The foundations of finding your way in the hills regardless of the conditions

Finding your way in the hills comes with its own inherent set of challenges and in winter the challenges are tenfold. Blanket snow cover can deem the features you’re used to navigating by futile and an unexpected whiteout can soon find you disoriented and heading in the wrong direction and with adverse weather never far away, time constraints are far more severe. Rock solid skills therefore are vital when it comes to getting out there and practicing your winter skills in easier conditions is a must.

Dialling in your kit and refining your knowledge base is a perpetually evolving pursuit, built largely on personal experience and preference, but if you’re new to winter conditions, you’ll need a starting block. Mountain Guide (MIC, MIA and IML) and Secret Compass leader, Matt Barratt recently climbed Mt Stanley from the Democratic Republic of the Congo using pretty much his entire inventory of navigation techniques from following a GPS track, walking on a bearing to drawing a sketch map to find his way.

So, what better person to run us through the kit and skills you’ll need to stay on track and in control when conditions and the local environment make finding your way that bit trickier? Below, Matt runs us through the foundations of winter navigation.

Matt leads the 2018 alpine skills course in Georgia © Martin Hefti / Secret Compass


Firstly, having the right equipment for the challenges you’re undertaking is essential as is checking and testing everything before leaving home.

  • Map – A good and appropriately scaled map might seem obvious but it’s often missed. For example, in the Scottish mountains, using a 1:50 000 scale map can be useful as it cuts out the smaller features which in the winter will be obliterated by snow. Make sure your group as more than one map and preferably one per person.
  • Compass – For winter use, a good compass should have a big baseplate for use with big gloves. You should also look for a romer scale, a magnifier and illumination for night use. Again, make sure you have numerous compasses in the group and it’s also worthwhile carrying a small backup in case of losing the original.
  • Pace Counting Beads – These are essentially just beads on a string but can be super useful. Attach them to your rucksack or jacket and slide one along every time you cover 100 metres.
  • GPS – Get a model with maps on it as well – it can make navigation easy and if you are completely stuck can be a lifesaver. However they can break or run out of battery so you should carry a map and compass with the knowledge of how to use them as well. It can be hard to use a GPS in technical terrain but they are great for retracing routes in terrain where the mapping is inadequate.
A whiteout is a close by in Iraqi Kurdistans Zagros mountains


Don’t have all the gear and no idea. If you can’t read a map then having all the best gear and a wonderful GPS is no use at all.

  • Map Reading – Learn to read a map with specific winter skills in mind. Contour recognition and being able to relate the features on the ground to the map and vice versa is the number one skill to have. When using large scale mapping – often the only thing available abroad – recognising the features that are and aren’t on the map is very important. It can be common to use scales of 1:200 000 so it takes time to tune in to this.Navigation tends to work best with one person in charge, but it can be a real help to have someone else double checking.
  •  Pacing – Keeping track of how far you’ve travelled when the visibility is poor is vital to help pinpoint your location. For distances of up to several hundred metres, pacing is the skill to use. Work out how many paces you take for 100 metres and then get busy counting. It takes some experience to adjust the number of paces an appropriate amount when terrain gets steep or hard going.
  • Following a Bearing – In extreme cases of poor visibility, it can be hard to maintain your balance let alone the right direction. I’ve been on Arctic trips where we have been skiing on a bearing for several days in a row so being able to set a bearing correctly on your compass and then follow it needs a lot of practice in all conditions. When you have your bearing set, aim it at the furthest visible fixed feature on your direction of travel. Then, once you have it lined up, put your compass away and walk directly to your chosen feature, while you count your paces. When following a bearing in a whiteout, get your group to follow you in a single file and keep checking behind. If you start to veer to the left or right then there will be a curve in your followers line.
Harsh conditions are never too far away on the Kamchatka peninsula where the weather can change at the drop of a hat. © Secret Compass
  • Using your GPS – Get familiar with your device before getting in to a sticky situation. Make sure your maps are loaded up along with any tracks or waypoints that you can pre-program. Practice using all the features on your GPS as much as you practice your other skills.On the outward journey, track your route so you can retrace it with confidence on the return.
  • Make Mental Notes – Picking features to specifically remember will undoubtedly help you find the way, particularly if you’re returning via the same route. In unknown territory on multi-day journeys always take the opportunity to check the journey ahead. Get up on high ground that gives you a view of terrain that’s upcoming and take photos and draw sketches. You can refer to these when you get lost. Markers like bamboo canes or mini flags on wire poles or similar can be invaluable for marking your route or hidden dangers such as crevasses on featureless terrain in remote regions.
  • Getting Lost – This might look a bit strange in a list of skills but if you haven’t been lost in the mountains, you haven’t been trying hard enough. Practice (safely – do this with friends in a controlled situation) getting mildly lost and then relocating yourself. Using skills such as feature recognition, triangulation with back bearings, slope aspect and making a plan to get to safety will improve your navigation immensely and help make the situation calmer when it happens for real.