Before You Go

Map reading on Loch Shiel

One of my favourite things about any trip, be it a few hours or a few weeks, is the planning stage. The internet is such an amazing tool to use, and there is so much information on it, but my favourite part is poring over maps looking for places to explore, rivers to paddle, hills to climb.

All this information can help you find some fabulous places. However, sometimes it adds to the experience to not know every last detail about the place you are going before you get there, but to find out for yourself when you arrive.

This page hopes to give you some ideas as to how to plan your trips, be they on land or water.


For me, pretty much every trip begins with a map. I'm still a lover of paper maps, and I've always said that the first thing I do when I win the lottery will be to order a complete set of the Ordnance Survey Maps of Great Britain, but these days my initial thoughts will normally come from looking at maps on the internet. I use the excellent OS Maps from the Ordnance Survey, simple and good value, as well as other sites. Google Maps' satellite views are also a superb way to get an idea for what I'll find once I get there. They're also excellent for looking at things like places to park on Streetview.

Reading a map

I would highly recommend learning at least the basics of map reading. You don't need to know every last detail of how to navigate across the Antarctic plateau before you venture out, but knowing how those lines, symbols and squiggles will relate to what you find out on the land will hugely enhance your experience, as well as stop you getting lost.

I'm not going to explain the detail of navigation here, there are plenty of other places to find out how to do this, and if you are going to head for the higher hills I'd also recommend looking up a course as a good step. What I'm going to is make some suggestions as to how to help visualise what you're seeing on the paper, compared with what you're finding on the land.

Here's a suggestion. Pick up the map of your local area, or somewhere you already know quite well. I'd suggest a 1:25000 scale OS Explorer map is best for lowland areas, but 1:50000 will be perfectly adequate. OK, open it out and find somewhere you know well, perhaps a local walk you've done before from home, or a route you drive regularly. Now, look at that route on the map and follow it across the paper, and at the same time visualise what you remember seeing when you last travelled that route. What symbols do you pass? What colours are used to show woodlands, heathlands and the like. If there are hills, can you spot how the brown contour lines show them? How does the distance on the map relate to how long it takes to travel there?

Next, identify paths and tracks. I'm going to assume you're starting in a lowland area, which would be sensible if this is your first map reading, so there are likely to be marked footpaths and bridleways. Bridleways are marked with longer dashed lines (green on 1:25k maps, red on 1:50k), footpaths with shorter dashes that are almost dots. These are rights of way. Use the map key to understand the other types of tracks and trails that might be shown, though do note that not every path on the ground will show on the map, and not every right of way will be visible on the ground!

Plan a walk, just a few miles. As you walk, even if you know where you're going, keep the map out. Look at everything you pass, see how it looks on the map. When you're on a hill with a view, look on the map for things like church steeples, and see if you can spot them. This will help you identify how they lie in the land around, and you should be able to then see how the patterns of trees, fields and villages compares on the ground to those one map. At the same time, see how distant hills show as closer contours. See how rivers on the map might show on the ground, sometimes visible as a glistening stream, just as often invisible in themselves but able to be detected by a line of trees or vegetation across the terrain of fields.

Many of the symbols on OS Maps relate to places of interest, antiquities, and the like. Try and find these. Basically, just spend time with your eyes open, relating what the map shows to what you can see. Hopefully you, like me, will enjoy this process and come to understand maps as a source of far more information than just how to get from A to B.

Learn to use a compass, one with a base plate, to relate your direction to the map. See link below. This is a hugely important skill and, combined with judging distance and understanding maps, is arguably the most important skill for those venturing into wilder places.

Map Resources

OS Maps  - phone app and computer based. About £20 a year, and you can print as much as you like.

Using a compass - a beginner's guide

Contours - a beginner's guide

Route Planning - a beginner's guide

Walk Highlands Mapping  - a useful resource for viewing OS maps online for the whole of Great Britain. Register for free to access 1:25k scale as well as 1:50k and large scales.

Planning a route

OK, so I'll now assume you've got some map reading skills. So, think about what sort of trip are you looking for. The internet is full of folks' reports on their own trips, read them, hopefully including some of mine! These can work for inspiration, or you can work something out for yourself.

So, there are a few things you need to understand. How long will it take? What will the terrain I am crossing be like? Are there particular challenging sections? Are there alternative routes? What are the escape options? Is there a pub? All these need to be taken into consideration, even on a short walk. 

The timing is perhaps hardest to judge. If you're walking, there's a thing called Naismith's Rule which helps you calculate this. Basically it assumes you will walk 3 miles an hour, and then adds half an hour for each 1000ft ascended. This works quite well for a fit person on reasonable terrain, but its very easy to end up slower than this. 

If you're canoeing, assuming no flow, I average about 2 1/2 mph paddling solo and without trying hard, or perhaps 3 1/2 - 4 when tandem. Of course, if there's flow, you could possible double this, or halve it if into the wind!

Pub stops will always be assumed to be a quick half hour, but the reality can be very different...

I'll be adding sections on other aspects of planning as the website grows, so please do check back every now and then, or sign up for my blog which will sometimes include thoughts on this.