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Electronic Navigation - all things techy.....

Updated: Feb 21

I’m a huge fan of using electronic navigation in the mountains, they are incredibly accurate, reliable and over the years I’ve learnt to trust them in all sorts of situations. Of course there are limitations, but good old fashioned maps and compasses have them as well….it’s about learning to pick the ‘best tool for the job’, creating efficient navigation and movement on the hill whilst improving your safety as well.

Mountain Training recognises ‘gadgets’ across it’s walking leadership awards and within the all the syllabus it identifies what knowledge / awareness is required at all the levels.

Mountain training walking pathway

Lowland Leader Award

‘Access to and the use of electronic navigation aids such as GPS, Smartphones and GPS watches has significantly increased in past years. In addition technology has improved vastly in terms of battery life/types in such units. They are more reliable now and used correctly can be a powerful navigation tool. Candidates should be able to demonstrate a practical awareness of how electronic navigation devices can be integrated with a map and compass’

Hill and Moorland Leader

‘include the use of a compass, the use of a map alone and an awareness of there navigational aids such as an altimeter or GPS…’

Mountain Leader

Interestingly it doesn’t really appear in the syllabus, it does mention ‘compasses and other navigation aids’ though.

Additional notes on the syllabus in the guidance notes for trainers / assessors which is accessible to everyone on the Mountain Training (ML) Assessment page

‘Navigation ability must be tested with map and compass alone without the use of GPS, altimeter or other similar equipment. If candidates carry navigation aids their ability to use them may be discussed as an additional training element’.

Winter Mountain Leader

Theres a big shift here…..instead of having an awareness it now becomes an assessed syllabus area… again there are additional notes on the syllabus…

‘Access to and the use of electronic navigation aids such as GPS, Smartphones and GPS watches has significantly increased in past years. In addition technology has improved vastly in terms of battery life/ types in such units. They are more reliable now and used correctly can be a powerful navigation tool. Candidates should be able to demonstrate a practical awareness of how electronic navigation devices can be integrated with a map and compass. However while the use of navigational aids, such as altimeters and GPS, is becoming more common they are still not fully reliable in all circumstances. For this reason your navigation skills will be primarily tested using the basic navigational tools of the map, compass and watch’

International Mountain Leader

‘You should have the knowledge to set up a GPS unit for the country you are visiting and be aware of their uses and limitations'

I’m sure we all know the value of these gadgets and what they bring to our navigational tool box and indeed our leadership options. I see the map, compass, range of nav techniques and gadgets all on a level parr and its our job to choose the best one or ones for the situation. I talk a fair amount about this on all Mountain Leader courses and always look for opportunities that demonstrate the efficiency of using a GPS / or altimeter for example that arise on navigational legs and at times how it’s a better option than a map / compass ….

A piece of advice - would be don’t turn up for the training course with no knowledge of any of these gadgets especially at the higher awards where it is an assessed element - do some homework, you’ll get more from the course then - certainly don’t turn up with any of these gadgets on assessment and not know how to use the kit. I like it when folk bring these out on courses and certainly on the Mountain Leader ones, although its not an assessed part of the syllabus, its a bit disappointing when folk don’t know how to do the basics, so for example…

  • A GPS unit is brought out….

  • Don’t know their way around the menu - so it takes a while to find what they’re looking

  • Can’t get a OS grid reference

  • The unit is set on 1 of the versions of lat / long - but the person is not sure what the figures / symbols represent

Similarly this was one of the worst I saw with an altimeter..

  • Didn’t understand how changing air pressure affects altimeters, (they need resetting regularly in these conditions), using it as their primary method of navigating it was widely inaccurate after 2 days on the hill - and with no re setting of height at any known points, they were the best part of 100m out on their height - granted it’s a bit easier with GPS watches but some still work on barometric pressure.

  • And it goes on….

If you don’t know how to use a piece of kit correctly it could lead you astray, it could even be dangerous….

So what types of gadgets are there….

electronic navigation

Lets start with GPS

Global Navigation satellite systems (GNSS) are part of our every day lives used in everything from cars to shipping, aircraft, surveying, manufacturing, farming, our phones , even used by telephone networks, the internet and so on…

It’s part of our lives and without it some things would struggle to function.

GNSS allows receivers or more commonly known as GPS units to determine location and height to within a few metres both on land and sea

Global Positioning System (GPS) was created by by the American military back in the early 70’s and eventually President Reagan made if available to us civvies back in the late eighties / early 90’s. Originally it gave an encrypted signal called Selective Availability - which meant that the accuracy was affected, I remember using some in the late 90’s and they were often about 100m out - horizontally and even vertically… quickly realised they proved some reassurance of where you were, but could be pretty dangerous if you relied on them in certain situations.

Early versions were complex bits of kit giving only a fraction of the information available today. The Magellan series were the 1st really affordable models, this has evolved into devices that are quite incredible for what they do…

The Selective Availability was turned off in early 2000’s and now the accuracy of these devices in ideal conditions are within 2-3m.

China has a huge system and India, France and Japan have regional sats that work within GNSS.

We’re also lucky to now have access to the Russian and European systems - GLONASS and Galileo respectively - so depending on your set up you’ll have access to around 50 satellites within these systems

So the pros

  • Work anywhere in the world -

  • Work in any weather conditions with no loss of accuracy

  • Highly accurate -it tells you how accurate it is ie: 2ms (see below) - so when it’s unable to connect to as many sats as it would ideally like then you know the accuracy it’s calculating - pretty unusual in the UK though to be fair…

  • Gives you your height above sea level

  • And lots of other functions that help you to navigate…..



  • Cost is probably the biggest one - they’re not cheap and then you’ll need mapping as well

  • Batteries might have been one once, but I’m not so sure these days, rechargeable batteries on the Garmin version I use can and will last for up to 35hours going up to 200 hours in a certain modes.

Phones have had a GPS capability since 2000......


  • We probably all have one

  • Is accurate even without a signal / wifi

  • High degree of accuracy

  • We only have to carry one item….

  • It allows access to some amazing free apps - What 3 Words / OS locate - it’s important that you have confidence in the accuracy of the product, trial them in known and safe areas.

what 3 words
  • Remember on OS locate there is a share function and this gives you access to ways to message someone - like 999 if you’ve registered your phone for texting

os locate

and some apps you have to pay for

I guess the Viewranger and the Ordnance Survey are the most common ones….

As to the future of Viewranger, I don’t know any more than what is available on their site / public releases, it seems to be that they will continue running the platform for a while (2022) without updates, beyond that it’s not particularly clear . Harveys are now downloadable from their own site - so I guess that’s some measure as to where its going. As to the new company I haven’t converted yet….


  • Battery life can be consumed quickly

  • May not be weather proof and isn’t very rugged without additional protection

  • If you lose your phone …….you’ve put all your ‘eggs in one basket’


This was one of the 1st watches I remember using, thinking back it was a pretty decent piece of kit, it needed a lot of attention through in regards the altimeter!


As well as our timing platform altimeters offer us height references and barometric reading to help with predicting weather.


It’s moved on hugely, the Casio on the left was my 1st watch and for about £90 it was an incredibly accurate although the altimeter worked in 5m intervals . My next Casio (right) did pretty much the much job, but was bigger and heavier and I’ve been using Sunnto for years now.

These all work on air pressure, so for example height needs to be referenced and updated regularly certainly with pressure systems coming through..

Now they come with as multi sport type watch, with all the usual features of a normal GPS including mapping, HR monitors…and can even sync with your music…


  • Will depend on which one you purchase - some still need an old fashioned watch battery inserted and work off air pressure

  • They have a pretty good compass feature on the them

  • Pack a lot of punch for their size, having a lot of functionality

For instance you can set a proximity alarm for when a certain height is reached or a height gained, so ascending from 600m (A), you can set the alarm for when it reaches 730m (B) or when you have completed 130m of ascent.

ordnance survey map

Useful in descent as well and we would generally aim the alarm a little short of the target height - ‘in ascent aim low, in descent aim high’ So for instance ascending this particular leg I might set the alarm for 710 or 720m, knowing that when I it went off, I am below my target height. I guess it’s a little like aiming off in some respects - you know which side of the target you’re on.

  • Altimeters are great for contouring too…. Heading to C from B would be hard in poor visibility on a compass bearing as you may be pushed up or more likely down the slope. An altimeter would be a fantastic additional tool here…..


  • Again not cheap- certainly in the same price bracket as a GPS unit and often more.

  • Smaller screens than many GPS units

  • Battery -Some rechargeable versions don’t last very long in an engaged mode

Personal Locater Beacons (PLB)

personal locator beacon

Anyone remember the old EPIRBs…..


  • Works off GNSS - so no signal needed

  • Another way of getting help for solo walking in an area without a signal

  • Some come with an option to prerloaded messages


  • One way line of communication

  • In essence a PLB just asks for help…..

For me it only does 1 job… important one at that I admit!

Until this came out

Garmin Inreach

the Garmin Inreach has a 2 way texting service but there is a subscription cost to this in additional to the unit purchase. It can also constantly send your location to anyone you’ve given access to - so for example your other half at home can see where you are on the mountain at any given time. Combine this this a sat phone and it will be the Gold Standard I reckon…

Before investing in any technology I normally consider what do I actually need, how will it benefit me, does it offer multiple ‘electronic navigation’ options and so on.


Now everything needs power and power banks are an excellent way to get all these devices recharged.

There are a huge array of batteries type products available, if you’ve just invested in a £400 GPS unit and then buy a power bank for £10 don’t expect it to recharge quickly or even to rehab it fully, it needs researching! Folk really don’t give this much thought….

Lithium / rechargeable are probably the most common types, but do some research on this.

There’s always power saving modes on most types of devices, so for example getting your GPS to track every 10mins instead of every min. With your phone there are lots of options -inc screen brightness and so on.

Before purchasing look at how much power is needed to charge the device, so when you buy a power bank it has enough or offers multiple charges. Consider the charging time of the device and the actual power bank itself. The weight and price will understandably be a consideration too.

As a Mountain Leader....

I use all this technology regularly, bu the setting up of the device is so important. I’m sure you’ve got your personal phone set up as as you want it, in English, all the apps in the right place, your favourite ring tone……GPS units / altimeters need your input as well when you unbox the 1st time!

If you have a watch, depending on the type you’ve got, they will all require some set up and if you’ve gone for the GPS / mapping version then you’ll have this type of functionality that I’m about to explain as well…

So this is based on a GPS unit….

Firstly the basic set up

Menu - arrange your menu as you want

Garmin GPS

Confirm the Satellite system you want to use

Garmin GPS

Choose the position format - these days to will automatically choose the relevant national system, so OS (Ordnance Survey) for instance, you also can change to any Lat/ Lon variation here too…

Garmin GPS

Don't forget the units....

Garmin GPS

Beyond the Uk you need to check the that the map datum corresponds to the local map - just need to look a the key on the map and the settings on the GPS - pretty automatic these days but still worth checking…

I use a GPS unit in a number of ways…

  • Emergency relocation

  • Primary navigational aid

  • A combo of the above

Firstly turn it on - check satellite coverage and accuracy (earlier photo)

Occasionally I use it just to quickly check where I think I am or if I was to ring 999, then I would double check my location before ringing.

In a primary nav method - so perhaps poor vis, complex terrain that needs careful management of the group then I may decide this is the best option…

Put the cursor on the point I want to get to

Garmin GPS

Press enter

Garmin GPS

It gives you a line on the unit - in open land it will just be a straight line - no recognition of hazards like water / steep terrain.

Garmin GPS

In your set up you can make it snap to rights of way / roads if there are any which can be an excellent time saving option.

Garmin GPS

Then you just need to to rotate the unit until the blue arrow points in the direction of the pink line and any you go. Essentially the top of the unit is the pointy bit of the blue arrow

You can set a proximity alarm as well so when you are that set distance from your feature that you’ve set an alarm for it will activate - so for example 50m from the objective.

If you go around a hazard then like a car GPS when you’ve missed the turn it will quickly recalibrate a new straight line

So this is a quick go to primary navigational tool that allows me to pay close attention to my group as well as navigate the terrain.

Additionally they….

  • Record a route

  • Back track along the path you’ve recorded

  • Waypoints - key features on the mountain like escape points

  • Compass

  • Altimeter

  • And so much more…

Beyond any of the Mountain Training syllabus I personally think these are all additional bits of kit that are incredibly efficient, accurate and should be in our bags when we’re working. They support the more traditional skill of navigating and together offer us a powerful broad range of tools

So I carry my phone with mapping software on me every day, I always have my altimeter watch to use quickly and then I carry a GPS unit on multi day trips or in winter as the battery functions better….

That’s my system and it works for me

You need to understand what they can do for you, how to set the devices up, learn how to use them properly in a safe environment, practise around your local area, what are the limitations….. and so on, embrace them, they have been around for many years now and have bailed me out of a few awkward spots over the years!

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