Black Combe route choice

Tips for Navigating in Bad Visibility

Thick hill fog greeted runners taking part in the first English Championship fell race at Black Combe in the Lake District this weekend.

Predictably the poor visibility meant that quite a few runners went off course and missed some checkpoints. For some runners this meant a lengthy detour, adding extra climb and distance to their route to get back on course whilst for others it resulted in a DNF as they failed to visit all the checkpoints.  The attached Strava traces show some interesting route choices!

Black Combe route choice

interesting route choices!

Bad visibility is not uncommon in fell races where navigation skills are seen as a key requirement for competitors and carrying a map and compass is compulsory.  However, carrying a map & compass is one thing, using them is another and in the heat of the race it’s easy to simply play follow the leader in the hope that someone at the front of the line knows where they’re going!

So what tips are there to avoid going wrong or to get back on track if we do find ourselves going astray?

Do your homework!

Before the race spend some time looking at the map to familiarise yourself with the route and try to memorise some key aspects of the route. Look at some of the key features you would expect to see during the race. Think about what direction you will be heading and if it will be uphill or downhill. Work out the distance between each checkpoint and how long you think it might take.

Mark your map

Jot some key notes down on your map or back of your hand such as compass bearings, estimated time taken or features to look out for. (see D’s below)

make notes on the map

jot some notes on the map

key bearings written on map

key bearings written on map

Don’t follow my leader follow the D’s

Break the race down into legs between checkpoints or obvious features and think of the following:

Direction – which direction should you be running? This could be approximate eg Northeast or precise eg 38 degrees.

Distance – how far is it from one feature or checkpoint to the next?

Details – should you be running uphill, downhill or flat? Should you pass any noteable features eg streams, valleys, walls, buildings etc. Can you identify something that will tell you you’ve overshot and travelled too far?

Duration – how long should it take you to get from one feature or checkpoint to the next?

Get your compass out early.

Lots of runners seem to carry map and compass in their bumbags, only getting them out when they get lost. By then it’s too late, they are meant to stop you going wrong in the first place! Running with your compass in hand will let you have a quick glance to check that you are going the right way whereas a quick look at the map can remind you that you should be heading downhill for example.  This would have helped in the examples below.

Example 1

navigation error

example 1

The green trace shows how a runner failed to navigate between checkpoints 3 and 4. They narrowly missed 4 and continued downhill then around and back up to eventually locate it. Using the D’s how could they have avoided this?

Direction – they weren’t far off, heading roughly southeast and only missed the checkpoint by about 100 metres but didn’t see it in the fog.

Distance – the distance from checkpoint 3 to 4 is about 500 metres however visibility was less than 100 metres so they wouldn’t be able to see checkpoint 4 until very close (they obviously weren’t close enough!)

Details! – this they could have used. The map shows that after checkpoint 3 the ground drops steadily then flattens off for around 200 metres (where 4 is located) before dropping steeply again. If the runner had noticed the ground flattening they would have known not to continue steeply downhill.

Duration! – this should have been a give away. How long does it take to run 500m metres downhill? Work it out; if you can do a 10k in an hour then you can do 1k in 6 minutes (so you can do 500m in 3 minutes) As this is downhill in a race it will probably be faster than that for most runners. A quick look at the watch or a press of the lap button at checkpoint 3 and if you haven’t arrived at 4 two minutes later then it’s time to stop!

Example 2

navigation error

example 2

In example 2 the runner leaves checkpoint 3 heading southeastwards towards 4 but then swings off to do a huge anticlockwise loop, visits checkpoint 3 again! and then continues successfully to checkpoint 4. What could they have checked?

Direction! – between 3 and 4 they should have been heading southeast. At no point should they have been going northeast! Or northwest, or north anything! Alarm bells should have been ringing.

Details! – the route from 3 to 4 is downhill and then flattening out. This runner started downhill but then contoured on flat ground for almost half a kilometre (crossing two streams) which should have alerted them that they were going wrong.

To sum up.

I believe people think that you have to be very skilful to navigate in bad visibility whereas really it’s just about some basics. You don’t have to be able to identify every tiny kink in the contours, just being able to run in the right direction is a start! Remembering the four D’s will help as will getting lots of practice. Take the time to go out in bad conditions and run with map & compass in hand. Get to know how quickly you cover a kilometre and if you have a GPS watch check your trace afterwards to see where you went. Don’t be afraid to make a few mistakes, get disoriented and find yourself again. Much better to be doing it on a training run than halfway through a championship race!

Note – I’m certainly not perfect and have also fallen into the trap of following the crowd rather than checking the map.  I just don’t do it as often anymore!fell running guide

Suunto Core vs Garmin 910XT

Using GPS Watches and Smart Phones in Mountain Marathons

Mountain Marathons are a true test of a runner’s fitness, campcraft and navigation skills.

Only those who have trained to run in mountainous terrain, practised carrying and using a minimal amount of equipment and honed their map and compass skills can hope to do well.  Mountain Marathons have traditionally been regarded as “map & compass” events with rules stating that GPS devices must not be used and runners have generally accepted this.

In the past this has not really been contentious as the term “GPS devices” meant dedicated units designed solely for the purpose of aiding navigation.

a traditional GPS device

a traditional GPS device

However, advances in technology have meant that running watches and smart phones now have GPS capability and can be used as aids to navigation, even if the user does not intend to use them as such. It is now common for runners to record their training and load the data onto programmes such as Strava and understandably a Mountain Marathoner will want to know how far they ran during the event. Whilst in all likelihood most competitors would never attempt to gain an advantage by using their watch or phone as a navigation aid, it is impossible to disprove that they haven’t and this puts the race organiser in a difficult position.

Why is a GPS watch or Smart Phone a navigation aid?

Some runners will claim that their Garmin watch or iPhone isn’t a navigation tool because it doesn’t have maps loaded onto it. Regardless of maps these devices can be used to help navigate in a number of ways, most noteably:

1 – Displaying Location:

Many modern GPS watches such as Garmin’s 910XT have the function to display a very accurate grid reference.
Imagine the situation – a competitor in poor visibility finds themselves disorientated, the lake they were expecting to appear out of the fog doesn’t do so and they realise that somehow they aren’t where they thought they were. How tempting would it be to press a couple of buttons on the watch to gain a grid reference accurate to within 1 metre!?

GPS watch showing 10 figure grid reference

GPS watch showing 10 figure grid reference

There are also several free apps that can be loaded onto smartphones that give accurate grid references even when there is no mobile signal. So even if a runner only wants to “map their run” or take photos using the phone the capability and therefore the temptation to get an accurate position fix is there.

smartphone grid reference app

smartphone grid reference app

2 – Measuring Distance:

The ability to record distance travelled is a huge navigational aid and even basic GPS enabled sports watches have this as a function.  A simple press of a button will begin recording a lap distance allowing the wearer to measure distance travelled over the ground.  Devices without inbuilt GPS but using foot pods still give the user this function.

GPS watch displaying lap distance

GPS watch displaying lap distance

Here’s a scenario:

mountain marathon map

locate control number 52

Competitors trying to locate the re-entrant at control number 52 could use the bridleway and path to the east and find where it meets the change in angle of the boundary wall or fence (the solid red line) and use this as an attack point. If they then ran on a bearing of 250 degrees for 300 metres they would be at the control.  The ability to accurately measure 300 metres over rough and in this case marshy ground gives a runner a huge advantage over someone who is trying to estimate the distance by timing or pacing.

What about altimeter watches?

The use of altitude to assist with navigation is allowed, as long as the watch or the device is not a GPS device that could also be used to give location or measure distance.  These such devices use barometric pressure rather than satellite to measure the altitude.

Suunto Core vs Garmin 910XT

barometric & GPS altimeter watches

Altimeter watches such as the Suunto Core are similar in size and appearance to more sophisticated GPS watches and it is difficult for a race organiser or fellow competitor to see at a glance if a runner is wearing a GPS watch.

What if you want to use your phone or watch in an emergency?

The policy at events where GPS is not allowed is usually to allow a competitor to place the device in a sealed bag which must be intact at kit check at the end of the race. This means that the phone or watch can be accessed in an emergency situation but if the seal remains unbroken then it is clear that the device hasn’t been used.

How to use your GPS watch as a training tool:

The great thing about GPS watches is that they make it easier to develop your navigation skills. If you have such a watch but don’t know how to use the functions mentioned above then you’ve got an expensive device that you are not making the most of!

For example if you set the pace function to minutes per kilometre you can soon get used to how quickly you run over a variety of terrain. Set the lap function and run uphill for a kilometre, then turn round and go back down noting the time taken for both laps. Run on the rough stuff, on the boggy stuff, with and without a rucksack, walk up the very steep hills and all the time keep an eye on your pace. Make a note of your pace over all the different types of terrain you encounter.

Use the GPS to measure 100 metres and count how many steps it takes to run it. Again do this both up and downhill on a variety of terrain. You’ll be surprised how this changes with only a small change in slope angle or type of terrain. Over time you’ll be able to get an idea of your paces per 100 metres and so be able to apply this to scenarios such as in the previous example.

Use the altimeter and compare your time over a certain distance on the flat with the same distance that includes a few hundred metres of climb (use metres not feet as that is what the contours are shown in on the map).

With practice you’ll get the hang of estimating distance covered and the time it takes to do so over all different sorts of terrain.

If you’re not a confident navigator (you might already be scratching your head about re entrants and attack points) or want tuition to learn further skills then it’s a good idea to book some running specific navigation training.

A solution?

It is understandable that runners want to see and analyse their track after an event but unfortunately battery life on GPS watches isn’t sufficient that they last the whole of a 2 day Mountain Marathon and so the option of turning it on before the race and leaving it running for the 2 days isn’t viable. The logistics of overseeing and allowing competitors to turn on their devices, get a satellite fix then bag them up on the start line then do the reverse at the end of the day is just too time consuming for a race organiser who will have enough on his or her plate dealing with downloads, retirements, broken or lost dibbers, emergencies, results etc etc.

Using a tracking system that collects satellite data and records the route of the competitor may be an option. This would allow runners to analyse their own (and other runners’) route choices after the event but inevitably there would be a cost involved that would be passed on through the event entry fees.

So please try to understand it from a race organiser’s point of view. They know you wouldn’t dream of gaining an unfair advantage over your fellow competitors but it has to be a level playing field. If you are allowed to carry your smartphone or wear your GPS watch there is no way of anyone knowing if you pushed that little button a couple of times when you were lost in the fog!

fell running in bad visibility

“It would be handy to know our grid reference right now!”

fell running guide

Where did the path go?

map of kinder

which symbol is the path?

Have you ever tried to follow a path on the map but got confused as you couldn’t see it in the landscape around you?

A common mistake that people make is that they don’t understand what the symbols on their map actually mean.  Take the map above for example on which there are several symbols that might confuse the unwary navigator.

The black dots show near Crowden Head  
These are actually a Civil Parish boundary; an imaginary line separating two Parishes that has nothing to do with paths on the ground!

The black dashes at the top right and close to the Pennine Way  OS 25K symbol - Path
This is the symbol for a path that exists on the ground.  But be careful with this as there are also lots of paths on the ground made by sheep or deer for example that aren’t shown on the map!

The green dashed line running NW – SE through the centre of the map 
This is a Public Right of Way (footpath).  And this is where a lot of people slip up as the symbol is a political designation (i.e. by law you have a legal right to be there) but it does not mean that there will always be a path on the ground.  Anyone who has tried to run or walk across Kinder Scout following the public footpath symbol will know that the “path” doesn’t exist.

The green diamonds signify a National Trail 
In this case the Pennine Way.  As these tend to be more popular walking routes there is more likelihood that there will be a path on the ground, however if you look closely on the map to the north east of Red Brook you’ll see that the Pennine Way runs through steep ground whereas to the east of it, the black path symbol keeps to the higher ground.  Ask yourself “Are there really two paths there or is the Pennine Way symbol an arbitrary line on the map?”

So with all these things to confuse you how do you make sure that the path you’re on is the one you want to be on?

Look at the contour lines
Whilst paths may come and go due to animal and human feet, the shape of the landscape will remain.  A hill will always be a hill, a valley likewise.  So if your intended path is supposed to take you downhill and you find yourself running on the flat, stop – something isn’t right.

Check the compass
Look at the direction that you want to be going and check that you are actually going that way.  It is all too easy to run along a path that gradually changes direction.  If you should be going north and you’re not, then again something is wrong!  Too many runners stick their compass in their bumbag only to get it out when they are lost.. too late!  Keep it handy and check that the direction you’re running is the right one!

boggy running in the Peak District

I thought you said there was a path!

access land symbol

access land symbol

symbol showing the boundary of access land

symbol showing the boundary of access land

If you are on Access Land then you have a legal right to roam anywhere – you don’t have to stick to public rights of way.  This is shown by the thick beige line on the map and the symbol on gates or stiles.

So the moral of the story: Just because you’re on a path doesn’t mean it goes where you want to go!

Do you need to improve your navigation skills?  Click for more information about my Navigation Skills Courses.

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Navigation Task for Fell Runners #1

Here’s a taste of the type of challenge I set on my Navigation for Runners courses.

Runners were tasked with getting from point A to point B; a tiny pond high on relatively featureless moorland.  The pond is only visible when you get within 20 metres of it and there are no paths to follow!  For anyone who knows the area there are lots of small “groughs” that look like streams but aren’t always shown on the map making it difficult to know exactly which stream is which so you need some precise skills to find the pond!

Visibility on the day was about 5km.

navigation task in the Peak District

get from A to B

What strategies would you use to navigate to the pond?

Have a think about what you would do and then click on the video below to see how we did it.

If you would like to improve your navigation skills check out my upcoming courses here.

Get the Best from your GPS

Tips for using your GPS watch to help with navigation.

Whilst teaching navigation skills to runners I often notice that they wear an “all singing” GPS watch but rarely use the functions to get the most out of it.  Here are a few of the features that I use that you might want to consider.  (I use the Garmin Forerunner 305 and 910XT but the following is relevant to most GPS Devices)

  • Go Metric

The Ordnance Survey or Harvey’s map that you are using has gridlines every kilometre and contour lines showing height above sea level measured in metres (unless you’re using your Grandad’s old 1 inch to the mile map which you shouldn’t be!)  So set your watch to kilometres and metres rather than miles and feet.  If you’re a runner who likes to know your min per mile pace you can always change it back for the road but a wild, wet & windy hillside is no place to be trying to convert miles to kilometres to work out how far you’ve covered on the map.

O.S. map; distance in kilometres height in metres

O.S. map; grid squares in kilometres height in metres

  • Read the Elevation

Lots of people like to look at how much climb they’ve done on a run.  This is interesting but you can also use the elevation feature to show your current height.  This is useful for working out your position on a hillside or knowing how far is left to the top of a climb.  Again this should be metric to match the contours on the map.

  • Know Your Pace

It pays to get to know how fast you cover various different types of terrain.  I set my watch to show how long it takes me to cover a kilometre (rather than kilometres per hour)  Over time I have come to know that I cover 1 kilometre in around 5 minutes on even ground.  This is invaluable for working out how far you have covered and so pinpointing your position on the map.

  • What’s the Time

By knowing how long you have been running you should be able to make a rough calculation of how far you’ve gone, especially if you know your pace (see above)

  • Add a Lap

Your watch should have a lap function, useful for recording your 400m splits in training but also very good for navigating.  If you are leaving a known feature such as a summit or stream crossing, press the lap button, then later when you need to identify your location you will know how far past the last feature you have gone.  As long as you’ve not been running round in circles this will give you a good idea of where you are on the map. (you need to know which direction you’ve been running in for this to work!)

  • Multiple Display

Some watches allow you to display several pieces of information on the same screen rather than having to scroll through (the ungainly 305 excels here allowing 4 bits of data per screen and scrolling through 3 screens so 12 bits of info at your fingertips!)  I prefer Pace, Elevation, Lap Time and Lap Distance on my main screen with Total Time, Total Distance, Heart Rate and Average Pace on screen 2.

4 bits of data per screen

4 bits of data per screen

The picture shows that I am running at a pace of 4 mins 27 seconds per kilometre, am at an altitude of 350 metres, and am 18 mins 33 seconds and 2.37 kilometres past the point where I last pressed the lap button.

  • Be a Map Geek

Your GPS will allow you to download your run data onto map software such as Anquet or Memory Map or onto Google Earth.  I spend hours after my runs with a glass of sarsaparilla (or similar) poring over the map to see exactly where I’ve been.  The extract below shows one such adventure into the less visited parts of the Peak District.

Anquet software

Anquet software

As with any skill the key is to practise.  These tips are just a suggestion to help you improve your navigation knowledge and you should learn to navigate without relying on GPS.  Always take a map & compass; batteries run out, watches break and remember that in navigation events GPS devices are not allowed!

So dig out the instruction manual to your fancy GPS, (spend half the day learning to reset it!)  get a map & compass, then get out, practise and explore – you’ve got nothing to lose but yourself!

For more information on navigation training visit:

fell running guide


Navigationally Challenged

The only pre-requisite for attending the Navigation Training course was to successfully find the venue.

So things didn’t start well when my phone rang:… “Dave, can you tell us where to go? our Sat Nav’s taken us the wrong way!”  After 3 similar messages involving phrases such as “padlocked gate”, “dead end” and “town centre” our wayward, would be map readers finally arrived, having dispensed with satellite technology and resorted to good old verbal instructions.
The navigation course is aimed at runners who want to gain the skills and confidence to allow them to explore more remote areas and take part in fell races where navigation skills are needed.  Our runners had travelled from far and wide, not quite an Englishman an Irishman and a Scotchman but a handful of Lancastrians, some Geordie ladies and a Scotchman!
Introductions over we began by looking at common map symbols – many a puzzled navigator has looked in vain for a path when the symbol they were following was actually for a Parish Boundary, a political concept rather than a feature on the ground!
Then it was outside where the participants were challenged to draw their own maps and direct each other to precise locations on it.
Draw your own map
Once the basics had been grasped it was time to introduce compass skills and pretty soon we had everyone “setting the map” and “walking on a bearing”.  It was really rewarding to see the light bulbs coming on as the group members realised that the “pointy thing that points north” was actually a useful navigational device and that following it was quite straightforward.
Setting the map
After the recent bad weather we were blessed with a bright but cold day so it was good to get a warming brew before the next task; understanding contour lines.  For some people who are new to map reading those squiggly brown lines are quite confusing but being able to interpret contour features is a fundamental map reading skill.  Being able to plan your walk or run by looking at the contours will help you avoid nasty surprises such as having a mountain to climb to get to your destination!  To help our runners gain an understanding it was back to school and out came the Playdough! Each group was given a picture of some contour lines and challenged to make their own hillside.  A number of different shapes emerged as we discussed re-entrants, spurs, cliffs and cols.  The participants were all very mature and resisted the temptation to make elephants and aeroplanes!
Making a mountain out of a.. box of playdough
Is it a submarine? No it’s a hill with 3 summits!
Once the theory had been covered it was time for the bit that everyone had been waiting for – navigation practice on the moor.  Working in small groups, each with an instructor our runners took to the adjacent hillside and were challenged to navigate to specific locations using their recently acquired skills and knowledge.  Interesting discussions ensued over which was the best line to take – was it best to go direct over the rough moorland or better to “handrail” along the wall until the checkpoint was reached?
Putting theory into practice
The rough moorland and occasional remaining bank of snow made for “interesting” running with a few disappearing up to your knee moments!  However the runners happily dealt with the rough terrain and all too soon it was time to head back to the centre for a working lunch; preparing for the navigation race!
Working with an orienteering map our group had to plan how many checkpoints they thought they could visit in 45 minutes and plan their route accordingly.  We had added an element of competition for those who wanted to race but the main emphasis was on them working at their own pace and following their own chosen route.  But there were a few apprehensive looks when they were told that they would be setting off at 1 minute intervals.. on their own!  The biggest temptation in a fell race is to follow the person in front and there are countless tales of people doing just that only to ruefully admit afterwards that the person they were following hadn’t got a clue where they were going!  So one thing that we hope the navigation course will help runners with is to develop independence and the skills to make their own decisions rather than relying on others.
So off they went, onto a different bit of hillside, alone, frightened, vulnerable, naked ….well not quite but you get the picture! Would we ever see them again?
An hour later all runners were back at the centre, all smiles, buzzing from their experience as I listened to them discussing their particular route choices and explaining how they had “hand-railed the fence”, “dropped down the contours” and “taken a bearing”. They were even happy to share their mistakes explaining how they had misjudged the distance, run too far or not set the map.  Everyone agreed that the exercise had developed their confidence and wasn’t as intimidating as they had thought it would be.
A final classroom exercise on grid references before the debrief revealed that everyone had enjoyed the day, learnt some valuable skills and was more confident to enter a fell race, orienteering event or just get out running and explore less familiar areas.
So all in all a very enjoyable navigation course with a great group of enthusiastic runners.  I just hope their Sat Navs work on the way home!
Compass says this way

If you would like to book a place on a navigation course, visit