Why Take a Bearing?

Navigation, in its simplest form is the art of getting from where you are to where you want to be, or from A to B. The most straightforward way to get from A to B is a straight line, or as the crow flies. This may not always be practical in the hills for long distances, but following a straight line from one point to the next is one of the basics of navigation. As this line is generally invisible, and walking in a straight line (for longer than needed to prove sobriety) is much harder than it looks, we tend to follow an imaginary line along a bearing.

When to take a bearing?

Obviously, when you want to get from A to B along a straight line, but the terrain also has to be right. It should be reasonably straightforward to cross by following a straight line, as any obstacles will take you off bearing. While you can take bearings around obstacles easily enough, some terrain such as peat bogs can just be downright difficult or impossible to keep on a straight line. but even then there are suitable techniques to help you keep on your bearing.

It shouldn’t be too distant either, with a number of smaller steps being much more accurate than one huge bearing as the margin of error increases with distance.

How to Take A Bearing.

Re-read the article on The Anatomy of the Compass. We’ll include this image for reference and will be referring to it in the text below.


1 – You will need to initially know where you are on the map and identify the feature you’re taking a bearing towards.

2 – Place the compass on the map and use the edge of the baseplate (8) to line up your current location and your destination. You should also measure the distance between them at this point.

3 – Rotate the compass bezel (2) so that the Orienting Lines (6) are aligned with the map’s grid lines and that the Orienting Arrow (7) is pointing NORTH.


4 – At the Index Line (4) you can now read off the bearing (but remember to add/subtract for magnetic variation if needed!). In the example below the bearing is just over 38° as each minor graduation is 2° and the major graduation lines denote 10°.

bearing (1 of 1)

5 – You only need the compass now. Hold the compass in your palm, as below, and pivot your body until the red section of the compass needle (2) is aligned with the Orienting Arrow (7). DO NOT GET THIS REVERSED or you’ll end up walking in the opposite direction. Neither should you adjust this until you reach your destination. If your compass has a loose bevel, it’s next to useless for walking on a bearing.

You should now be facing in the correct direction in order to walk along your bearing. Simple!


Following a simple bearing – Distance, pacing and timing.

You measured the distance right? See our article on Route Timing for more details, but the pacing card below gives you a rough idea.


If our bearing is over, say 400m and we expect to be travelling at 4km an hour as there’s some rough ground, then we’ll reach our destination in six minutes of walking on a bearing. It may be obvious, but stop timing if you keep having to stop for any reason! Don’t forget to add ascent to the time as well!

Alternatively, you can pace your 400m out quite accurately. I tend to take 65 double paces per 100m, so I’d cover a total of 260 paces over 400m. You’ll need to measure out how many ‘double paces‘ you take to cover a known 100m distance, walking as naturally as possible. A double pace is from when the first foot leaves the ground and the following foot hits the ground, or you can count one pace each time your leading foot hits the ground. This is best done on the hill if you can find two features that happen to be exactly 100m apart!

To keep count, the best bet is to slide a toggle (13) into your hand for each 100m you’ll cover and slide them away as you complete each 100m. I’ve only got 5 toggles, which should be enough for 500m but you can use them creatively in order to measure up to 1000m, by using each toggle for 200m (with the first one denoting 100m for odd counts). To begin with, you’re probably better off both timing and counting paces.

After six minutes or counting 400m in paces, STOP! You should be at your destination and there may or may not be an identifying feature at your destination. If at all possible, you should try and aim for something obvious in order to make your destination clear, but sometimes you’ll have to perform a series of ‘blind’ bearing legs such as this in order to get to a final destination!

That’s it for the principles of following a bearing, with the next article explaining more advanced techniques that you can use to modify your bearing in order to actually get to your destination! We suggest you try out this technique in the field over the next few weeks. You can even practice this on straight paths – which is a great way to determine how accurate your pacing is. 

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