Navigation for Beginners


Navigation For Beginners

If you’ve ever wanted to explore the countryside a bit more but been afraid of getting lost then read on! Navigation doesn’t have to be too complicated and with a few tips and a little practice you can gain the confidence to find new viewpoints, gorgeous woodlands and hidden gems of the countryside.

The 4 ‘D’s of Navigation

Planning and following a route in the countryside comes down to 4 basic steps: Distance, Duration, Direction and Description. Whether you’re following a well-marked path or heading across open terrain the principle remains the same; only the attention to detail really changes.

Distance and Scale

Measuring the distance you expect to travel is a useful starting point when planning your journey. The most commonly used walking maps in the UK are Ordnance Survey maps, at a scale of 1:25,000 or 1:50,000. Although it can be confusing, in simple terms, if you measure 1 millimetre on a 1:25,000 scale map, it represents 25 metres in real life; on a 1:50,000 scale map the same 1mm represents 50 metres in reality. Most walkers’ compasses have a ruler on one side with a millimetre scale as well as a ‘romer’ with lines to help you measure in hundreds of metres. If you know how far each section of your route will be, this helps you to work out if it’s within your capabilities and also leads neatly on to our second ‘D’.


Having measured the distance you’re planning to travel, the next step is to work out your expected duration (how long you think it will take to walk). A good rule of thumb is to plan for walking at 4 kilometres (around 2.5 miles) per hour on flat ground for most adults. We don’t all walk at the same speed though, so once you’ve gotten into the habit of keeping an eye on timings you can plan for your own pace in real life. An average of 4 km per hour means that for every 1.5 minutes you should walk around 100m, so 1,000m (or 1km) in around 15 minutes. If you don’t like trying to do mental maths when you’re just out for a pleasant walk, try making a timing card with distance and duration noted on it for different speeds.

One of the main benefits of working out your estimated duration is that it helps you to realise when you’ve gone wrong at an early stage. If you expect to walk for 15 minutes on a particular section but you’ve actually gone for 20, the chances are you’ve gone wrong somewhere. It’s far better to realise this sooner rather than later!


Orientating your map (lining it up with real life) can be done in a couple of different ways. The easiest way is to sit your compass on top of the map and then turn the map until the north end of the floating magnetic needle (usually red) inside your compass is pointing towards the northern end of your map (top of the map).

Whilst it’s quick and easy to orientate a map using a compass, I’d encourage you to try to do it using the features you see around you; it helps you to pay attention to your surroundings at the same time. In practice this means lining the map up with things like roads, forests, rivers etc so that, for example, if there’s a church on your left, you have the map in front of you with the church to the left as well.

Keeping your map orientated means that you’re always facing the path ahead, so you can determine which way you should be walking and choose the correct track where there’s more than one option.

Once you get into more open terrain, you might need to use compass bearings to work out your direction, but that’s for another article!


Our final ‘D’ is all about telling the story of your expected journey. Working out the route between your start and finish points, you might notice that you’ll follow a bridleway for 300 metres before entering a wood, turn left onto the first footpath, cross a footbridge and then walk uphill for another 300 metres before reaching a viewpoint. All of those details are shown on the map if you know where to look and if you’re paying enough attention!

Having a really good grasp of map symbols and what they mean can help you to plan your journeys and anticipate what’s coming next. That way, if you come across something you weren’t expecting you’ll know to stop and reassess. Read our article on map symbols for beginners here.

Explore More

The best way to get better at navigation is to get outside and practice in the real world. You’ll inevitably make a few mistakes along the way but that just shows you’re practicing hard, so keep going and you’ll get there!

If you’re a bit worried about getting lost whilst practicing, I’d recommend buying an Ordnance Survey or Harveys map for an area you know really well, or download an app for your phone. Plan some routes on familiar ground first and put these techniques into practice there. That way, even if you do get lost, you should always be able to find your way back. Apps are especially useful because you can record your route, so even if you have to turn around and return back the way you came, you’ll be able to use GPS to stay on track.

Written by Borderlands Outdoor who offer navigation courses throughout the Forest of Dean and Wye Valley which can help you to learn to navigate in the great outdoors so you can explore with confidence. If you’d like a bit more in-depth tuition on these techniques and the strategies you can use to improve your navigation further, take a look at their navigation courses. You can also see a navigation challenge they set here, can you match the images to the maps?


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