Navigational Awareness – Don’t Get Lost on the Hills

The recent case of a man lost in the Cairngorms for two nights is just the latest incident for the busy Cairngorm Mountain Rescue Team. It won’t be the last (Spoiler: it wasn’t). Fortunately there was a happy outcome on this occasion.

When these incidents happen, it really hammers home the importance of good navigation skills, like how to interpret maps and take bearings; but that’s not what I want to talk about today. If you want to learn the technical skills, you could join me on one of my navigation skills courses.

But in this post I want you to think about how navigation works in our brains, because this is fundamental to developing good navigational habits.

Braeriach summit, Cairngorms

Mental Mapping

You probably aren’t aware of it, but you’re navigating right now. Wherever you are, you are using a mental map of your surroundings to understand where you are in relation to the things you need and places you will eventually need to go.

Here is a simple example that most of us can relate to. Imagine that you are lying in your bed in the dark, and suddenly you need to go to the toilet. Do you know your way from there to your bathroom, even in the pitch dark? Of course you do. You’re probably so familiar with that little journey that you know it down to a degree of microscopic detail, even without being able to see. Where to tread, how far away the wall is, how high up the door handle is, how many steps to take, etc. And you use those reference points as little signals of confirmation that you’re going the right way. They are essentially landmarks that you expect to find along the journey from A to B.

Blind and visually impaired people depend on these mental maps for daily life, but even if you have the use of both eyes then I’d daresay your mental map of your own house is remarkably detailed. You’ve got an intuitive sense of its layout, so there’s no need to think about things like where your sofa is, how to get to the bedroom, and so on. This is your mental map, and you use it to move about your house without even pausing to think about it.

But let’s consider now how we might react if we find that one or more of those little navigational markers isn’t where we expect. What if you reach out in the dark to feel the wall on your way to the bathroom, and it’s not there?

In that situation a little moment of discombobulation is probably all that happens. Take another step, and there’s the wall. You misjudged the distance a bit, but now you’re back on track. You’re navigating.

Any journey from A to B is marked by such navigational markers which, in familiar surroundings, we acknowledge subconsciously, until we encounter something unexpected. Then it suddenly catapults into the front of our brains, and gives us that moment of doubt.That example of the wall not being where we expect, and the way it throws us off, is actually a great example of good navigation. We can call that a piece of navigational feedback. We’ll come back to this point in a little while.

Sgor Gaoith, planning descent route.

On the Hill

So how does this all relate to navigating on the hills?

Well, it’s all about what happens in our brains. It’s about how our expected journey syncs with our mental maps, and it’s about the way that the mental task of navigation rises and lapses from our conscious and subconscious.

Let’s think about how good navigation works. Fundamentally, we use the same process to cross the Cairngorm Plateau as we do to find our way to the bathroom at night. We construct a mental picture/model to plan our route, and then we use navigational markers as feedback to confirm we’re going the right way.

The difference, of course, is that our mental map of the hill is probably nowhere as good as the one of our own house. That’s why we carry a paper map – it holds all that information for us. And so the first crucial skill of hill navigation is in translating that knowledge from paper to brain – using it to build your own mental model.

The more accurate that model is the better your navigation will be, so it’s important to learn to read into the detail of the map. A little wiggle in a contour line is in reality a cottage-sized spur, or a sudden steepening, or the top of an escape route. A little black line? That signifies a 10m outcrop. A blue line is a burn that could be impassable in spate.

Of course details like those are not only potential hazards that you might need to watch out for; they are also the kind of landmarks that you can aim for. They can be your tick list to confirm that you’re going the right way.

A great example is Point 1141 on Cairngorm itself. A mighty cairn that sits at the top of a long ridge which leads from the plateau almost directly back to the carpark. It’s the sign that you’re nearly there – nearly off. In good visibility it’s trivial to follow the rim of Coire an-t Sneachda around the hill and then down to safety. But I’m sure there are hundreds if not thousands of people who can relate to the deep relief of seeing that cairn loom up out of the featureless white of a Cairngorm blizzard late on a winter afternoon.

Point 1141 in good weather and bad.

Good navigation requires us to think about these markers in advance. It then also requires us to pay enough attention to recognise when we encounter them. So before you start walking take some time to think about your route. What features will confirm you’re going the right way? A stream you’ll cross – a fork in the path – a cairn. These are the things that will keep you right, and you’ll do yourself a favour by taking the time to build a better mental map.

Now, let’s double back a bit to our example of the bathroom in the night.

Remember the feeling of reaching out your hand but the wall is not there? That’s a really important moment. It tells us that the lack of a feature or landmark in the place we expect it to be can be useful feedback. That might suggest we haven’t gone far enough yet, but it might also indicate a more fundamental error. Maybe we went too far, or slightly the wrong way, or even totally the wrong way. Unlikely in your house, but very possible on the mountain.

This is a crucial. If you have been navigating effectively thus far, then it’s easy to figure out the remedy. Either correct the error or return to the last known point. But if you’ve not been paying attention then this is the moment you will be jolted out of your complacency. This is the ‘oh shit’ moment, because you don’t have any other useful markers to work with.

Suddenly Lost

Now, I’d like to ask you to think about a time when you felt lost. Even just a bit. In the car, at the airport, in the supermarket – wherever. I want you to recall, if you can, how you felt when you realised you were lost. And realised is the crucial word here, because it’s almost always a sudden onset, followed by a progression. We suddenly feel a bit lost, then keep going on to become quite lost, very lost, then extremely lost.

This happens when we allow navigation in unfamiliar surroundings to sink back into our subconscious and lose track of recognisable features. Suddenly our mental map no longer fits reality. And when we realise that, it’s easy to panic.

It’s all too easy in places like the Cairngorms where the terrain is often featureless and the weather is changeable. You’re going along in the sun perfectly happy, having a chat or just lost in thought. It’s easy to find the way because you can see the summit ahead of you, just over a mile away. But you don’t notice when the cloud comes down, until suddenly you realise you can’t see anything more than a few feet away. You keep walking, but something feels off. This isn’t the summit. You walk downhill again but it looks different, and you reach a place where it’s uphill in every direction. You go up again a different way, but that’s not the summit either, nor the way back.

This is the ‘oh shit’ moment. And this is the crucial moment to stop the progression from ‘slightly lost’ to ‘totally screwed’.

Returning from MacDui under clear skies. The plateau is a huge area – we have to learn to navigate using relatively innocuous features.

Our natural response to this sudden feeling is to freak out. People typically respond by trying to cover a lot of ground in a hurry, in hope that they’ll find something familiar fast. This often becomes a point of escalation though, because the moment you realise you’re lost is probably also the nearest you are to being found. If you start moving now in the wrong direction you’ll make the situation worse. You need to move the right way.

So stop for a few minutes. Take some food and water, make sure you are warm enough. Now start figuring it out. Get the map and compass out, if they weren’t already (that might be why we’re in this situation now). Think it through and make a calm decision about what the next move is – whether that’s to head in a particular direction, or to remain still.

Remaining still might be the right choice, sometimes, because people will start looking for you close to where you were last known to be. But you might also need to seek shelter. So move if you have to, but try to start navigating again straight away.

The best way to deal with getting lost is of course to prevent it from happening.

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Autopilot and Denial

Surely though, surely, I hear you cry – you can use GPS to track your position and prevent yourself ever becoming lost. And yes, that’s true, while the batteries last. Here’s the thing – it’s cold on the hills, and cold kills batteries.

I really don’t even want to get any further into it. You simply can not afford to depend on GPS or a phone app alone to navigate in the hills, because it is going to fail when you need it most. There is no dependable substitute for a physical map, quality compass, and the skills to use them. End of story.

That’s actually not the end though, because there is lots to say about what GPS does to our brains.

People who rely on technology for navigation have a tendency to outsource their decision making. Many tales of navigational mishaps relate to cars and satnavs, but the lessons are plain to see for hillwalkers too. Having faith that the GPS will tell them the right way to go, some people seem to become completely oblivious to the numerous warning signs that something is wrong. They simply become passengers, convinced that the GPS must be right.

Some of these stories are hilarious, as well as big head scratchers. Like the Belgian lady who went to pick up a friend from the station, but instead drove 900 miles to Croatia before realising something was wrong. She said she didn’t realise because she was a bit absent minded and preoccupied. A perfect example of putting navigation in the back of the mind.

But while some stories are ridiculous others are tragic. There are, sadly, plenty of tales out there now about the phenomenon called ‘Death by GPS’. People who drove up high into the mountains instead of the city and got stranded. People who drove past warning signs and barriers, only to fall off the end of unfinished bridges.

It’s Darwin Award kind of stuff, but the point is that we are obviously willing to place an alarming degree of faith in certain navigational tools. And when we do we run the risk of falling into the cracks that limit their usefulness, oblivious to hazards that should be self evident.

I’ve read elsewhere that the solution to this bias is to always go with your gut. This is dangerous advice though, because there is another side to this coin. We can be equally biased the other way; convinced that our navigational tools are giving us false or misleading information.

That has happened to me. I was once at the summit of a peak on the west coast with some friends. It was cloudy, getting dark, and we’d just had a horrible day retreating from a big scary climb. We just wanted off asap.

Fortunately this peak had a nice easy descent ridge, and I’d been down it twice before, so I was certain of the way. All we had to do was face east and walk down in a roughly straight line. We checked our compasses once before setting off, then started down.

Not a good place to choose the wrong route of descent.

After a while the ridge became steeper than I remembered. And steeper. And steeper. Finally we reached a point where it started to feel risky, and I reached for my map, frustrated and just wanting down. I scoured the map for this steep bit, wanting to confirm I was going the right way. But it wasn’t anywhere to be seen. I felt angry that the map was wrong.

We couldn’t see more than about twenty metres in any direction, and there were no other features to see apart from the ridge itself. So I pointed the compass down the slope to check which way we were facing. Oddly, the compass said northeast, which I knew must be wrong. I thought a bit, and decided my compass must have demagnetised by being next to my phone in my bag. My emotions were already so fried by the day that I didn’t want to think anymore. But my pal got his compass out and we checked that one too. It said the same thing, exactly, and we stared at each other confused but convinced that both compasses had gone wrong at the same time.

Surely that just wasn’t possible. We looked at each other for a good hard minute before we realised. No, it wasn’t possible. The compasses were correct; we were wrong. Our conviction that we were going the right way was false. This ridge must be facing north east. I checked the map again, and finally saw the smaller subsidiary ridge that led northeast from the summit. It steepened and steepened below us, before dropping near vertically over a cliff. Chastened, we returned to higher ground and started down again, keeping our compasses in our hands this time.


The ultimate lesson is that navigation is a science, but it is also a skill. We have to practise things like map-reading, bearings, pacing and timing. But we also need to sharpen the skills of awareness, that ‘relaxed concentration’ that notices our surroundings even though it does not dwell on them. We need to get used to flipping between subconscious and conscious attention. Learn to heed those little red flags and deal with them before they become a problem.

It is also crucial to assume responsibility for our own navigation, which means accepting agency over ourselves whether we are alone or in company. Trust our tools and aids, but be aware of their limitations and our own biases toward them.

Good navigation is about evidence. It’s about building a case of facts that continuously updates as we travel. How long we’ve been moving. What direction. How far. What features we’ve seen. How do those facts compare to our map and our mental model? Do they confirm that we have gone the right way?

And most importantly, have we finally reached the bathroom yet?

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