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Walking for beginners – developing map reading and compass skills

Other posts by  |  Patrick Norris on Google+ |  July 13, 2012 | 0 Comments
Patrick Norris

Patrick Norris

In Patrick Norris’s previous article for his column A Walker’s Guide, he gave valuable information on how to get into walking. This follow up piece builds on that first column and talks about how to develop skills as a new walker.  These skills include map reading and route planning and are essential if you want to stride out alone or with a friend. If you’re happy to leave those tasks to others and do group walks, that’s fine and very enjoyable and relaxing, too. Whatever your choice, always remember to let family members or friends know where you are going and when you are expected back.  You can contact Patrick at

By Patrick Norris

In this article, I want to develop some of the themes discussed in the previous feature, ‘walking for beginners – taking a first step’. I will be writing from a personal point of view, because like most people who walk for leisure, my first steps were tentative and uncertain, but eventually as my skills improved, my horizons expanded and eventually I was able to tackle more and more demanding trips into the wider countryside.  It took ages to be confident enough to do that, but it has been I have to say, a worthwhile journey.  As ever, a word of caution, be careful and think about where your walk will take you.  There are hazards at every level from the coast to the summit of Ben Nevis and you must be able to recognise and manage risk on your journeys into the great outdoors.

Thinking back to that first article, canal towpaths, upgraded former railway lines, country parks and the urban path network are all very well, but they can be busy with other users and you may be looking for somewhere quieter or something a touch more challenging to develop your skills.  You need to be thinking about how you’re going to tackle that challenge and begin to equip yourself with some of the knowledge and abilities that are needed to get you out and about exploring the British landscape.

When I think back to when I first ventured out into what I thought was open country, it really was a personal challenge.  A lot of my longer walking trips in those early days were along the country lanes around Dartmoor National Park and South Devon.  I was using an Ordnance Survey  Landranger map at a scale of 1:50000 to find my way around, because that always seemed to be the right map to use.  Looking back, I now understand that by taking this approach, I was beginning to get a feel for direction, distance and landscape and identifying features on the map that I was seeing on the ground, putting them together and almost by default, what I was actually doing was navigating.

Map reading skills

Map reading skills are essential if you want to walk alone, plan routes or take responsibility for leading a walk © Ordnance Survey

Although I still lacked the courage to step away from the country lanes and on to the wide open spaces of Dartmoor, the knowledge and confidence to take that step was fast approaching.  In fact, walking those roads, always with a map, allowed me to discover villages, village pubs and places that I would have missed had I been walking the remoter parts of Dartmoor National Park.  In addition, I began to recognise also, that those very same pubs and villages were linked off-road by public footpaths and bridleways, which led me naturally to the idea of getting off the tarmac, away from traffic and into the open countryside, which is where I really wanted to be.

So, I had recognised that to get beyond the country lanes, I needed to be able to read and use a map, in most cases this would be an Ordnance Survey map. I had to be able to think about and plan a route; this gave me an understanding of the distances and time involved to complete the walk. It also allowed me to identify where the pubs were, which for some reason, I still think is important and to pick out features such as viewpoints and landscape features that I might like to visit.  Finally, with a route plan, I could tell people where I was going, which in the event of something going wrong, would at least give anyone searching for me, an idea of where to start looking.

How are you going to develop your skills, where will you go and how will you find your way there and back again?  You may find it helpful to go on a map reading and navigation course; those skills are easier to learn than you might think, but like all skills, they demand practice.  The National Navigation Award Scheme website is a good place to start.  On their website you will find a list of trainers and course providers.  A short training course really is as good a place as any to learn the basics of map and compass work.

Walking compass

A liquid filled walking compass

Now that you have your new knowledge and skills under your belt and one of those skills should be how to complete a route plan, do just that, plan a walk and get out there and walk it.  An example of a route plan can be found here

When it comes to choosing a place to walk, we in the UK really are spoilt for choice.  We have access to protected landscapes, known as National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.  In addition, we have the National Trails; the best known of these is probably the Pennine Way.  They all provide great places to walk as a novice, as well as an experienced and skilled hill walker or mountaineer; something for everyone in fact.

Here in Northumberland, we have the Northumberland Coast and North Pennines AONB; the Northumberland National Park and Hadrian’s Wall World Heritage Site.  Each of these landscapes offer great walking, ideal places to test and develop your walking skills and different and big enough to always be a place you want to go back to time and again.

You can find out more about the UK’s protected landscapes and the National Trails at: for National Parks for Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty for the National Trail network

For information about protected landscapes in Northumberland and the Borders, please visit these websites.

In addition, there are any number of Forestry Commission forests and woodlands to visit, the best of these in Northumberland is perhaps Kielder Forest Park, which is an ideal place to walk, explore and develop map reading and navigation skills; visit for details.  The National Trust has some great properties where access for walkers is encouraged and where there is always a tearoom for those end of walk refreshments, plus of course many other attractions.

Kielder Reservoir, Northumberland

Kielder Reservoir, Northumberland

To conclude, in this feature, I have used my own personal experiences of how I took those first early steps as a novice hill walker to where I am now, reasonably competent and able to find my around the hills, mountains and countryside with some degree of confidence. Occasionally, but rarely getting lost and capable of, to use a technical term ‘relocating’ and cracking on to my destination, whether that be home, a campsite or a local hostelry. It’s important to add that I never stop learning; I take any lesson seriously and take the time to reflect on what I may have done differently.  Planning is fundamental to any walk in the hills, the mountains or the wider countryside as well as the knowledge and understanding of when to turn back, there will be another day to enjoy the remarkable British countryside.  It doesn’t change much it’s fair to say and after all we’re just passing through, as those who walked before us did and for those who will follow in our ‘Footsteps’ in the future.

Find out more about me, Patrick Norris, and my guided walks business: Footsteps – walking the beauty of Northumberland.

Footsteps – walking the beauty of Northumberland



Tel.: 07847 506399


© Patrick Norris and This is Northumberland.

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Category: Northumberland Walker's Guide

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