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Navigation Skills 12 Useful Features to Locate Yourself

By Dave Roberts   

on February 24, 2015    5/5 (1)

Navigation Skills 12 Useful Features to Locate Yourself

Often, just a map and a bit of observation can help you locate yourself. A few clues, built up can take you from having a vague idea of where you are to pin point accuracy. Of course, almost any feature on the map can help you locate yourself, but some of these won’t be immediately apparent just by looking at the key on the map. Here are a few hints and tips on what to look for, and how these features can help you.

Most of these less obvious features will be found on 1:25,000 Scale OS Maps and not on the 1:50,000 maps which show much less information.

These are also useful features  when taking a bearing, hand-railing or ticking off.

Area Features – Such as forests, fields, lakes. Their edges are often used as linear features, and are also useful as ticking off features. They have the advantage of often being huge and unmissable. If you’ve missed an area feature then you really are in trouble!!

Cfon_Rhyd_ddu_Nantlle_108However, they may also be smaller in area and much more subtle. You can determine to some degree what the ground’s like from the map, such as rough grassland, bogs or even slopes of bracken. This article on Geograph has a list of OS Vegetation Symbols and what to look for.

You can also determine rocky terrain, such as boulder fields – again there’s a good article on Geograph that explains these rock features. The image below shows a clear area of scree below the cliffs that would be shown on the map. You could use this as an overshoot feature while heading for the ridge.


Point Features – These are small items at a specific point – footbridge, bothy, boulder, sheep fold, summit,trigpoint. As they’re small they may be difficult to find in poor visibility unless they’re on clear linear features (a path for instance) in which case they make excellent ticking off points on the route or an overshoot point. e.g. you know you need to follow the path as far as a standing stone, but if you reach the sheepfold you’ve gone too far.

Cairns can be marked on maps – but take care following cairns, unless you know they’re leading in correct direction.


Sheepfolds. These can be obvious circular or square features, but sometimes difficult to spot and may even be overgrown.

Named features – These may be large feature boulders, standing stones or landmarks which may help pinpoint your location. E.g. Monuments and stone circles.


Linear Features -These are long and narrow features such as rivers, walls, paths, contours and ridges. However, some of the more useful features are often point features along their length. These are also the least obvious features, but arguably some of the most useful!


Junctions. Where any linear features join it allows the navigator to pinpoint themselves. Check that the joining feature is the correct one by taking a bearing along it. In the image above – the path and wall form a sort of junction as they diverge, so you could use that to locate yourself precisely.

Kinks and Corners. These obvious bends can pinpoint you exactly without having to mess about with bearings or other techniques. The corner of a plantation or a wall pinpoints your location, which can be confirmed by taking a bearing along the wall and confirming that this matches the wall change direction on the map. Rivers can also have obvious kinks, but they’re usually more difficult to determine, but can be used with a bit more care.


Cliffs. Impassable edges should be helpful, and identifiable on the map. You can use them as a linear feature to follow or to locate yourself.


Contour lines They may be invisible, but contours are linear features too!

Ring Contours and Kink Contours. Sometimes a ring contour can mark a pretty obvious high point. They’re usually small (100m) rings of higher ground that stand out, especially if there’s a spot height there. The ‘kink’ contours are where the contours form shallow re-entrant valleys or ridges across a number of contours. These may be pretty obvious on the ground and can be used as useful funnel features.

ring contour

Slope Steepness. While it’s not easy to relate the steepness of contours on the map to the ground, you can easily spot where the contours are close together and denote steep ground, and where they’re spaced out. You can determine the slope ‘bearing’ by taking a bearing along the slope in order to locate yourself.


Location by slope  You know you’re on a specific hill, but you’re not certain which side you’ve veered onto. While you could triangulate, if you can’t see anything, there’s a foolproof way to locate yourself by determining the aspect of the slope. It’s likely that there are only a few areas with the same aspect, so you’ll know which side of the hill you’re on at least. You may then be able to identify smaller features to pinpoint your location. the same technique can be used with the footpath you’re on, or whether the junction is the correct one by its direction. The nature of the slope can also yield clues, if it’s a concave or convex slope. There’s more information in this article – Navigational Skills 4 All about Contours

More often than not, you’ll use a number of these different features in order to pinpoint yourself, and no doubt there are other tricks that we’ve missed! Add yours to the comments below.

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Dave Roberts

siDave Roberts founded Walk Eryri in 2004, with the aim of providing routes that are off the beaten track. Walk Eryri is now part of Mud and Routes which continues to provide more off beat routes and walks in Snowdonia and beyond. Dave has been exploring the hills of Eryri for over thirty years, and is a qualified Mountain Leader. Dave also established Walk up Snowdon, Walk up Scafell Pike and Walk up Ben Nevis just to mention a few.

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