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Wise Walking

This new section is being added (January 2006) to pull together advice on how to walk safely, protecting yourself and the interests of those who live and work in the countryside.

If you are walking in Scotland, new guidance on your rights and responsibilities is set out in the Outdoor Access Code. 

Below are some guidance notes on safe walking in the mountains, and navigation techniques using a compass.


Bad weather

Essential equipment for mountain walks


Map reading

Estimating how far you’ve walked

Using a compass to navigate

When navigating in mist

Time of year

Leave a note


Whenever you head out into the mountains, you should hope for the best, but prepare for the worst, particularly in terms of the weather.  It is often said that mountains create their own weather.

Bad weather can transform an easy hillwalk into a frightening ordeal, with many hazards. Mountain routes can be very obvious on a clear day, but in low cloud it can be difficult to work out which is the correct path, and to see which point you’ve reached along a mountain ridge.  The weather can change very quickly, so although you may set out in fine sunny weather, within an hour the wind, rain and low cloud can move in.  Temperatures are lower at high altitudes, and wind speeds are stronger.  Once you are wet and tired, you will soon cool down and can easily become disorientated. It can be very difficult to find a quick route down from a windswept ridge, and you could end up on a dangerous cliff face.  So don’t head out into the mountains unless you are properly equipped and have experience finding your way in the mist!

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Essential equipment for mountain walks

You also need to be properly prepared with the clothing and equipment you take.  I am often accused of carrying too much gear, and maybe I am over-cautious, but it's a great feeling to be able to put on dry clothing at the top of a mountain after a hard climb, to enjoy the walk along the summit ridge and back down.

You should always take:

  • Sturdy footwear, warm clothing and a waterproof
  • A hat and gloves – even when it’s warm and sunny in the valley, it’s going to be cooller and windier on the summit.
  • Enough food and drink for the walk - you will need to eat and drink more than usual, and dehydration is a frequent problem for walkers especially in hot weather
  • A torch, in case you’re stuck out in the dark.
  • A whistle, in case you are lost or injured and need to attract attention.
  • A bivvy bag, in case you are stuck out overnight.
  • Some emergency food
  • Spare clothing – such as a microfleece – to replace a damp shirt to keep warm.
  • And of course a map and compass – and know how to use the compass.
  • A mobile phone if you have it - but remember that there may be no signal in the mountains.


More walkers these days are using GPS receivers to work out where they are on the map – but they still need to know which direction they need to head in, and how long it’s likely to take, so whilst this is helpful it’s not a substitute for good navigation.

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Maps: It’s easier if you get a photocopy of the area of the map which you are walking, so you don’t need to try to open up the map in the wind and rain (or snow, with freezing hands!). A wet map can soon disintegrate, whereas a photocopy can be put into a transparent plastic envelope (the sort you get magazines delivered in) and kept dry and easily accessible in your pocket.  You can mark your route on it with fluorescent pen, and write in your estimates for how long each section will take, when you’re planning the route. This will make it easier to check your progress during the walk.


Map reading is an essential skill acquired over time, but there are some important points to emphasise for mountain walking.  Remember that the narrower the contours (lines showing the height) are packed, the steeper the slope up or down.  Crags are usually marked with black curvy lines and should be avoided!  Where the contours bend more sharply round one part of a hill, this marks a ridge, and a path often follows this as it’s generally less steep than the slopes on either side. It also usually leads up to a summit!  It’s easier following a ridge up to a hilltop, than trying to find a route across a hillside, where you can often have to turn one way then another to avoid obstacles so that when you get to the ridge you’re not sure how far along it you are.


Lines of little black dots on the slope of a hill indicate loose stones, or scree, which are also difficult to cross.  And little blue grassy symbols indicate marshland, where you are likely to get your feet wet!  However only the worst bogs tend to be marked on maps – where there are areas of hill country with contours widely spaced, it’s likely to be poorly drained.  Rivers and streams are another obvious obstacle, and to cross a large stream you should head for the bridges marked on the map by two parallel lines across it.  For smaller streams you just have to look for a safe crossing point with stepping stones.  Where the contours bend inwards sharply along the line of a stream, this means there’s a deep valley, or even a gorge. And it’s worth remembering that streams look for the easiest route down a mountain, which may not be a safe route for walkers!


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You should practise estimating how far you’ve walked on the map, preferably on a clear day, so that you can do it for real when the mist comes down and you need to know how far you’ve walked along a ridge to a point of descent. If you descend at the wrong point, you can end up in the wrong valley, or on a dangerous craggy slope.  The squares on OS 1:50,000 maps are 1km square.  Generally on a hill walk it will take around 20 minutes to walk 1km, but more if you are heading uphill, and possibly less if going downhill. It depends on your fitness as well, the conditions underfoot, and the weather, but you’ll have some idea if you’re making slower or faster progress than usual.  Often a route along a ridge, or across a plateau, will change direction after a certain distance, and if you can’t see where you’re going you will need to have an idea of how long to walk before changing direction.


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Using a compass to navigate.  There are two basic techniques.  One is from map to field, the other is from field to map.


From Map to Field – you know where you are (e.g. a hilltop) and you want to check which direction to head off in (this is often difficult as there could be several possibilities). 

  1. You place your compass on the map with the direction arrow pointing from where you are now, to the direction you want to head in. 
  2. You move the dial until the arrow pointing North is lined up with the north-south grid on the map. 
  3. When you take the compass away from the map, and turn it until the needle points to north on the dial, the direction arrow will be pointing in the right direction for you to follow.

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From Field to Map – you want to check your current location so you can work out what direction you need to head in. This is where a GPS receiver can be very useful, when there are no obvious landmarks that you can recognise.  Even in clear weather, it’s easy to be confused when surrounded by a series of outcrops and small hilltops, to know which one is which and how far you have gone up a mountain or along a valley.  Look out for distinctive-shaped bends in a river, the corner of a forest plantation, or a point where the path crosses a stream, which you can identify on the map.  You should also learn to take a bearing on a recognisable feature in the distance, such as a hilltop or a farmhouse, enabling you to work out what line you must be positioned on.  One bearing may be sufficient, if you know what line you are travelling along, but if you take two in different directions correctly, you will be at the point where the two lines meet.  This is really a technique to learn from a friend when you’re out on an easy walk, so you’re ready to do it yourself when you need to.


  1. First select one target object, and point the direction arrow towards it.
  2. Hold the compass steady and move the dial around until the needle points north on the dial.
  3. Move the compass to the map, and turn it until the arrow pointing north on the dial is lined up with the north-south grid on the map, and the edge of the compass indicating direction of travel is lined up with your target object marked on the map.  Your location will be somewhere along the line marked by this edge of the compass.
  4. Follow the same procedure with the second target object, and the point where the two lines cross is your location.

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When navigating in mist, don’t try to follow a compass bearing constantly. It’s better to work out the direction of travel from the compass, and pick out an object as far ahead as you can see in that direction, and walk to it. Then look for the next object to walk to, and so on.  Often the terrain means you can’t walk in a straight line, and this means you can pick your way around obstacles to get to the object you have picked out in the distance. 

Time of year.  If you're walking in the winter months, remember that the hours of daylight are much shorter (unless you're climbing Kilimanjaro or something else closer to the equator).  Check what time it gets dark, and allow a safe margin, when planning your route.

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Leave a note - or tell someone where you are going.  If something goes wrong and you are late back, how will anyone know where to start looking for you?  You should leave a note at the place you are staying before setting out, or let them know at reception, and say what time you expect to be back.  You can also leave a note of your car registration number if you are driving to the start of the walk.  Once you have parked, leave a note in the car of your intended route and estimated return time (overestimating a bit, to give a margin for error).  

The Japanese mountains had little huts at the start of the walks, where you entered your name and time of your walk in a log book.  We were told off for failing to log ourselves back in at the end of a walk at Shikotsu-ko!

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 Andrew Llanwarne  – 5 January 2006


Arriving safely at the summit

Arriving safely at the summit

Looking out for waymarkers

Look out for waymarkers

Take care on cliff paths

Take care on cliff paths