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All things hiking Skills tips Winter

Winter Mountain Navigation – 30 Top Tips & Strategies

Having delivered navigation courses for the last 20 years here are Andy Bateman’s top tips and strategies.

It’s always struck me that describing winter mountain navigation as a bit of a “black art” isn’t a particularly helpful phase for anyone trying to get their head around the subject. Dealing with even the worst of winter white-outs isn’t rocket science but it does require the right approach, mindset and plenty of practice. Here are my top tips:

The Practise

Contours, contours, contours – setting the stage

1, Stand alone Skill

Of all the mountain navigation techniques and skills, contour interpretation is the most stand alone skill. In fine conditions it’s quite possible to get you to your objective without the use of any another technique. It should be the central pillar of all serious mountain navigation courses with all other skills and techniques relating to it.


2, Contour Features

Contour interpretation gives you your direction and distance. Where ever you are in the world, by definition mountains will always have slopes. Slopes have a gradient and an aspect, both of which are denoted by contour lines. Changing gradient and aspect combine to form many of the terrain features like ridges, valley’s, knolls, spurs etc. It’s by relating our position to these on a navigational leg that gets us to our destination. Also when things don’t go quite according to plan, its the terrain that may well indicate what “plan B” should be.


3, Well defined navigational objectives

Seek out well defined but small contour features. Look for abrupt changes in either the spacing between the contour lines or abrupt changes in the direction of the contour. If both come together at the same point, fantastic! This well defined feature may well be discernable on the ground and it’s small size will help to pinpoint your position. Being able to recognise a good contour objectives in this way is an important skill. On navigation courses I often recommend guests take themselves onto a hillside and rather than aiming for the summit, practise seeking out these type of contour features.

4, Never forget the contour lines

Although vitally important in winter mountain navigation, compass work, dead reckoning techniques (timing & pacing), etc should serve to back up your contour interpretation in poorer conditions but never replace it!


5, Winter Whiteouts

Don’t let the conditions dissuade you from monitoring the terrain. Putting aside blowing snow, have you ever paced out the visibility in a winter whiteout? The actual visibility is often better than it appears. The lack of definition due to everything being white and the flat light, is often mistaken as bad visibility. Although often not great, quite frequently visibility will be 50m or more. 50m one way and 50m in the other direction gives you a span of 100m. If you’re on top of other aspects of your mountain navigation it can still be enough to monitor you position in relation to the terrain. In bad conditions it’s even more important that you are interpreting the contours.

mountain navigation weekend

Micro navigation in winter


6, Staying on track

Making a diagonal descent across a snow and ice covered slope with a strong cross wind, in a whiteout is going to challenge even the most experienced winter navigator to stay on his/her bearing. It’s changes in gradient or slope aspect that might be the only indication that you have you’ve drifted off your bearing or maybe gone too far.


7, Crampons on?

Think about putting your crampons on when employing dead reckoning techniques. The last thing you want is to find you are unsure of your footing half way though your pacing or timing. It can be very disruptive.  Get to know how wearing crampons effects your pacing and speed.


“Error management” comes in a number of forms.

Navigational accuracy operates at 2 levels; firstly, accuracy in any particular skill or technique, and secondly, what could be referred to as “error management”.

8, Sounds familiar?

There are well recognised techniques like: aiming off, attack points and collection features. Each of these techniques either corrects or negates accrued error.

9, Don’t be dependent

Employ a number of techniques simultaneously so to avoid being dependent on the absolute accuracy of any one particular technique. If you’re properly monitoring gradient, slope aspect, features, distance and direction during a navigational leg you hopefully won’t go too far wrong.

10, Keep your legs short

Keep your navigational legs to below 1 km. A 10% error in distance or direction over 2km is going to be 4 times that compared with that over 500m. The more contour features you can identify, the more waypoints you have and hence the shorter your legs can be. It all goes back to the contours!

11, Water Features

Be wary about navigating to water features in winter. Stream channels often fill with snow leaving no surface indication of their presence. Shallow Lochans, lakes and ponds readily freeze solid and won’t sink when loaded by further snowdrifts leaving us without even the luxury of flat surface. The shallow margins of deeper bodies of water can behave similarly thereby reducing their apparent size. Some lakes freeze over and the remaining water drains out. The unsupported ice, which may be buried by snow, then warps and takes on the form of the undulating lake bed again robbing us of any indication of the lakes position.

12, Reassess your timing and pacing

At the end of a navigational leg make sure you’re definitely at your intended objective. Reassess your timing and pacing. Snow conditions can change within a matter of hours. Was your estimated speed correct or did that unexpected patch of deep soft snow you just had to plough through slow us down? How does the terrain look? The next leg may well accrue a little error. You don’t want to compound the situation by transferring error from you last leg to it.

Keep mental arithmetic to an absolute minimum

13 Use Romer Scales

Use the romer scales on your compass base plate. Mental arithmetic is easily done in indoors but it can be a whole lot more difficult whilst being battered by high winds and sub zero temperatures.


14, Prior preparation …

mountain navigation course

Available for purchase (£5)

Use a time-pace matrix with pre-calculated times and double pace figures. The more comprehensive the better! Aside from increasing accuracy, a very detailed matrix affords you the ability to compare values of similar double pace rates or speeds for the leg distance. The difference between similar values in effect indicates an acceptable range of error relative to the length of the leg. You can then use this to compare with what other techniques are indicating. – an additional powerful navigational tool!


15, Keep Count

Use some method to count paces. You will have other thinks to keep an eye on and there is always a chance of an interruption. It’s easy to loose count. Using the traditional cord with toggles on the rucksack strap keeps your hands free.

‘Body Conditioning’-

16, Regular Breaks

Your brain is your most important navigational ‘tool’ so plan regular short breaks to keep it well nourished with food and drink. I find 80 mins of walking followed by a 10 minute break generally works well. A stop of this length is quickly used up to adjust clothing, eating, drinking, etc, but more than this and you will start to chill quickly.

17, Be disciplined

If you’re cold, stop and do something about it. Don’t necessarily wait for the next ascent to warm you up. A resultant lack of resolve to make sure things are right may lead to a navigational error that leads to a much greater delay.

18, Guess your bearing

Make a rough estimation of what your bearing will be before you take it. This will help to guard against making simple but easy mistakes. NE bearing will be around 45 degrees plus or minus 22.5 degrees. 22.5 degrees is the difference between NE and ENE. If its S it will be around 180 degrees, W 270 degrees and so on …

The Route Planning

19, Less Challenging Route?

You may well have to opt for less ambitious objectives than you might normally do in the summer. The available daylight will be less. The conditions, the wearing of crampons and the carrying of a heavier pack makes for a slower pace. You will invariably have to make more stops to; check the route, put crampons on & off, etc. than compared in winter


20, Less Direct Route

The route you take may have to be less direct to take in more and better defined way-points.

21, Avalanche!

When planning your route take into account avalanche hazard. No only do you need to consider whether the terrain you cross may be prone to avalanches but whether you may be crossing the run out zone for avalanche prone terrain above. The earlier you start incorporating avalanche hazard evaluation into your route planning the better.

The Gear

winter equipment

22, Anti Fog Snow Goggles.

Invest in a good pair of snow goggles. You can’t afford to be without your vision. Even snowflakes hitting your eyes on relatively light winds can be particularly uncomfortable. Trying to navigate into the teeth of a 30mph blizzard without eye protection is purgatory. In the bad conditions sunglasses become useless. Adequate eye protection is an absolute must.


23, Buy a powerful headtorch!

Don’t skimp on this thinking it’s just for emergencies. The challenges of navigating high in the mountains after dusk can increase substantially. A strong beam can really help. During the winter months the chances of finishing the day in the dark increase substantially.


24, Trekking Poles with snow baskets

These can be useful in strong winds or soft snow but don’t allow their use to prevent you from employing appropriate navigational techniques, or for that matter your ice axe. If the compass is in use and you’re frequently referring to the map, etc then your poles are best stowed away.


25, Compass features to go for:

a) An adequately sized transparent base plate (10cm plus in length),

b) A magnifying glass for examining contour detail

c) Romer scales to help minimise mental arithmetic.

Over the years I’ve had guests turn up on navigation courses with either the wrong type of compass or cheap poorly designed ones. It’s often not until guests start to use them on the navigation courses that they realise their failings. Silva produces good one. Choose yours carefully.

26, Don’t compromise your needle

On navigation courses cameras and mobile phones have been the main culprits for interfering with compass needles when brought too close. Be conscious of where these are stored in relation to where your compass is stored and used. Steel components on ice axes & trekking poles can also have an effect. On one navigation course a guest had magnetic closures in the storm flap of her jacket zip!

Map scales

Guests are often surprised we don’t automatically go for the 1:25 000 maps on our navigation courses. It is down to personal preference but here are 3 points to consider for winter?

27, More Grid Eastings

A 1:50 000 map has twice as many grid eastings as on a 1:25 000 (2 cm & 4 cm spacing respectively) making it much easier to find an appropriately positioned grid easting when taking a bearing. In most compasses the needle housing is approximately 4cm in diameter, the same as the spacing between grid eastings on a 1:25 000 map. With this scale in bad conditions the lack of eastings can be an irritation when trying to take some N-S-ish bearings. This problem is exacerbated by compasses with small base plates.

28, Clear Contour lines

The wealth of terrain information e.g. loose rock, heath, etc on some 1:25 000 scale maps tends to obscure the contour lines. In winter this extra surface information is often irrelevant as it’s buried.


29, Manageable in high winds

By opting for the combination of a 1:50 000 map and an A5 sized map case (Ortleib referred to it as a A5 ‘document Bag’) you’ll find the map far more manageable in high winds. At this scale an adequate area of the map is displayed to avoid refolding the map on the hill but is small enough to conveniently fit in a jacket pocket for easy access whilst being weatherproof in a map case.


30, Anchor your map

Your map case is a means by which you can attach the map to yourself.


Scot Mountain Holidays runs mountain navigation courses throughout the year both as stand alone courses as well as part of our winter skills courses.

cold hands

Dachstein mitts don’t necessarily mean that you won’t be able to use a compass or to navigate, as shown by our director Andy Bateman

Managing Mountain Navigation:

you will make errors – how to deal with your errors?

Autumn and early winter is the time when the contrast between warm seas and cold air is at its greatest. This has the effect of injecting even more energy into our already turbulent skies. Then the weather at this time is even more changeable.  In addition, the ground is often covered by snow. The snow covered ground merges with the cloud. Flat light conditions as well will make navigation even more difficult as everything you see appears to be the same colour. This doesn’t mean that you need to hand up the mountain boots until Spring. It might mean that you should consider brushing up on your navigation skills so you can deal with the shorter days (flat light) and the potential for more inclement weather (autumn/winter).

Winter navigation has been described as a bit of a “black art”. This isn’t a particularly helpful phase for anyone trying to get their head around the subject. Dealing with even the worst of winter white-outs isn’t rocket science. It does require the right approach, mindset and plenty of practice.

mountain navigation

Map reading in the Cairngorms


Navigation accuracy operates on two levels:

  1. accuracy in a particular skill or technique
  2. “overriding error management”.

There are so many variables in the mountain environment that it is important not to overlook “error management”. Looking back to when I did my summer ML many moons ago I had too much focus on the former and didn’t really appreciate the latter.

What is error management?

  1. using tactical ways to keep error below certain levels,
  2. employing a number of techniques simultaneously.
  3. employing techniques that either accommodate or negate its effect
  4. relating everything to your contour interpretation

1. A tactical approach to managing mountain navigation

winter navigation

Micro navigation in winter

Logically if we get our distance and direction right we will get to our objective. The most common way people get lost in the mountains is when they allow an error in their distance and direction to get out of control. You must never allow an error in your distance and direction estimate to become greater than the range of visibility. A 10 % error in distance or direction over 500m will be a quarter of that over 2 km in real terms.

Keeping your navigational legs to below 1 km in winter should be one of your key aims but to do this requires more waymarking points/features. For this you’re invariably looking to your contour interpretation skills. On many occasion I have heard it be said “the Cairngorm Plateau is featureless”. It isn’t, it’s just that the features are often a lot more subtle. You need to be a skilled map reader to pick them out.

2. Don’t rely on just 1 or 2 techniques

Don’t “put all your eggs in one basket”. Accuracy in one particular technique or skill is good but don’t let this tempt you into relying on one or two techniques. By employing a number of skills simultaneously they should confirm each other.

An additional technique that I and mountain navigation course students have found very useful is to use a very comprehensive and detailed timing & pacing chart (see extract below). In the extreme left hand column you have your double pace rate (dp) with the distance running along the top. Working on the basis of + or – 5 double paces per 100m is within the realm of acceptable error, it gives you the acceptable error for a particular distance.

mountain navigation course

Pacing chart developed by Andy Bateman to keep navigational error when using timing and pacing to a minimum

For example, if you estimated you’re going to do 595 dp’s over for 850m (dp rate of 70) and you end up doing 616, a quick reference to the chart shows you that this figure lies neatly between what you estimated and the next rate up of 638 dp ie within the acceptable range of error. To be 21 dp out over 150 would be well off the mark. This information can then be used in conjunction to what other skills and techniques are indicating about your position.

managing mountain navigation

Micro navigation on the moorland, Cairngorms National Park

3. Techniques that negate error

With all the tactical techniques of aiming off, attach points and collection features, at some stage in their execution they all correct the error. If applied appropriately they can be used to great effect and can improve you overall accuracy and efficiency

4. Contour Interpretation and Conclusion

Contour interpretation and having that 3D image of terrain in your mind is the focal point of mountain navigation skill. It is what the information fed back from all the other skills and techniques relates to. In the worst conditions you contour interpretation skills it may offer the first and only indication that your drifting off your bearing.

winter navigation course

Test your limits, within your means

To try any of these techniques in practice book one of our navigation courses or a 5 day winter skills course.

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