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    How To: Natural Navigation for Walking in Scotland

    8 min read

    By Sarah Morton
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    Getting caught without your compass in the Highlands of Scotland could find you in a bit of a sticky situation.

    But with some foresight, gaining a little knowledge on natural navigation for walking in Scotland could have you back in safe hands. Perhaps slightly tricky to get to grips with initially. Training yourself to be aware of your surroundings might take more than one go. But you could end up bitten by the bug – ditching your compass and GPS in favour of using natures signs to guide you through the wilderness.

    Even if you’re not all that keen on natural navigation for walking in Scotland, some of these pointers could come in handy in the future – I’ve been caught out myself, alone on the plateau of Britain’s third highest mountain in the Cairngorms during bad weather that closed in within minutes and had my digital compass in a real spin and left me navigating boulder fields and a cliff with a sheer drop to my side – even in poor visibility, I found that some natural navigation was the best option for getting myself back to safety.

    Natural Navigation Techniques

    Natural navigation is an art that requires some practice. Below are some natural navigation techniques to help you find your bearings in the wilderness. No GPS, no phone, no compass, not even another soul to talk to. This is what to do in such a situation:


    natural navigation for walking in Scotland

    The sun shining brightly above Ben Nevis. West Highlands.

    • The sun is in it’s highest point in the sky at midday, and from here it is due south. The most important thing to remember is the different points the sun rises from relative to the seasons. In midsummer, it rises from the north east and in midwinter it rises from the south east.  This is also the point of the day when the sun is at its warmest and therefore most effective for natural navigation, even when there is heavy cloud cover.
    • If you’ve got an analogue watch, you’ll find they come in handy here as an alternative to a compass.  Point the hour hand directly into the sun and the the direction that lies directly between the hour hand and the number 12 is south.


    • Even on a cloudy, overcast day when the sun isn’t directly visible heat still filters through the clouds. This makes rocks an excellent navigation tool in Scotland – where we often see quite a bit of cloud!  The heat from the sun warms up the rock with the southern side generally being the warmest. So just touching a large rock can help work out what direction to to take.


    • In the middle of the day, when the sun us highest in the sky, is when the most dramatic changes in surface water can be observed. Anything on the northern side will cast a shadow and stay wet for longer.  Puddles are a great navigation tool especially on or near a path or trail. The puddles on the northern side will be much wetter than those on the southern. Even if there are no actual puddles if the ground is softer and wetter on one side, that is most likely the northern side with the southern side being dustier, harder and drier.


    natural navigation for walking in Scotland

    A single Caledonian pine tree in the Cairngorms.

    • In Britain trees are an excellent tool for natural navigation for walking in Scotland as the wind direction here isn’t random – there are patterns. Generally the prevailing wind blows from the south west and as such ‘combs’ trees so they look like they are growing in a south west to north east direction.
    • Most hill walking in Scotland is done above the natural tree line – so spotting an isolated tree could be priceless.  The heaviest side of an isolated tree will always be the southern side – almost looking as if it is pointing towards the sun.


    • Hopefully you won’t get caught out on the hills late at night unless you really want to, but if you do, the moon, although a bit tricker to read than the sun, can prove just as useful.  When reasonably high in the sky, and in a crescent shape, join the two horns together and extend the line down towards the horizon – you will roughly be looking south.


    natural navigation for walking in Scotland

    The stars and glimmer of aurora above Glenmore in the Cairngorms National Park.

    Stars, like the moon, can be tricker to read than the sun – pretty much all move about in the night sky and as such aren’t as reliable for natural navigation for walking in Scotland.  However, the Polaris, or North Star, sits constantly directly over the North Pole and always points north.


    natural navigation for walking in Scotland

    Hiking in the mountains of the Central Highlands.

    • Clouds, and especially a bit of wind, can really help you find your bearings again. Use the directional flow of the clouds and change your course, if necessary, according to the direction they are travelling in. For example, if the clouds in front of you are travelling from left to right, aim to keep them in that position as you walk towards a point in front of you. The opposite rule is useful if you need to retrace your steps.

    The most important things to take into consideration are your surroundings, any memorable landmarks, and of course the weather. Natural navigation for walking in Scotland can be as much a fun activity as it can be a necessity. It’s definitely a great skill to have for those with a love of the wilderness. Hopefully these few pointers will help get you started.

    – Please note that all the points listed above are applicable to the Northern Hemisphere –

    Want to Explore Scotland But Don’t Want to Get Lost in the Wilderness?

    You are in luck because a range of adventure holidays guided by a highly qualified expert. See a selection of our most popular  Wilderness Walking adventure holidays below. Alternatively, check out our Self Guided trips where we handle logistics but leave you to enjoy it at your own pace.

    Meet the Author: Sarah Morton

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