

*Map bearings and field bearings can differ. For example, in the USA this can be 30 degrees and in the west 20 degrees. This is called ‘DECLINATION’ and will be discussed in our next post when we look at intermediate navigation.

Hints n Tips

  1. Understand maps and spend time in the comfort of your home looking at and analysing maps of areas that you know well. It will make things easier to understand.
  2. Know and understand scale. For example, 1:25.000 means 1 unit in the map is the equivalent to 25.000 units.
  3. Maps have LATITUDE (East to West) and LONGITUDE (North to South).
  4. An Altimeter (many modern GPS sports watched contain this but you must calibrate it) is extremely useful in conjunction with your map and compass, particularly in any orienteering event. However, this is beyond basic navigation.
  5. A GPS (Garmin or similar) and/ or an IPhone with ‘apps’ such as OS Locate are great back ups that can offer security to a basic navigator. However, never rely on such tools as batteries can die, gps signals fade and of course, you may just possibly break or loose such a device. In the early days of navigation, these tools may just help provide you with a much-needed security blanket.


Common Sense

  1. Check weather forecasts and only adventure out when you are sure of clear weather. Once you have progressed and feel comfortable with your navigation, you can experiment in less favourable conditions.
  2. Don’t venture out alone. Safety comes with numbers.
  3. Inform family, friends or neighbours your intended plans and provide a timescale.
  4. Make sure you have clothing, food and liquid for the worst case scenario and be prepared.
  5. It’s good to test yourself but understand your limits and don’t overreach.



More information:

Charlie Sproson has provided the advice and experience in creating this post. You can hear a full interview in episode 68 of Talk Ultra podcast ‘free’ on iTunes HERE (published Friday 22nd Aug 2014).

Charlie is the creator of Mountain Run based in the UK

Mountain Run


In conjunction with our series of podcasts and informative documents, Charlie and plan to arrange a basic navigation day (weekend) in the English Lakes. Dates tbc. If you are interested, please use the form below to express your interest.

Credits – Map images 1,2,3 go are copyright ©SILVA

Disclaimer – this post is geared at a novice runner or hiker looking to venture into navigation. It is purposely written to offer a simple and basic introduction to a compass and how to use it. Please be sensible and understand the dangers that can arise from a lack of preparation.