Navigation, the Art of not being Confused

Someone once said that if you're lost no one can help you; but if you are confused maybe you can help yourself. Any self respecting navigator should never admit to being lost, confused yes, lost ?, never.

The tools of the trade.


The desire to learn has developed an explorative trait in the human personality and when we learn we like to pass that information to others, maps are a way of doing just that. Cartographers, people who make maps, collect information and create for us a picture of the land. Maps have existed for centuries, becoming more refined and accurate as our knowledge of a region increases. Some of the developed countries are so well mapped that individual houses and small features are now marked, some wilderness regions still contain areas that are like the dark side of the moon to many of us and maps of these regions are far from detailed.

Originally on calfskin, vellum or parchment modern maps may be printed to a very high standard on waterproof materials or simply loaded on a CD-ROM and viewed on a computer. However you see the map you are looking at a massive piece of information, a picture of the land, drawn at a fixed scale allowing you to convert the information into a multi dimensional image of a place you may never have seen. Ansel Adam's, famous for his photographs of the American wilderness could tell from reading a map the best viewpoints to place a camera and what type of light the aspect of the sun would give.

In the UK we have one of the best series of maps available anywhere in the world. The Ordnance Survey department have measured and improved the record of the British landscape for years and now produce maps that are the envy of the world. The benchmark maps for the UK are the Landranger series, covering the whole of England, Wales and Scotland. Scaled at 1:50,000 the Landranger maps give a large amount of information and detail and each map covers an area of 40 square kilometres.

The newer Explorer series is designed for the navigator who requires more information, at 1:25,000 scale these are the most detailed maps available in the UK and will eventually supersede the older Pathfinder 1:25,000 maps. Maps of a scale larger than 1:50,000 give the navigator some problems, limited space restricts the amount of information the map-maker can give. Contour lines, which give the navigator an estimation of the landscape in terms of angle of slope and heights of hills can be very accurate at 1:50,000 or 1:25,000, when the scale increases to 1:100,000 or 1:250,000 the amount of space for detail is limited. For hillwalking or climbing large scale maps are not recommended.

The OS Grid System is unique to British maps, the ground area shown is divided into squares, each with a unique reference code. This square is then subdivided again to give a 'six figure ref number' this will be a point that cannot be mistaken for any other. Another development in the UK has been the production of dedicated walkers maps from Harveys, two series are currently available, the Walkers series at 1:40,000 and the Superwalker series at 1:25,000. The maps use the OS grid system and contain information regarding the terrain and ground features in addition to contour information and vegetation. Printed onto a waterproof base the maps are ideal for walkers, climbers and mountain bikers.

The Harveys maps employ the OS grid system for navigation and map references. In other parts of the world map information can vary tremendously, some remote areas have only simple maps with little detail, most parts of the developed world, Europe, the United States for example are covered by excellent maps. Some important areas such as the Himalayas have some high quality maps, a series of Austrian maps cover the South American Andes but other areas can be very poorly served.


The fundamental navigation device using one of the basic forces of nature, magnetism. A long, thin magnet able to rotate freely will always point to magnetic north. Wherever you are on the surface of the planet this rule applies. It gives the navigator his main reference for finding out further information, when combined with a modern map it allows accurate navigation. The early Chinese are credited with inventing the magnetic compass, allowing their navigators to sail and investigate the whole of the western pacific coastline.

The modern compass has become a highly refined instrument capable of great accuracy, using jewel bearings and a liquid filled housing the compass needle will return an accuracy of a single degree or better. With a rotating bezels and scale marking on the baseplate map work and navigation have never been easier, so why do people still get lost?

No map and no compass is one reason for getting lost, the two items go together. Map and compass and still lost ?, use your map at regular intervals to check your position and progress, don't leave it until your are lost to figure out where you are. Don't put your map in your rucksack, keep it in a map case and refer to it at regular intervals. Observation of the passing terrain is another source of bewilderment, if the map says you should be in a pine forest and you are walking across open moorland something has gone wrong!.

Observe as you travel and refer again to your map, half of accurate navigation is about observation. Contour lines drawn on a map allow the navigator to 'read' a slope or hillside. The closer the lines are together the steeper the slope will be, with some practice and observation it is possible to visualise the landscape with some accuracy.

The ability to read contour lines gives you the ability to avoid very steep ascents and descents, where contour lines become joined on the map you are looking at severe slopes and possibly sheer cliffs and dangerous ground. Some compasses are fitted with a clinometer which allows measurement of the slope angle to add another level of accuracy to your navigation. The map and compass represent a major asset for safe travel in the outdoors, their proper use will keep you out of trouble.


GPS is an abbreviation of Global Positioning System, the system, which consists of satellites in fixed positions above the earth, provides a receiver with signals which allow it to calculate its position to a high degree of accuracy. Initiated in 1972 the system is global and is the main source of satellite navigation data to the professional, military and recreational navigator. GPS sets are now found in almost every outdoor shop in the world and for sale at ever lower prices their use in the outdoors is constantly growing.

Use of a GPS receiver is another important way of accurate navigation, misuse of a GPS receiver will lead to trouble. Using advanced triangulation methods your receiver only needs to 'see' two or three satellites to give a usable position fix. The US military, who happen to own the satellites, degrade the degree of accuracy from an error of 100 metres to 40 metres. This gives a maximum accuracy at worst of 'within 200 metres' of position fix anywhere on the surface of the planet, not bad!. This selective switching of the accuracy of GPS signals will soon change to give a higher level of accuracy on a permanent basis. Although some advanced GPS receivers have features such as map integration showing your position on a map rather than as a reference in Lat/Long or OS grid these sets are mainly used in marine environments due to the various boxes and batteries needed.

Most ground navigation is done using simpler hand held receivers. The Magellan 2000 is a perfect example of a modern GPS set, about the same size as a mobile phone the Magellan 2000 is a 'mini' computer. The unit can store over 100 positions and then give you the information on a screen as to how to reach any of them, the unit can log positions on the move and allow backtracking. Various screen displays give a mass of navigation information ranging from your current position to your speed over the ground and time to target destination. The most important ability of any GPS set is to tell you where you are.

Using a GPS without a map and compass is a dangerous practice, bearings given by your GPS receiver need a good compass to follow accurately, without a map in your hand terrain and contour information is not available. In short a GPS is an addition to the navigators armoury and all GPS manufacturers recommend the use of map and compass.

The Navigator

Being lost is often just a state of mind, stop, gather all available information from around you and the problem is usually soon resolved. Don't slog onwards in the hope of inspiration, you have become lost for a reason, use your brain and the tools at your disposal to get un-lost. Tiredness can be fatal, on high mountains loss of concentration has seen walkers taking the wrong end of the needle as north and then walk off into a blizzard and big problems.

As I said at the start of this article that you should not become lost only 'confused, everyone gets 'confused' at some stage, it could be a whiteout, or travelling further than you estimated, taking a wrong fork in the track. Pay attention to the advice that is available from books, maps and compass manufacturers and you will shake off your confusion, learn your lessons well and you may never be 'confused' again.