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An Introduction to Using GPS

An Introduction to Using GPS

PDF of post Here

Dedicated handheld GPS devices have their uses and are a valuable tool. Their key advantages come from relocation, using co-ordinates (either saved or input while out on the mountain), and tracing your Route. The strongest use of the device is probably in using it to get to a set a of co-ordinates as route finding and orienteering skills are still required and it differs little from using a compass.

In this blog post I will look at these three skills, relocation, using co-ordinates (either saved or input while out on the mountain), and tracing your route, and ways to develop them, in a little more detail as best I can. Before doing so we do need to give due consideration to the pitfalls and failings of GPS devices. You can skip this section by scrolling to How to Use a GPS Device as a Navigational Aide.

With regards navigation, orienteering, and route finding it is important to bear in mind that a GPS is of no help when it comes to the bedrock skill required for navigation and route finding in the mountains: the ability to read and interpret contours and features. True mountain navigation is based on this skill above all else.

GPS in the Mountains: Concerns About Safety

GPS is not an ‘advance’ in navigation per se. It is a technology that changes the way we are able to navigate. It is not ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than other technologies. Electronic navigational devices rely on set of machine automated processes that would usually be carried out in some form or other by a human. In other words, these devices replace the skills, physical and cognitive, that humans need to develop and maintain in order to navigate effectively and efficiently, especially so under adverse conditions. Users of any technology come to rely on the technology, often a ‘machine’, to perform functions they should be able to perform themselves, and this reliance leads to a reduction in the related skills.

That’s not to say GPS devices don’t have their place, but it would be deeply unfortunate if the outdoor leader industry came to rely on GPS as a means to navigate. Not least because reliance on GPS devices leads to a reduction in locational awareness through observation.

Empirical research on the use of GPS by walkers, mountaineers, and other outdoor enthusiasts is limited. There are some findings of note:

  • Using a GPS consistently in place of traditional navigational skills erodes existing navigational and route finding skills and can adversely impact on spatial orientation and the learning of new routes;
  • In some situations use of GPS slows navigation, in some situations it speeds up navigation;
  • Using a GPS can result in disengagement from surroundings, but it may open up  other forms of engagement;
  • Mobile (electronic) map users  acquire a more fragmented and clustered knowledge of landmarks on a route;
  • Learning from a map and learning from navigating the route (without a GPS) result in equal learning over time;
  • Map reading develops specific cognitive skills;
  • Map reading and navigating may result in better spatial orientation (compared to using a GPS).

All of this is further complicated by the necessary distinctions between navigating and route finding. In the context of hillwalking/mountaineering we have map reading, route finding, waymarking (landmarks/features), and navigation at the very least. Also, most definitions of navigation are so weak they could mean almost anything – finding your way from A to B, for example.

Perhaps the most interesting study I have come across so far indicated that a good route description is at least as good as a map in terms of the speed and accuracy of travelling the route. But a good route description depends on clear and properly contextualised waymarks and sense of direction.

There are, of course, some clear advantages to using a GPS and in some situations they could make all the difference (but that could go either way). It does seem that while GPS does erode existing skills and inhibit the development of skills in one way it may open up opportunities for other skills to be developed. And there are apparent advantages for some people that could lead to improvements in quality of life (where there is some form of cognitive impairment leading to difficulty with day-to-day mobility, for example).

It is important, also, to distinguish between the use of dedicated handheld GPS devices, Mobile Phone Apps, and electronic maps (e.g. on a phone, tablet, or computer).

Mobile Phone Apps, as opposed to dedicated GPS devices, are weaker navigational aides and can be dangerous. The Lake District Mountain Rescue services have acknowledged an increase in people needing to be ‘rescued’ who have been relying on Mobile Phone Apps. This is simply common sense. A mobile phone is not intended for this purpose. They can be a useful aide in planning walks with electronic maps.

At first glance electronic maps are great. You can zoom in to the detail and pick up features. You can plot routes and save them. You can add waymarks. And so on. However, you are limited to a small area, even less so on a mobile phone, and lose perspective of the wider country. This has an impact on how you perceive your surroundings and locate yourself in them, especially in unfamiliar country. In my experience it has a huge impact on true map reading. Going from plotting a walk on my computer screen to actually following it on a 1:25 or 1:40 is disorienting as they look nothing like each other. What I tend to do now is plot the walk on the computer then plot it again on the 1:25 and the 1:40/50. This gives me an idea of how the country looks on the real map.

When I first wrote about this topic I received a lot of comments from people purporting be from members of Mountain Rescue Teams, and have seen similar comments and stories since. A simple test of this is to ask the commentator which team they are a member of as any legitimate comment by a genuine member of a Mountain Rescue Team will always state which team they are a member of.

This experience prompted me to write to Mountain Rescue (MR) services in the UK, USA, and the European Continent. I also visited a number of Mountain Rescue sites to see their published position on the use of GPS devices.

Firstly, all MR Services are clear that it is important, for safety reasons, to be able to navigate using a map and compass, particularly in adverse weather conditions. Second, if using handheld devices it is important to know how to use them competently. Third, no MR Service endorses either the use of handheld GPS devices over and above using a map and compass or the replacement of a map and compass by a handheld GPS device.

Furthermore, no MR Service endorses any commercial products (See Addendum for a correction to this statement). MR tend to have strict policies that do not allow them to endorse commercial products, for obvious reasons. Not least of which is promoting the use of GPS risks a net result of people assuming they can rely solely on a GPS device, and that is dangerous.

Here are the conclusions I reached:

  • When out in the hills and/or mountains you need to be able to understand from the map what the terrain will be like, choose suitable routes, and be able to make decisions about changing your route if you need to. A Smartphone, GPS, or indeed a paper map cannot tell you this. Map reading and route findings skill are required, and they are two different things. Really speaking, every member of a group needs to be able to look at the map and work out the best way to adjust any route to deal with changing situations.
  • Electronic devices rely on batteries, are susceptible to damage and weather conditions, malfunction, and lose signal. It is essential to have a paper map and compass with you (assuming maps are available).
  • Using a Mobile Phone or GPS as a primary means of navigation leads to deskilling and it is important to practice and update traditional map and compass skills as well as route finding.
  • Being able to orientate a map to the ground, recognise features on the ground as they appear on a map, and tell the direction of travel and distance travelled are core skills. These become degraded when relying on a GPS device.
  • It takes a competent set of navigational skills to relocate and route find using a map and compass.
  • Using a GPS device competently and appropriately can compliment the use of a map and compass but cannot replace them and the skills required to use them. Using a GPS device competently also requires an additional skill set.
  • Mobile phones and GPS are useful, but don’t rely on your mobile phone to get you out of trouble – in many mountainous areas there may not be any signal coverage.
  • There is no universal validated training in the use of GPS devices. The best trainers in this respect are those who have long experience of using them in the appropriate context. And there is no point in learning to use a GPS device of any sort if you can’t use a map and compass proficiently.
  • If purchasing a GPS device it is probably sensible to ensure it can use the GLONASS network. Interestingly, the old-style handheld GPS devices seem to be being superseded by devices that utilise the Iridium network, which has full global coverage, and provide communication tools such as text and phone calls.
  • Carrying a fully charged mobile phone with GPS enabled when out in the mountains is, all other things being equal, usually a good safety precaution. Provided there is no interference, and provided the phone is working and you can use it, you can potentially be located by the Rescue Services using SARLOC. Similarly having ‘999’ enabled on your phone is an important safety tool.
  • There are now standardised navigation courses in the UK through the NNAS system and they are a good place to start to learn proper navigational skills (use of map and compass). If using a GPS device – not a mobile phone app – Rick Shearer provides courses and is probably the most experienced and qualified provider in the field.
  • The issues are more complicated in parts of the world where maps are less detailed/only on a large scale/not available. In these circumstances core navigational and outdoor skills such as being able to understand a how grid references work (longitude and latitude), use altitude readings, read the ground, route find, remember waymarks and features in usable ways, remember the back route, understand directional markers and pointers, utilise terrain, assess weather conditions without any additional information, find shelter, work from a [possibly very basic and maybe only verbal] route description, and so on are even more important and need to be developed, practiced, and maintained.
  • Relying on a GPS alone is a hazardous strategy. Relying on a Mobile Phone App is doubly so.

But the fact remains that GPS devices are a useful addition to the navigation armory – if you know how to use one efficiently and effectively and you can navigate efficiently and effectively using only a map and compass, especially in adverse weather conditions. We will now go on to look at using a GPS device as a navigational aide.

How to Use a GPS Device as a Navigational Aide

Here we will look at the functions and items of GPS devices listed below, and how to make use of them. This is not an instruction manual for your specific device, and this is only my understanding. I hope that by introducing you to these basic principles you will be able to go on and develop your own proficiency in the device you use.

All the examples given here are based on my Garmin GPS. Other GPS devices and even different models will likely have different labels and menus. However, these are core functions common to the majority of GPS devices and should be available on your device.

Before going any further RTfM if you haven’t already. If you have then read it again. You will need to know the basics for setting your GPS and where to find the various functions we refer to here. As well as RTfM there are numerous online cheats and hacks for all makes of GPS and a selection of GPS specific forums and collated resources. The links have been added on the main QMD site under Resources. Most, in not all, GPS devices will perform the functions referred to below but the actual steps will vary from GPS to GPS.

If you are going to use a GPS it is essential you are able to navigate effectively using a map and compass in poor weather conditions. It is not safe to assume you will be able to rely on your GPS. You should always carry a real map and compass with you, as discussed above. Finally, if all you ever do is follow a Route or Track on a GPS device then you are not navigating and you are putting yourself, and anybody who is with you, at risk.

Functions Considered Here

  • Co-ordinates
  • Location/re-location
  • Waypoints (including Find and Go To)
  • Routes
  • Track and Tracback (also called Backtrack on some devices)
  • Creating Your Own Waypoints and Downloading Data
  • Compass (noted only)
  • Trip Computer/Odometer (noted only)
  • Sensors (noted only)
  • Memory and Storage (A Further Post to Come on Maps)
  • Software support (noted only)

NOTE: How to use a GPS when wearing thick gloves and/or if your hands are cold: keep a pencil in your jacket, as well as in your first aid kit, and use it like a stick thingy to push the buttons.

NOTE: Most GPS devices start Tracking when turned on and may have stored historic data about a previous track and/or Track data on the Trip Computer. Unless you want to keep this data, when doing a multi-day trip for example, it is best to clear it. This is usually done using the Reset options in the Main Menu or in the Setup Menu.

  • Main Menu > Setup > Reset > choose Reset option to clear existing data sets


GPS co-ordinates are the location of a fixed point on the surface of the earth. The units for co-ordinates can be set differently on GPS devices and you should RTfM to find out how to set them. In the UK, for example, I use the OS grid co-ordinates. I could just as easily use latitude and longitude but the maps I use are easier to read using the OS grid co-ordinates and I am used to using them. However, in other countries, and especially when maps are not available, latitude and longitude may a better option. Knowing the basic difference between co-ordinate systems is also important for loading Waypoints into your GPS and interpreting them, as we shall see later.

Example of Co-ordinates Settings

To set the co-ordinate units on my Garmin I go to the Main Menu and go into Setup. In Setup I go to Position Format. In Position Format I have selected the British Grid from the list and for the Map Datum it defaults to the Ordnance Survey system. Other selections have different defaults or may ask you to select the Map Datum. This is a more complicated process than I’ve allowed for here but RTfM or a visit to the Forums should provide the answers to any pressing questions.

The other Position Format you should be familiar with is the Latitude and Longitude Format. Again, this is a case of RTfM. The Map Datum typically, but not always, used is WGS 84. Different settings may be required for nautical use.

  • Main Menu > Setup > Position Format > select appropriate units and settings.


Any experienced hiker, trekker, mountaineer, and so on needs to be able to relocate using a map and compass, and sometimes using only a map. Once you can do this you can also use a GPS to relocate – find your current location. Simply RTfM to find out which buttons to press to give you your current Location. This will give you a set of co-ordinates which you can read back onto your paper map. You should always check your location using map and compass relocation strategies and not assume your GPS is accurate (even if it is). You can also use the OS Locate app for this function.

Example of Location/Relocation

On my Garmin I simply press the Find button and then ‘enter’ Coordinates and that gives me a Grid Reference (GR) for my current location. It also gives me the option to enter a new location and Find it.

  • Find > Coordinates = GR (can also enter a GR here)

On OS Locate on my phone all I do is open the App and it gives me the location and a compass. If I go into the About tab it gives me a menu with Settings and if I open Settings I can switch between the OS Grid and Latitude and Longitude. The OS Locate App should work anywhere where you can access a GPS signal and is not limited to the UK, although you will need to change the settings for other countries.


Waypoints are sets of co-ordinates that mark a specific point or place. They are the basis of effective GPS use. You use Waypoints to plan a Route, taking a line from Waypoint to Waypoint. You can dynamically mark a location as a Waypoint and store it for further reference. You can Go To a Waypoint you put into your GPS. Waypoints can be downloaded and stored as a separate file and Waypoints can be created as a separated file and uploaded to a GPS.

A Route is planned from your armchair. That is, a Route is what you plan when sitting snug and warm with a map in front of you, either a paper map or an electronic map. The advantage of an electronic map is that you can plan a Route by joining up Waypoints and then it and load it onto your GPS. Or you can plan the actual Route on your GPS and save it. You can also plan a Route with Waypoints on a paper map and then load the Waypoints into the GPS. The disadvantage of electronic maps is that the device you have may not communicate with your GPS meaning you cannot transfer the Route electronically.

You can dynamically mark a Waypoint when you are out with your GPS. Again, you need to RTfM to find out how to do this but it is usually no more complicated than pressing a button. You can give the Waypoint a name to reference it and I suggest making this relevant to the actual location (e.g. such and such a summit/couloir, path junction, start of path…etc.). You can return to the Waypoint during your walk using ‘Go To’, revisit it on other walks, use it as part of a future Route plan, and so on.

You can dynamically enter a Waypoint and Go To it. If you are out on a walk, for example, have relocated using your GPS, and have taken a reading off the map of where you need to get to you can enter those coordinates into the GPS and Go To them. There is a risk, of course, in that how close you get to the intended location will depend on the accuracy of the coordinates you enter.

One of the most important functions in relation to Waypoints is the Go To function. This allows you to get directions to a Waypoint from your current location. This can be used in any number of ways from finding your way back to a start via a selection of waypoints to finding your way to a summit to finding the start of a path or an escape when in difficulty. You can also complete a walk by using Go To to navigate from Waypoint to Waypoint and can help improve your route finding skills and understanding of moving across rough ground in a absence of a clear path.

On most, if not all, GPS devices you should also be able to Go To a series of Waypoints in a chosen order. This will join up the Waypoints and create a Route, but it will likely be a direct route – a straight line between the Waypoints – and not a Track that is usable. Again, you need to experiment with your GPS to find out exactly what level of functionality is available on your device.

Waypoints can be created on your computer and uploaded into the GPS. You create a file with Waypoint coordinates, save it as a text file, then convert this to a GPX file. The GPX file can then be uploaded to your GPS. I do this using Excel. Similarly, a Track or set of Waypoints can be downloaded from your GPS and stored separately. When you download the files you tend to get a lot of other stuff with them and they usually need to be cleaned.

Example of Marking and Entering a Waypoint

To dynamically mark a Waypoint I simply press the Mark button on my GPS. It brings up a Waypoint screen which allows me enter further details and tells me my current location. If I want to see that Waypoint I simply go into Waypoints on the menu and enter and it brings up the record of all stored Waypoints.

  • Mark > Done = marks Waypoint as a GR (enter name of Waypoint; enter new GR to change Waypoint)

If I was out and wanted to enter a Waypoint I can press either the Find and enter the Coordinates of the where I want to go, or the Mark button to get me into my current coordinates, and then enter the coordinates of where I want to go. How you do this varies between GPS devices and you will need to RTfM or ask the forums.

  • Find > Coordinates > enter a GR >  Done (will lead to coordinates)
  • Mark > enter a GR > Done; Find > Waypoint > [the Waypoint just entered]

Example of a Route

A Route is a series of lines connecting a set of Waypoints. A Route is not an exact record of where you have walked, that would be a Track. Routes are usually plotted either on another device and then uploaded to the GPS or plotted directly onto the GPS.

See the GPS Routes and Tracks page

Example of Go To

To Go To a set of coordinates, a Waypoint, using my GPS I either press Find and then Waypoints or Coordinates. I will enter Waypoints if I want to Go To an existing Waypoint and Coordinates if I want to enter coordinates. But, as noted earlier, I can even go into an existing Waypoint and change the coordinates. However, this would overwrite the existing record and is not advised.

Once I have selected a Waypoint, or entered a set of coordinates, I press Go and the GPS will direct me to that Waypoint.

If I select a Waypoint directly without using Find the options are slightly different and I need to enter the Waypoint first and then select Go.

On my GPS I also have a complete Menu for the Waypoints that allows me to do all sorts of interesting and exciting things. Again, this is a question of playing with your GPS and getting to know what it can do along with RTfM.

If, for example, I was out in the Elan Valley and wanted to get to the summit of Drygarn Fawr and I knew I had the Waypoint stored I could press Find, enter Waypoints, select Drygarn Fawr, and press Go and the GPS would show me the direction to the Waypoint. It would not show me the best route to follow, unless I already had one stored in the GPS, but it would act like a compass and keep me pointed at the Waypoint as well as telling me how close I was to it (an advantage, certainly).

  • Find > Waypoints > select Waypoint (e.g. Drygarn Fawr) > Go
  • Find > Coordinates > enter a GR > Done
  • Page/Menu (depends on GPS and the way it is set up) > Waypoint Manager > select Waypoint > Go/Menu and choose options
  • Menu/Page (depends on GPS and the way it is set up) > Waypoint Manager > select Waypoint > Menu > Add to Route > choose existing Route [Name] OR Create Route

Example of using Waypoints and Go To for Navigating and Route finding

Suppose I want a day out visiting the Rhinog summits. I also want to explore the area and roam around  practicing some route finding and navigation. I can load the Waypoints of the summits into my GPS and drive up to the car park at Graig-ddu Isaf. Then I simply go into Waypoints, select the first summit I want to bag, [name of summit], and set off in the right direction as shown by my GPS. I can explore and change direction along the way referring now and then to my GPS to get me heading back in the right direction. Once I’ve bagged my first summit simply go back into Waypoints, enter the second summit I want to visit, and Go to it. I may add some additional Waypoints during my journey if I find something interesting I might want to return to another time. I will also be tracking my journey so I can review where I have been on the map when I download the GPX file. I could also use Go To to join up the Waypoints in a set order thereby creating a basic Route.

Load GPX file of Rhinog Summits into GPX. From Car Park at Graig-ddu Isaf:

  • Page > Waypoint Manager > Y Llethr > Go; Menu > Waypoints > Rhinog Fach > Go; …


  • Page > Waypoint Manager > Y Llethr > Add to Route > choose existing Route [Name] OR Create Route > name Route >…continue adding Waypoints; Find > Routes > select Route you have just created


A Route is planned from your armchair. That is, a Route is what you plan when sitting snug and warm with a map in front of you, either a paper map or an electronic map. The advantage of an electronic map is that you can plan a Route by joining up waymarks and then save the Route and load it onto your GPS. Or you can plan the actual Route on your GPS and save it. You can also plan a Route with waypoints on a paper map and then load the waypoints into the GPS. The disadvantage of electronic maps is that the device may not communicate with your GPS meaning you cannot transfer the Route electronically.

See above for an Example.

Track and Tracback (also called Backtrack on some devices)

A Track is a record of your actual route taken. Most GPS devices automatically record the Track unless told not to do so and it is advisable to clear all Track data and other recordings before starting out on a new journey.

The advantage of a Track is twofold. First, you can see where you have actually been and store a record of it. This is especially useful for when you want to explore more in the area or want to record a particularly tricky route and note Waypoints with a high degree of accuracy. Second, you can follow a Track back the way you have come. Different GPS devices have different ways of doing this. On my GPS I simply press Find, select Track, then select Current Track, and it gives me the option to Tracback, which reverses the Track. Alternatively I can save the current Track, save a Reverse Track, then Find and select Reverse [Name of Track].

  • Find > Tracks > Current Track > Tracback
  • Page > Track Manager > Current Track > Save Track; Page > Track Manager > go to name of saved Track and select/enter > Copy Reversed > save >; Find > Tracks > select name of saved Reversed Track > Go

Creating Your Own Waypoints and Downloading Data

The advantages and benefits of being able to create your own Waypoints by entering data and/or downloading data and manipulating it should be obvious. You can build a database/s of Waypoints and share them. For example, when out on walks you could build a database of interesting archaeological features by Marking them. At the end of each walk you can download the Waypoints, add descriptions, and build up a database for an area. At any time you can then plot a Route visiting these Waypoints in whatever order you want. Alternatively, using a map, electronic or paper, you can take the coordinates of a series of Waypoints, create a text file, convert it to a GPX file, load it into your GPS and join the Waypoints as a Route. These are two simple examples of what you can achieve by becoming conversant with Waypoints, the use of text files, and the Go/Go To/Find functions.

The only limit to your use of Waypoints is your imagination.

Creating your own Waypoints

To get full use out of your GPS you need to know how to create your own files, which you can then upload. These are not Routes, although this is possible, but simply files of Waypoints. Doing so allows you to create a set of Waypoints you can upload and then navigate (using Go To) from Waypoint to Waypoint.

The way I do this is to enter a set of coordinates into an Excel file, save it as a text file, and then convert it into a GPX file using Javawa RTWtool (other Freeware options are available in the GPS section in Resources). The GPX file can then be plotted on a map and/or load into your GPS. Not all mapping software allows for Waypoints to be plotted on their own. OS Maps, for example, will, frustratingly, only accept an uploaded Route and will not upload Waypoints on their own. Bespoke software such as Basecamp does allow you to do this.

The GPS will probably not store the Waypoints the same way you have so will need some way of recognising which Waypoint in which and the order in which you want to visit them. This depends on how you name and number the Waypoints. You will need to play around with this on your GPS to see which way works best.

Example of a text file using latitude and longitude (from to be converted into a GPX file

The same file converted into a GPX file and then saved as a text file

Downloading data

Data can be downloaded from GPS devices, usually in a GPX format which is transferable between various devices and programs. It can also be downloaded as a text file which can then be loaded into, for example, Excel. Most GPS devices will need some sort of additional software that allows you to download and upload data and translate data from text to GPX and vice versa.

Garmin has its own dedicated software, Basecamp, which allows you to download and upload files. However, you will need additional software for converting files and creating your own Topo maps. (See below for links to software sites; Freeware.)

When you download a Track or set of Waypoints from your GPS you are likely to get a whole load of additional information, some of which you may want but most of which you won’t want. It’s best to save the original file and then create a new file you can work on. You can clean the new file and remove any information you don’t want and then save it. This will give you, for example, a list of useful Waypoints with the coordinates for each Waypoint. This can be saved for future reference and/or plotted on to a map and so on.

Part Example of a Track downloaded from Basecamp as a text

As you can see the GPS file has a lot of data available but most of the fields are blank. There is another page of headings with no data above this one. I can set the GPS to record more data than this but I use the minimum settings. What you see on this page is the numerous Waymarks the GPS collects. In this short walk it logged around 1000 Waymarks.

Example of a set of Waypoints I created from an existing source downloaded from Basecamp as a text file (Created from

Even though I only input minimum data into the text file when it is converted to a GPX file all the additional fields are created as well. These fields can be added to on the GPS device.


Many if not most GPS devices now come with an electronic compass. This is no replacement for a real compass, but can be used in the same way. The GPS compass can also be ‘locked’ to a bearing in the same way a real compass housing can be set and it is worth RTfM on how to do this.

Trip Computer/Odometer

As with sensors most if not all GPS devices will come with some sort of odometer that measures the distance travelled and the speed of travel. This can be useful if you are not confident about pacing and the relationship between time and distance over different terrains and ground. It is also interesting information when reviewing your journey. RTfM


GPS devices increasingly have sensors to take barometric measures, altitude measures, and temperature readings. These can be helpful under some circumstances. It is useful, for example, to know if the air pressure is changing, what altitude you are at, and what the temperature is on a very hot or very cold day. The altitude measure typically needs to be recalibrated at regular intervals and you need to RTfM on this.

Memory and storage

Annoyingly, GPS devices tend to make heavy use of limited internal storage for Tracks, Routes, and Waypoints. For this reason it is a good idea to regularly download any information and store it elsewhere.

It is worth getting and using a memory card you can write to if your GPS device will take one. Maps are usually stored on memory cards due to the space required, and you can also store GPX files of waypoints, Tracks, and Routes on the card. It gives you the option to load and store Topo maps, OSM maps, and other maps.

You will need to find out the format your GPS needs the maps to be stored in and how to let the GPS know where they are. Also, sometimes individual maps files can overlap and overwrite each other. There is Freeware available to resolve and manage all of this. However, this is a big topic and will have to be dealt with in a separate post.

Software support

Most GPS devices have some sort of dedicated or proprietary software and there are a number of good quality freeware programs available. There are also forums dedicated to GPS discussions. For bespoke and proprietary support you will need to contact the manufacturer.

Useful GPS resources (Link to Resources Page)


I said that MR Teams/Services do not endorse commercial products. In absolute terms this is incorrect and some commercial products have been allowed to use some MR logos and state that the product has been ‘endorsed’ by MR teams.

Firstly, an endorsement is a form of public support or approval. It is not a measure of quality. Endorsements are not regulated and quality assured. Endorsements do encourage others to share the product. Thus Person A pointing out to Person B that a product has been endorsed shows just how effective endorsements are.

Second, The Mountain Rescue Association (USA) at least has a policy that prohibits endorsement of commercial products.

Third, Andy Simpson, the Mountain Rescue Council of England and Wales Press Officer said, in Issue 4 of their 2002 Newsletter,

‘…I believe that we have an opportunity for this organisation to raise its profile and become a valuable, marketable brand in itʼs own right. Already weʼve had to take one company to task for inferring that their product was endorsed by ʻmountain rescueʼ – they could see the value so why canʼt we? Whilst I wouldnʼt advocate prostituting the MRC by endorsing any company who asked, I can see the value of judicious logo placement on certain products or advertisements, in return for suitable monetary or sponsorship return. This benefit, in turn, will cascade down to the teams in the form of free or subsidised training courses or kit – who knows, the MRC may buy your next Land Rover. For that to work we need regular, accurate information and, more importantly, a willingness for that information to be brought to the publicʼs attention.’

In other words, there is a potential financial quid pro quo, in whatever form it takes, when an MR service, or related service, ‘endorses’ a commercial product. The same is often the case when celebrities and/or members of the public endorse products (as is the case in ‘Social Influencers’ and ‘Stealth Marketing). It should not be taken as a form of quality assurance, and no one, as far as I know, has made a claim that endorsement is related to quality, and in this context it is not related to safety.

So, until and unless I hear from MR services I will stand, in principle, by what I’ve said given that my meaning was, and is, that no MR service has given either a quality assurance or an assurance of safety of one commercial product over and above any other as far as I know. And that is what I meant when I said no MR services have endorsed a commercial product. Furthermore, as noted, the MRA at least have a policy that prohibits endorsing commercial products. This may be, at least in part, for the very reason that the public mistake endorsement for quality assurance.

Mountain Leader Training: Some Notes

Mountain Leader Training: Some Notes

PDF of post Here

‘If you want to spend time in the mountains then the only way to do that is to go and spend time in the mountains.’ Byron.


I completed my Mountain Leader Training at Glenmore Lodge in Scotland, where the ethos of Eric Langmuir is kept alive, in September 2017I went on to successfully complete my assessment in May 2018. During that time I bagged around 30 Quality Mountain Days mainly in the Lake District and Yr Eryri. Before doing my training, and between my training and assessment, I spoke to around 15 providers and discussed many aspects of the award. I learnt a lot about the history of the industry and the value of the award.

Perhaps the most important piece of advice I was given was, in the words of Stephen King, dontdoitforthemoneyhoney – it isn’t worth it. Few people, if any, earn anything close to a living from a single Mountain Leader Award unless it is internationally recognised – the IML for example – and even then it’s tough going.

On the other hand, what you will gain as an individual from a good quality training course and a high quality assessment is worth the investment. As long as you do the work. A lot of people worry about the assessment unnecessarily. The process is driven by a set of objective criteria and the standard is set by Mountain Training and not by individual providers. There is also a full appeals process if you feel you have been treated unfairly. If you have bagged enough good quality QMDs at the right standard, and practiced your navigation and rope work, then the assessment is going to be little more than a formality and all you need to do is enjoy it. The only time you need to be concerned is if you are not out in the mountains clocking up QMDs and getting onto steep and rocky ground. And that is where most people fall short – they simply don’t go out into the mountains and rack up true QMDs.

At the end of the day the ML award is a starting point, not an end point. And if you aren’t out in the mountains then why do want a mountaineering award?

The following notes are completely my own and more or less as I made them in the order I made them. I’ve done a little bit of editing to tidy them up in places but otherwise they are as made at the time.


MLS requires the deployment of skills suitable to the terrain and conditions and the use of relevant technical equipment. It may require the unplanned use of ropes.  If the skills required exceed the skills of the training/syllabus then it is no longer within the remit of the qualification. The planned use of ropes exceeds the remit as do conditions that require the use of equipment beyond that of the equipment noted in the syllabus/training. You can lead a group during winter but if you encounter conditions that require the use of winter equipment then you exceed the remit. One of the key boundaries is safety (and duty of care) and another is use of equipment.

The quality of the event is an important consideration. The group needs to have a quality experience that both manages and meets their expectations within realistic and reasonable boundaries.

When managing the groups expectations and performance it is important to recognise that the quality of event is not, and should not be, set to the level of the ‘lowest common denominator’. That is, the event should not be managed according to the expectations and considerations of the lowest level of assumed capability and performance. It is important to assess the capabilities and abilities of the group as a whole. This will mean challenging some people to ‘up their game’ and managing other people to accept a reduced level of challenge/experience. You need to be able to make a good and accurate assessment of your own fitness and the fitness of the group as a whole.

Leadership is important for both safety and quality of the experience. A useful model for leadership is the GIT model:

  • Take account of the needs and expectations of the Group
  • Take account of the needs and expectations of the Individual
  • Take account of the Task
  • Leadership is the space where the Group, Individual, and Task overlap.
  • Leadership is managing a Group of Individuals to complete a Task.

Packing a Bag

  • Wear good quality kit including appropriate footwear (suitable boots) as a model for the group.
  • Leading a group is inevitably slower than your own pace so wear more clothing than you would usually wear.
  • A strong waterproof jacket is essential. That is, one that will not rip and tear easily on rocks and if you need to do rope work.
  • Take extra food – more than you would usually take. Take a flask.
  • Waterproof trousers. From my own experience these need to be tough. Rocks will lacerate good quality lightweight waterproof trousers like a werewolf toying with a group of drunken revellers.
  • Gloves and hat. Take spares (both gloves and hats). Again, you may as well put thinner gloves through a mincing machine as wear them on rocky ground.
  • First aid kit. This should include extras including a pencil (and an indestructible pen) and waterproof paper. ICE details. Interesting extras include cable ties, boot laces (or specialist cord), and the ubiquitous Duck Tape.
  • A bothy big enough for 6 people (?) at minimum suggest 4 but this needs to confirmed.
  • Check for super lightweight bothys at super expensive prices.
  • Extra warm layers. An extra warm jacket is essential.
  • Foil blanket or similar as long as it has foil layer.
  • A proper heavyweight survival bag.
  • Whistle
  • Walking pole. This is part of rescue equipment and can be helpful with a heavy pack.
  • A 30m rope. This needs to be a proper weight climbing rope.
  • Two headtorches. Check batteries and make sure that at least one torch has a new set of batteries in it.
  • Two maps of the area. If using paper maps then a proper waterproof map bag is essential. A waterproof map bag is part of equipment even if using waterproof maps.
  • Two good quality compasses.
  • A fully charged mobile phone.
  • A digital watch.
  • Extras according to the season include sun cream, a sun hat, and so on.
  • Water. There is no guidance on how much water to carry but you need some and a means to transport water. (For myself I also carry a small filter and chlorine tablets and I know some people always carry a UV steriliser pen. In areas with farmed animals – sheep especially – you need to check c. 150m upstream for any dead animals; don’t take water form a source that cattle have been using.)
  • Weight of the bag is important. A fully packed bag should be no more than 12-15kg for an overnight EXPED and less for a day trip. You need to be able to move over all ground steadily and securely with your bag fully packed.
  • You need to be able to know how to switch on a GPS and take a grid reference and relocate. (I tend to use OS Locate for this; it picks up on satellites so does not need a phone signal.)


You need to have a good knowledge and understanding of the environment. Knowledge of fauna and flora is essential. This doesn’t need to be more than a good quality general knowledge but you should be continually working on improving this. Knowledge of geology and geomorphology is also important as is the significance of place names that relate to the geomorphology. Knowledge of the relevant history of an area is also useful.

You need to have a full understanding of environmental considerations and enforce them. ‘What you take in you take out’. This may mean carrying a back for rubbish. Leave No Trace.

Human waste needs to be buried. You should be at least 30m from a water source when urinating and ideally a 100m from a water source when defecating and this should be buried (including any tissue).



While all navigation skills are important – from map reading to taking a bearing – there are specific skills relevant to the ML. These are particular micro-navigation skills and they come into their own in adverse conditions. Two key skills are:

  1. Being able to understand and use contours at a fine level of detail even in the dark/adverse conditions
  2. Moving on a bearing.

Contours are the most important feature of a map because:

  • They make up the majority of information available on a map
  • they don’t change
  • they are reliable.

Anything and everything else may be inaccurate, unmarked, open to interpretation, or may change or not be visible.

Skills for using contours as micro-navigation aids include:

  • Measuring the size of the contour feature;
  • Checking the aspect of the slope;
  • Assessing the shape of the contour feature on the ground in relation to the map;
  • Knowing index contours;
  • Being aware of distance between contours (varies between types of map);
  • Being aware of detail, aspect, gradient, and so on relative to scale.
  • Appreciating size and detail of feature relevant to scale;
  • When on the ground identifying catching features beyond the attack point/destination that can be used to relocate.

Relocation techniques

It is essential to know how to relocate. The most important relocation is from contour features but other features can be used if they are there. These are primarily water and rock features but it depends on map and scale of map.

Relocation techniques are the application of good micronavigation techniques to your location:

  • Is the ground flat or sloping;
  • What is the aspect of slope (take a bearing down the slope with the bearing at right angles to the contours)
  • What is the gradient
  • What is the shape of the land – especially any flat features or readily distinguishable features
  • How does the gradient and aspect change over time and in the immediate vicinity
  • How did the land – gradient, aspect, and so on, change while you were moving over it
  • What are the catching features nearby – e.g. there should be an X within Y metres in this direction; the slope should do X within Y metres in this direction. You need to know what happens if you that is not the case. E.g. if the slope goes up instead of down in Y metres then were not at point X but more likely to be at point X2; if at point X2 the slope should…and so on.

You also need to be able to apply search techniques such as stars and squares. RTFM.

Back bearings and triangulation are useful relocation techniques. Back bearings are also useful when travelling on a bearing. RTFM for triangulation.

Pacing and Timing

Pacing and timing are important navigation techniques. Pacing tends to be more accurate than timing.


  • Count every second step (usually on the left foot)
  • Know how many paces = 100m
  • Count in sets of 100m
  • Keep count of sets
  • Adjust for ground: terrain; going uphill; going downhill. Note that the count may or may not be affected by the slope, it will depend on a combination of factors such as gradient, tiredness, and the type of ground being covered. Only practice will improve pacing accuracy.
  • Have something you can use to keep count of sets of 100m (e.g. knots on cord and a movable fixable toggle).


You need to know the pace the group is moving at over the ground and how to adjust this for rough ground and for contours. Then you can predict how long it will take to reach a point and keep check of the time using the stopwatch feature on your watch.

The general guide for timing is Naismith’s rule (RTFM).

However, pacing is more accurate than timing.

When using timing it is important to use a stopwatch

Walking on a bearing

It is important to be able to walk on a bearing including over rough ground, on a slope, at night, and under adverse conditions.

Be aware of any tendency to drift.

Use front and/or back bearings to check accuracy of line of travel (taken against group members if suitable).

Also fix on features on bearing and take front and back bearings against features. In the dark or in limited visibility the distance between these features may be very short. In zero visibility (e.g. white out; driving rain at night) you need to be able to move at a pace that keeps you on the bearing and be aware of any tendency to drift.

When walking with the contours against the slope you need to be aware of drift up or down. This can be useful to manage staying on the bearing.

Covering ground

When you are covering ground you need to be effective and efficient. This means keeping the group moving at the appropriate pace with the appropriate boundaries. Don’t stop unnecessarily and make every stop functional and purposeful. When stopping make sure the group knows why you are stopping and what is expected of them. When stopping for lunch, snacks, and so on set time boundaries. You should have a good idea of how long each leg will take and how long the overall journey will take.

Pick good quality appropriate lines across the ground. They not within the groups capability and ability and the group should maintain momentum.

Be aware of how the group is managing rough ground, boulder fields, vegetation, scree, slope and gradient, climbing, descending, and so on.

Use paths when available and if appropriate both to keep momentum and for environmental reasons.

Bear in mind that too many stops and unnecessary stops will frustrate and demotivate the group. Equally, not stopping to allow for layering/delayering, snacks, toileting, and so on can lead to a build-up of problems.

Short stops at appropriate intervals to share knowledge of fauna, flora, and geomorphology can be used as disguised rest breaks for ‘slower’ group members  but should be neither too frequent nor too long. Be mindful also that rest breaks in cold weather can increase tiredness and coldness.

Route Planning

Route planning g is important but you need to be flexible and adaptable. A key skill is being able to change and adapt route according to the weather, the needs of the group, and unforseen situations and changes. Changing a route according to the weather forecast and changes in the weather on the day are core skills that need to be developed. This means being aware of the impact of the weather on the terrain. This applies to streams and rivers, bogs, rock, slope, etc. Also the impact of precipitation in terms of mist. Windspeed and the impact of windspeed X height and so on.

Route planning is also applicable to micro-navigation as every leg of micro-navigation is effectively a route. And a route is effectively a big leg.

All full routes should be broken down into legs but it is important to have a overview not only of the whole route but also of the general area as this allows for better planning and flexibility.

We need strategies and tools to plan routes (a route is applied to the whole journey and to a leg).

A core strategy is to storyboard the route. Identify features and objects you will see along the way and how the ground will feel. Anticipate and be aware of changes in gradient, aspect of slope, and contour features and any other stable features (features that are big enough and fixed enough to be there on the ground.

We need systems to ‘get it right’. These same systems can be used to relocate. We use of set of criteria and indicators to know where we are at all times. This does mean being familiar with the map. However, we also need to be able to pick up a map on spec and use it. That is, we should be able to navigate in an unfamiliar area from a map we have not used before.

Even small legs can be broken down into shorter steps so that we can move from point to point in order to reach the destination. The worse the conditions and visibility the more we can break down a leg. However, you need to be aware of the impact of this on the momentum and the implications of this for the group. Equally, breaking a leg down in adverse conditions may increase the sense of security for the group as they move from point to point.

Two sets of tools we can use are the 4Ds and the 4 Whats.


  • Description – what does the destination look like; size, shape, slope, aspect, and so on. Any other features.
  • Distance: how far is it to the destination; how far is it to catching features; how far is it to attack points leading up to the destination.
  • Direction: what is the bearing
  • Design: How are you going to get from A to B; are you going to go along a bearing; are you going to aim off; are you going to traverse a slope; and so on. How long is it going to take? Are you going to stop at checkpoints?

4 Whats

  • What are you going to use to get to destination: bearing, pacing, timing, catching features, attack points, handrails, etc.
  • What will you see along the way; micro-features, catching features, obvious changes in slope, and so on
  • What will you see when you get there: features, contour formations, aspect, gradient, and so on.
  • What happens if you go to far: How do the contours change, what other features will be there.

With all strategies and use of tools it is important to focus on micro-features because these are what you will use in poor visibility. You need features that are distinguishable and within sight and that can be found on the ground. Contour features are particularly important and it is important to know the distance to checking features and catching features. It is also important to be able to find catching features as a means of relocating.

There are many tools and techniques and strategies. RTFM.

Route Finding

You need to be able to find routes that the group will be able to manage. When going over rough ground you need to be able to take account of the groups ability to manage over the ground and find the safest route for them. This is particularly important across rocky ground and steep ground.

You need to be able to find good lines across the ground, up and down slopes, across rivers, and so on.

When paths are available they are usually the easiest and safest routes to follow. However, this is not always the case. Paths can disappear and can change direction and lead you off course. They are seductive in that they draw you along the path. However, paths may also wiggle around but continue to go in right direction. They can be boggy and slippery. Not all paths are marked on all maps and sometimes there are good quality unmarked paths.

Steep ground and rope work

Rope Work

When crossing steep ground it may be necessary to use a rope. However, any rope work should be unplanned. That is, ML does not include the use of planned rope work, only unplanned rope work.

There are three basic ML parts to rope work:

  • Lowering
  • Abseiling
  • Confidence roping

Lowering is when you set up an anchor and belay the person down a step. It is essential to find a fixed anchor that will not move. There should be a straight line between anchor-belay-contact. The knot for the belay should be on the same side as the rope.

When abseiling there are a number of forms but the main ones are the classic, the South African, and the angel wings. (ADDITIONAL NOTE: I would only ever use the South African to abseil without a harness. Both of the other methods require a high level of skill and can be both painful and dangerous.)

Confidence roping involves attaching the other person to the rope, keeping a short distance between yourself and the other person, and moving downhill with them. When they turn they need to turn towards you.

These techniques all require practice and are unplanned. They are uncomfortable and are for use in difficult situations.

Spotting and fielding

When going over steep ground and especially up and down boulder fields and steps and so on we may need to spot and field.

Look for the best line including footholds and handholds. Show the person where to put their feet and hands. Hold their feet in place if necessary. Stand to the side of them with one hand behind their rucksack. Do not push them but lightly support them if necessary. Be to one side so that if they fall they do not take you with them. The same applies to descending.

It is important to be able to find and test good lines with good holds and supports. Be aware of capabilities. Check handholds. Check for loose rocks. Make the sure the group in not in the line of a fall or loose rock.

Diagonal movement

When taking the group across broken ground and rocky ground you may need to work a traverse especially when there is loose rock. Make sure the group is in a line with no one above another. Stop at the turning point on the traverse. Make sure it is  a safe stopping point and gather everybody behind you before continuing on the next traverse.

River crossings

When crossing rivers look for shallow crossings – knee level at most. But this needs to be balanced against the strength of the flow, the ground underfoot, the width of the river. At the very most it should be mid-thigh deep in a gentle flow.

Always face upstream. Use a pole to test the strength of the water, the depth, and so on.

Lean slightly forward onto pole. Right hand on top, left hand below. Step sideways. Take small steps.

You can form a line, one behind the other. Don’t put the ‘weakest’ person at the back.

You can form an arrowhead. This is more stable in stronger, faster water.

Make sure you keep line or arrowhead.

Always check where you are crossing to and ensure you can get out. Check entry points as well to make sure it is straightforward to get into the water.

Emergencies and Hazards

You need to be confident to deal with emergencies and hazards.

You need an up to date first aid certificate of minimum 16 hours ideally coping with outdoor situations

You need to know how to use a bothy shelter

You need to know what to do in extreme weather conditions

You need to know what to do in the case of lightning

You need to know how to make a simple emergency stretcher

You need to know how to move a casualty if necessary

You need to know how to check if a casualty can move under their own volition

You need to know how to deal with hypothermia

You need to know how to contact mountain rescue and how long they are likely to take

You need to know what to do to aid a chopper

You need to know how to keep someone warm


A good knowledge of how the weather works, how to read the weather, where to find

relevant and accurate information, how to be prepared for different conditions, and how to manage weather conditions is essential and a core part of being an ML.

All planning at every level should take account of the weather conditions. However, you need to be flexible and adaptable and able to respond appropriately to changing weather conditions and modify or change the leg/route accordingly.

The weather needs to be understood as a combination of elements ranging from fronts through wind to rain and sun, mist, snow, and so on. Key elements:

  • Wind speed
  • Wind direction
  • Temperature
  • Impact of wind speed on temperature (wind chill; charts are available)
  • Precipitation
  • visibility

Weather forecasts are highly location specific and are increasingly inaccurate in terms of forecasting. The forecasts should be monitored for some time before a trip and checked again on the day. Forecasts can be checked online, through local knowledge, and there are often forecast sheets in major car parks. Be sure of the validity and accuracy of a forecast before using it.

An important part of the weather is being able to read and assess synoptic charts, especially over time in relation to planning. This takes practice. RTFM.

Sites such as the Met Office give good hourly information that is updated to specific locations.

It is important to have a longer term view if going on Exped. However, this view can only really be clarified and forecast immediately before leaving (i.e. in the hours before setting out). It is equally important to be able to assess the likely weather from the environment (clouds, temperature, windspeed) as when out you are unlikely to be able to get weather information that is up to date and it may be days before you can access any information. Notes of forecasts should be made on waterproof paper and taken on journey, especially Exped.

It is essential to understand the weather and the impact of the weather in order to stay safe. One of the most important factors is the windspeed, wind direction, and how the wind behaves on the mountains. RTFM.

Once the wind is in excess of 40mph it becomes unsafe to take a group onto high ground.

Weather sites and apps (check for apps in relation to these):


Met Office

MWUK [Mobile App]

Mountain weather forecasts



Hills-database (combination site)

Access rights

It is important to have an understanding of your access rights. These vary between Scotland and England and Wales and Ireland. Crucially, in Scotland there is a right of access to land.

In England and Wales there is no corresponding right although there are some access rights on Open Access Land. In Ireland there are no access rights per se. In Scotland, England and Wales there are similar access rights to Public Rights of Way. These rights do not apply in Ireland. It is also important to know what to do if access if challenged and this should always be managed professionally and in a non-confrontational way. As an ML leader you are the one who needs to manage this should it occur. These considerations are even more important when Wild or Valley camping.


Always check you kit before going out. Kit should be up to date and in good working order. Kit should be appropriate to the journey and should include additional and essential items.

Quality of kit is important both for safety and to set an example. Consideration needs to be given to how to manage should a party member not have appropriate kit, lose kit, and so on. Safety always comes first.

It is useful to have a wind layer to combat wind chill. A windproof layer will reduce the impact of windchill.

Legal Liability

Refer to notes, handouts, and other relevant sources for this. Key points are:

  • You have a duty of care in keeping with your level of training and qualification
  • Liability is related to reasonable responsibility
  • Negligence incurs liability. Negligence is linked to blatant neglect which in turn is linked to foreseeability.
  • Risk management is related to reasonable responsibility and neglect.
  • Designated leadership incurs a direct duty of care
  • Cannot disclaim risks for people under 18 years of age

A defence against liability rests on:

  • Foreseeability
  • Volenti non fit injura
  • Contributory negligence
  • A break in causation
  • Cost benefit

You should be familiar with these defences as that instils an understanding of how to manage risk as the defence takes account of those things that are in effect outside of your reasonable control. RTFM.


Assessment takes place over five days. Three days are out continuously and include two nights of wild camping. There are five parts (days) to the assessment:

1 Introduction

  • Assessment of log book (start each entry with a summary paragraph highlighting main elements)
  • Leadership
  • Navigation
  • Knowledge of weather
  • Emergency proceedures
  • Water Hazards
  • Packing a bag
  • Home paper

2 – Security on steep ground and personal movement

Exped preparation and route planning

Days 3-5 Exped

  • Leadership
  • Navigation (this includes navigation in adverse conditions with poor visibility; if there are no adverse conditions with poor visibility then there will be night navigation and this may take place on both nights)
  • Safe and efficient travel
  • Party management
  • Personal proficiency
  • Steep ground

Usual reasons for deferment/fail

  • Navigation
  • Leadership
  • Security on steep ground

Other considerations

Be professional at all times (safety first)

Make use of CPD workshops


Desk exercises (can be done at home)

  • Practice identifying small contour features on a map and working out what they are like. E.g. measure them, take a bearing on them, write down the shape, look at what other features are nearby.
  • Stick a pin in a map then work out how you would know if you got there
  • Draw a line between two random points. Work out how you would know if you were at point A, how you would get to point B in the safest and most effective way if you had no visibility, how you would know when you were at point B
  • Pick a point and work out the aspect of slope
  • Plot a route and look at attack points and catching features
  • Plot a route from A to B then imagine that part along you have an impassable barrier. What do you do.
  • Plot a route. Pick a random point on the route. You are at that point. There are adverse weather conditions and you need to modify your route. What do you do?
  • Do the same using an arial photograph
  • Rope work: practice on flat ground and progress to steep ground.


  • Do the same as above but include walking on a bearing, pacing, and timing.
  • Do the same as above at night.
  • Do all of the above with different scale maps and different maps.
  • Do the same using an arial photograph.

Some useful sights for maps

It is worth looking at this site and the free OS data

If you subscribe to OS maps you can get ariel views Dash4it does cut price maps

Basic safety in the mountains: An introduction

Basic safety in the mountains: An introduction

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The two most commonly occurring incidents in the mountains are injuries due to slips, trips, stumbles, tumbles, and falls and getting lost. For those people who are unfortunate enough to be injured and unable to get off the mountain there is a risk of hypothermia. This not limited to winter months and the number of incidents of hypothermia is higher in summer than in winter.

From this it should be clear that having the right clothing and kit and being able to navigate are critical to mountain safety. In addition to this understanding something about the weather in the mountains plays a vital role in managing your safety.

When writing about clothing, navigation, and the weather the temptation is always to launch into technical ‘how to’ manual-type explanations without any real background. So what we’ve done here is focus on background understanding in the hope that when you get to the technical ‘How To’ stuff you’ll have some background or context for it. Wherever you choose to get it from.


Wearing the right sort of clothing, including footwear, will make all the difference to both comfort and safety in the mountains. The two most dangerous items of clothing you can wear are anything cotton, especially if in contact with the skin, and the wrong sort of footwear.

You will freeze to death faster in cotton clothing than you will naked. This is because cotton does not retain heat and retains moisture. It cools the body, even in low temperatures. Any cotton clothing should be avoided when going into the mountains, including socks. There are now a wide range of suitable materials available for mountaineering, including hiking and trekking, that will serve you well. Merino wool is a classic material that has excellent thermal properties even when wet. There are any number of man-made synthetic materials available as well.

The key is to layer appropriately, starting with an underlayer followed by a wicking layer then an insulating layer and finally a waterproof/windproof layer. This obviously varies between summer and winter and you may need to experiment to find the best number of layers for yourself depending on the time of year and how energetic you are going to be. It is important to take off/put on layers as you don’t/do need them. It is easy to wait until you are too cold before putting on an extra layer in winter, or even summer, and similarly to wait until you are too warm before taking off a layer. I’ve experienced mild hypothermia in the summer when the mountain tops were damp and cold, but the valleys warm and gentle, and hyperthermia in the middle of winter from wearing too many layers and sweating profusely.

Over time and with experience you will come to know how to work your layering system in conjunction with the weather, although you should always be prepared for adverse weather conditions in the mountains. There is a difference, also, in being able to get away with inadequate and inappropriate clothing for a couple of hours if you are moving quickly on reasonably well marked paths in popular areas. It is a different matter if you are somewhere remote and get caught in bad weather for several hours. And the point of good clothing, apart from the risk considerations, is that you are far less at the mercy of the conditions with limited possibilities.

When buying kit it is best to stick with reputable brands from reputable sources. Some kit such as insulting layers and waterproofs can sometimes be acquired second hand in good condition so it’s worth knowing your brands and keeping your eyes open. Bear in mind also that waterproof layers will need to be retreated regularly and should never be washed in normal washing powder/liquid. You will need either a specialist washing liquid such as Tekwash or pure soap flakes. And, of course, there is no such thing as ‘waterproof’ unless it is thick plastic. It is all about how much water your waterproof layer lets in, how warm it keeps you, and how quickly it dries. Most manufacturers will provide details on this in their specifications and descriptions. Having the proper clothing could, one day, save your life or the life of someone else so it’s something you should pay careful attention to.

The likelihood of being able to find clothing that is suitable for most, if not all, weathers and conditions is vanishingly small. If you do happen to find a manufacturer of traditional, hard wearing, multi-seasonal, multi-weather, clothing please do let me know.

Footwear is a poorly understood item of clothing for many and the choice can be bewildering. Again, it’s important to find out what works for you. You don’t want to develop painful blisters, of find that the balls of your feet are excruciatingly painful, or twist an ankle, and so on. Footwear varies both for type of terrain and time of year. For example, in the summer I tend to wear mountain running shoes most of the time, with thin socks (and I carry a couple of spare pairs in my backpack). I have three pairs of boots. One for easier walking, which I tend to wear in the cold, wet, months on the softer hills. One pair with a fairly hard sole that I use when up in the rocky mountains, and one heavy pair that I use in the snow on high, rocky, ground. I also have a pair of approach shoes I use for scrambling and high rocky ground in the summer. And so on. And I’m needing another pair of boots! It is possible to get away with just one, perhaps two, pairs of ‘all round’ boots but they will limit what you can do in the mountains not least because they will limit your speed of movement over different ground, unless you are very experienced, in which case you wouldn’t be reading this.

In the winter there is always a flurry of conversation about crampons. In three years I’ve walked every winter in the mountains, including in some difficult conditions. I don’t own a pair of crampons. I do have a set of micro-spikes. I’ve worn them three times. First of all, in the UK – Scotland aside – a pair of good winter boots will suit most conditions, especially if you use micro-spikes with them. For crampons not only to work effectively but also to be safe they need to match the boot and you need to know how to walk/climb in crampons. If you do wear them you will also spend a good amount of time taking them off and putting them on as the snow changes on your route.

Proper boots come with three gradings to their sole. B1, B2, and B3. These gradings refer to the flexibility and twist in the sole. B1 has some flexibility, B2 feels completely inflexible, and B3 even less so. Crampons match this level of flexibility with a C1, C2, and C3. You cannot, for example, fit a C2 crampon to a B1 boot, unless you want to risk your life. The ideal boot here is probably a good fitting B2 and this level of boot has served serious mountaineers for many years. It is said that there is nothing you can do in a B3 boot that you can’t do in a B2 boot, it is just that a B3 boot may make it a little less tiring (assuming you know how to move in a B3 boot).

A B2 boot can be used as a good all year round boot for the mountains but it is hard going on the feet if you travel long distances. On the other hand, there is something about knowing your feet are well protected on the rock.

If you do decide to walk in real winter conditions you will need crampons and you will need to learn how to use them and practice using them. Any good book on Alpinism should have a section on using crampons and there are numerous winter skills courses available in Scotland in the winter months.

Your footwear is a trade off between distance, pace, terrain, country, and time of year. Buying second hand is a bad idea unless they have hardly been used. And footwear has a short life span. Running shoes tend to last for 300-500 miles before, like a car tyre, they are worn out. The same applies to walking shoes and boots. They will wear out and when they do they will need replacing.

When I trained as a mountain leader I was told that as a group leader you should always were proper boots because, ‘if you need to walk out of somewhere to get help you have to know you are going to be able to do that.’ And good boots will protect your feet in all sorts of different terrain.

List of basic clothing for walking in the mountains

  • Good quality walking underwear
  • Base layer
  • Wicking layer
  • Insulating layer
  • Wind/waterproof layer (you may want separate windproof and waterproof layers but I typically have a ‘summer’ wind and waterproof layer and a ‘winter’ wind and waterproof layer)
  • Waterproof over-trousers
  • Walking trousers and shorts
  • Socks (‘waterproof’ socks are available and I have found they are good at keeping my feet warm in winter and while kayaking)
  • Gloves (usually at least two pairs)
  • Hat/s
  • Buff (scarves are not a good idea. They are clumsy and difficult to manage if you need to take them off/put them on)
  • Shoes and/or boots
  • (always carry at least one spare layer)


You will need to learn to use a map and compass to navigate if you really want to spend any time in the mountains. With any other form of navigation tool your are limiting both the time you can spend out and risking your safety and the safety of others.

Using a map and compass to navigate in the mountains means learning to read and interpret contour features. Until you can do this you cannot navigate in the mountains. If you are used to following paths marked on a map you are going to have to ‘unlearn’ this in order to focus on the contour features. You have to learn to ignore all other information. Why?

The reason we focus on contour features is because they are the only reliable feature on a map. Anything else may, or may not, be there and may, or may not, be marked and may, or may not, change position. Paths disappear and new ones appear. Rivers and streams change course, dry up, or may not be marked. Buildings get built and knocked down. Forestry and woodland gets cut down and gets planted. And so on. Contour features don’t change.

Once you learn to ignore the other information reading contour features is relatively straightforward and may even be easier than trying to read and rely on other features. We don’t have space to go into this aspect of map reading here but the Ordnance Survey site has good, free, online instructions and there are numerous courses available (with the NNAS courses fast becoming the standard – but make sure you go for a course that is suitable for mountaineering and does not rely on being able to follow footpaths).

The key contour features on any map are:

  • Ring contours
  • Spurs
  • Re-entrants and valleys
  • Summits
  • Ring contours
  • Flat places

These are all shown by contour lines which are set at particular intervals depending on the map. In the UK mountain maps tend to use one of three scales: 1:25000 (1:25); 1:50000 (1:50), and 1:40000 (1:40). You should be familiar with all three scales and the differences between them.

Ordnance Survey maps, OS maps, tend to be either 1:25 or 1:50. Harvey maps tend to be mostly 1:40 and sometimes 1:25. Harvey maps are specialist walking maps and in some ways are a better fit-for-purpose than OS maps. They use a different contour interval and different colouring to OS maps, are printed on lightweight ‘waterproof’ paper, and are simpler and easier to read. OS maps have some advantages such as marking out all the Open Access areas and having more detail, which is sometimes a disadvantage. It is a good idea to use all three types of map regularly so you don’t get over-reliant on one type.

A compass is used in two main ways. One, taking a bearing, and two, following a bearing. A bearing can be taken in two ways, either from the map or from a feature on the ground. The most frequent and useful way of taking a bearing is from the map.

When taking a bearing from a map when you are walking it is always good practice to set the map first. That is, get the north of the map pointing north. That way when you take a bearing the map will be oriented to the ground and the bearing on the map will match the bearing on the ground. For instructions on how to do this see the notes at.

When following a bearing you keep the needle of the compass pointing north and the housing matched to the needle and follow the arrow on the baseplate of the compass. The issue here is how to keep moving in the right direction as you cannot always go across country in a straight line. Not only that, we all tend to drift and it is possible to drift while seeming to stay on the line of the bearing.

I’m introducing the use of a compass here, rather than explaining how to do it as it’s important to be aware of these methods just as much as it is knowing how to use them.

Once you can use a map and compass competently you need to get used to using them under adverse conditions. That means when you are wet, cold, tired, hungry, and fatigued and when the weather is against you and visibility is poor. It is under these conditions, when you are stressed, that basic, simple, navigation skills are most important and may one day save your life. Relying on an electronic device under these conditions can incur additional risks, especially if they fail or you rely on them at the expense of proper navigational and route finding skills.

Once you have developed your map and compass skills they can be supplemented with a GPS device and this can add to the fun of exploring the mountains. Mobile phone apps are not advised as navigational tools. Out of all the mobile phone apps OS Locate is probably the most useful and reliable, and is free. It gives a quick location and can be used as an electronic compass. Downloadable maps on mobile phones can be useful but do not replace real maps and have various shortcomings (such as battery life).

Unfortunately, it is increasingly fashionable to decry the use of a map and compass in favour of blindly following an arrow on a GPS or a mobile phone. This approach severely limits both your understanding and appreciation of the mountains and the country and your ability to explore them and is ill-advised. As I said earlier, GPS devices are useful once you know how to use a map and compass. Then they can be a supplemental tool and can be fun to use. And if you can use a map and compass properly then you will have no problem using a GPS, button pushing sequences and overly-complex menu choices aside. The reverse is not the case.

In terms of kit, you should always carry two maps and two compasses. In case one gets lost and/or broken. I tend to carry a 1:25 and a 1:50 map or a 1:40 and a 1:25. When the 1:40 is available for the area I generally find it a better map to use. I will often explore an area at home at the table on a 1:25 map and match it back across to the 1:40 and/or 1:50 map. Maps do become water logged, tear, get blown away, and so on. And I’ve had a compass break a couple of times and know of cases when people have put their compass with their mobile phone and the polarity of needle has reversed. I’ve also found it useful when I’m tired and confused to check the reading of my compass against my spare compass if only to reassure myself that I have actually found the correct route and my compass isn’t playing tricks on me. The only electronic device I’ve taken seriously are location readings of OS Locate and my GPS.

At the end of the day navigation skills using a map and compass are a cornerstone of mountaineering and critical to your safety.


Sometimes when talking about mountain weather there’s a focus on types of clouds. This baffled me and still does. If we could predict the weather from the clouds, apart from the obvious, we wouldn’t need weather forecasts.

Mountain weather has certain characteristics that distinguish it from valley weather or lowland weather. It also has risks associated with it. The wind is stronger in the mountains and can be up to three times stronger on high ground, especially on summits and ridges, than it is at lower levels. That makes it important to understand what effect the wind will have on you as well as being able to judge windspeed.

Rain on low ground can be soggy and unpleasant. On high ground it can be dangerous with decreased visibility, increased risk of slips, trips, stumbles, and so on, and an increased risk of hypothermia. Temperature decreases by roughly 2 degrees centigrade for every 300m of height gain. So a temperature of 0 degrees C at sea level could be -7C at the top of Yr Wyddfa. With a strong damp wind you may have an additional windchill factor of, say, -10C, meaning it’s going to feel like -17C to your body unless you are protected from the wind. Add some light rain at sea level that could be heavy rain on the summit and suddenly you have a potentially dangerous situation if, say, you slip on wet rocks, are imobilised, and don’t have proper clothing. Hypothermia can set in very quickly and it can take a long time to recover.

The same applies to hot weather, of course, and I know from experience that being up on the high ground in the baking heat with no shade available can quickly lead to dehydration and the risk of hyperthermia. Not only that, on many of the rocky high tops there is no water if you run out and it can take a while to get back down.

When going into the mountains you need to take account of:

  • Temperature
  • ‘Feels Like’ temperature (what it feels like when wind chill is taken into account)
  • Moisture (rain, fog, drizzle, mist, snow)
  • Wind speed (including gusts)

Fortunately, if you have access to the internet, in the UK the Met Office now does mountain weather forecasts that are as good as you are going to get. They give the right amount of easy to digest detail and provide ‘summit specific’ forecasts which give a good idea of how the micro-climate is varying between summits. Other sites are available such as MWIS and but they use the same data for their forecasts and the Met Office has refined its predictions over the last couple of years.

If you don’t have access to the internet then you are going to have to rely on developing your weather sense and knowing what to do when things change. This is really little more than common sense and experience. South Westerly winds tend to bring in the frontal systems which usually means rain of some sort of another. Strong winds will be stronger higher up. It gets colder the higher you go. And so on.

To assess windspeed there is a useful method known as the ‘Pint Rule’. One pint (of beer) = 10 mph of windspeed. A 10mph wind feels like you’ve drunk one pint. There is little effect. Thirty mph has some effect. Sixty mph and you are in danger of stumbling badly and falling. 100mph and you cannot stand. This works both ways. If, for example, you are up on top and find yourself stumbling about in the wind then its probably gusting at around 60mph and you need to take account of the associated risks. On the other hand if you know the wind is going to be gusting at 70mph on top should you be going up there? (Answer: no).

Over time as you pay attention to the weather more and more you will get to understand it more and more and learn how to manage yourself and others in different weather conditions.

It is a good idea to learn how to read a synoptic chart at a glance, but unless you are an expert weather person it can only ever be used as an indicator or broad brush overview. It’s helpful, for example, to know that there is a set of low pressures coming across the Atlantic and have an overview of the frontal systems coming with it (overcast, mist, rain, winds). In the same way it’s helpful to know if a high pressure system is sitting over the UK (stable, clear, weather). In winter if we have early easterly or north easterly winds consistently they can keep out the low pressure systems resulting in long periods of exceptionally cold weather. And if the 528 isobar settles over the UK it will almost certainly be ‘arctic weather’ for a while.

A good appreciation of the sorts of weather we get in the mountains, how to understand and deal with it, and where to find relevant information is essential. If you are having to ‘play it by eye’ then be cautious about how high you go, the type of ground you are on, and be prepared to escape quickly and safely. And that is where you navigation skills are essential; you may need to find a safe way down a mountain in poor weather under difficult conditions and the option to retrace your steps may not be available.


We’ve provided a simple overview of three important elements of safety in the mountains and avoided the technical detail and jargon as much as we could. Our purpose was to provide some background context for the actual ‘How To’ knowledge, skills, and understandings you will develop with time and experience.

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