How to Navigate When Hiking in the UK

Map Navigation HikingNavigation is a key part of hiking. Heading blindly into the wild might sound romantic but it can be extremely dangerous. If you have a good sense of navigation, you can enjoy being outdoors with the knowledge that you know how to get back home again!

If you know how to traverse rugged and challenging landscapes, it will only free you up to explore even more wild places. To get you started, here are some of the best ways to navigate when hiking in the UK.

Follow the Trail

This will be the most common method. When hiking in the UK, you have plenty of trails that are clearly marked and easy to follow. For example, if you are walking any of the National Trails, you can simply follow the acorn symbol that is stamped on signs and fence posts along the path.

Other famous routes such as the Yorkshire Three Peaks and big summit hikes like Snowdon and Ben Nevis also have well-marked trails with signposts containing additional information about the route.

The old school way of following a trail is to look out for rock cairns. These are piles of rocks that act as trail markers leading you to the summit. It’s also easy to tell where people have walked by where the grass is smoothed down and the surface is worn out.

However, there are a few problems with this method. What if you lose the path? What if you follow an animal track by accident or mistake a pile of scree for a rock cairn? That’s when you need to have some other tricks up your sleeve to help you when hiking in the UK.

Use a Phone

Using phone for NavigationA phone can be an immensely useful bit of kit for a hiker. You have access to a map, compass, GPS, telephone, fitness tracker, and many other utilities all in one slim machine. Downloading special applications can help you to navigate when hiking in the UK.

AllTrails is an app specifically designed for hikers and cyclists. With the free version of the app, you can track your location and use the GPS function to find your way along the trail. If you purchase the Pro version (£23.00 per year), you can download maps in advance that track your location even when you don’t have any signal.

Other good apps include Strava (£47.99 per year for Premium) and Map My Run (£23.00 per year for MVP). Both these apps allow you to track and map your progress in real-time making them useful navigation devices. Many cellphones also have a fitness app included on the home screen. Although this can’t be used for navigation, it can be useful to track your movements when hiking in the UK.

A big downside of using a phone to navigate is the short battery life. Very few phones can last more than a day before running out of charge. This is even more true when you are using an app to actively track your progress. If it runs out of juice mid-hike, you are in real trouble. Bringing a battery bank will help mitigate this problem but there must be other solutions to fall back on.

Map and Compass

This is the ultimate failsafe option. If everything goes wrong, you don’t want to rely on electronics to get you out of a sticky situation. A map and compass can orient you in the right direction and give you a sure-fire route for navigation.

An OS map of the hiking region and a standard compass is all you need to get started. Studying a detailed map before your trip can give you some idea about slope gradients, natural features, toilets, water refill spots, and summit heights. This prior research will serve you well when out on the trail.

Unfortunately, using a map and compass does require a little bit of training. You can’t just pick up a map and start orienteering at a second’s notice. It’s essential you know how to use these items before you head out hiking in the UK. Make sure you practice at home before your trip and are well versed with the equipment in advance.


GPS Navigation HikingA GPS device will without a doubt be your most expensive option. Brands such as Garmin now produce tiny GPS systems that can easily be held in your pocket. The Garmin inReach Mini will set you back around £275. You will also have to pay a monthly subscription and start-up fee to access the services. 

That said, they are extremely reliable and will provide you with the most accurate location services of any choice on this list. 

You can prepare a route on the GPS before you leave home and if the screen usage is kept to a minimum, the charge can last for many days or even weeks. Another huge selling point for the GPS is that they have an emergency function.

If something goes wrong when you’re out hiking in the UK, you can call mountain rescue to come to your aid. In natural areas, there’s often no phone signal, so this feature could well save your life.

Natural Cues

The world is brimming with natural cues that can help you navigate. Looking at the sun or stars allows you to orient yourself with surprising accuracy. The way moss flourishes on rocks, or the angle branches grow all provides clues to directionality.

However, this is not something that should be relied upon unless you’re a very experienced hiker. Though it can be a bit of fun to try under causal circumstances.

Final Tips

Topographic features, rock mounds, and trail markers can all give you a rough bearing when hiking in the UK. But the truth is, the best way to navigate is to use a combination of these methods and to never rely on just one tactic. The better you plan, the more you are likely to succeed!