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Planning a route before heading out….

Updated: Oct 19, 2023

This is a big part of my day before heading out into the hills especially with areas that are unfamiliar with me, looking at the map and working out if I can I actually go that way, do the contours look a bit tight at that point, how long will it take me, is it an achievable objective….

As well as deciding on a route on the map, it’s also a fundamental way to help keep yourself safe by leaving details with someone of where you’re going - the old school days of leaving some type of route card at home, your accommodation or even on your dash board of your car are still relevant, but perhaps mobile phones have changed the way we do things. They generally give us instant communication across a large part of the UK, mapping software like OS (Ordnance Survey) Locate and the sharing button it provides, along with Viewranger and the Buddy Beacon tool allow us to tell folk where we are if we need to. Obviously there is a reliance on getting some type of signal, phone or 4G, hence why we shouldn’t forget the old school techniques.

If I was working then as well as the some of the above mentioned reasons as to the value of putting some decent time into your planning of the day, here some further key ones…

Planning ahead allows us to identify potential problems and put measures into place to keep folk safe before heading out, in essence it’s one of our Health & Safety management tools, we work our way through the planning process, complete a risk assessment, consider how a Incident Management Plan may impact on the route and so on ….


I’m always thinking….

  • Is this an achievable objective for the client - based against their objectives of the day and things like their mountain experience / medical history.

  • Will we have enough time in the day to complete the route, how may daylight hours are there, does the client want to be off the hill by a certain time and have I factored in enough ‘faff’ time to the day?

  • How well do I know the route?

  • Where are the crucial ‘points’? These are key nav points, hazards on the route, escape routes and key decision points where options for the day depending on how the group is moving / coping need to be made… .

  • Can key navigation areas can be pre planned - things like bearings and timings. We reduce the human error in navigation by building in redundancies to capture silly mistakes when we’re working (like guess the bearing before you take it) - so by planning the navigation at home we’re under no other influences or pressure and therefore less likely to make a mistake than on the hill when you’re tired in challenging weather and looking after folk. Some simple annotations on your map will make your day easier….

Ordnance Survey
  • Planning allows an estimate of the time needed to complete the day….Timing of the day is a good way to manage the day - you’ve already established at this planning stage that its achievable with the time you have, you’ve annotated your map or have a route card now when you’re on the hill you can micro manage each leg to ensure the moving time matches your leg time (I talked about this in Navigation Top Tips)

  • Is there sufficient time for rests and to refuel?

  • How is the day structured? If you’re teaching a set of skills, then thinking about where’s appropriate to do A here and then B - it quickly allow you to create a progressive and a simple lesson plan - again you could annotate this plan onto your map. Alternatively if it’s purely a guided day it makes the day more interesting for your clients by getting you to do some research on the area prior to the day.


It’s easy to understand why planning is a big part of every Mountain Training award. This is part of my routine that I go through every day to ensure I’m stacking the cards to achieve the days outcomes and keep people safe.

I can remember days earlier in my career that I definitely did not consider this information - some days it was so busy I struggled to find the time, sometimes I got away with it, often I didn’t, late back at the bus was the most common outcome, I think 3 hours was the record. Poor decisions made, not knowing the area, not looking at the terrain on the map properly, no timings worked out (blue sky day - what could go wrong!) so I had no control over the time of the overall day…..and so on - it all could have been different with a little bit of planning…

My timings have got a little better these days…


How do we begin to think about where to go…

Often when I’m on the hills I see something across the valley and think ‘oh..that looks good..’, perhaps it’s in a conversation with your friends, a picture or video on social media ….something inspires you to get the map out….

Harveys 1:40 is a fantastic planning great map - the way height is delineated by colour shows the way over / through the mountains -it gives you the route! This is a shot of the same area in Western Cairngorms and whilst it’s relatively easy to see the logical ways on the OS map, it’s far easier on the Harveys.

Or maybe it’s just a good old fashioned guidebook or one of the many good websites out there….


There are all sorts of factors that will influence my decision of where to go…

Crib Goch

So firstly access good forecasts, ones that you trust through experience is crucial and hopefully a given. Constantly analysing…

  • Whats the impact of the weather going to be on you / the group

  • How will that influence the route choice …

  • What are the bad weather options?

Then there’s the Human factor…

  • What level of fitness do the clients have?

  • Are there Medical / health problems / disabilities that need to be considered?

  • What mountain walking experience does the client have?

  • What are their aspirations…do they match the factors above?

  • Don’t forget about yourself, have you had a busy schedule recently?

  • How familiar with the route are you?

  • Is the day about you or them? Don’t over estimate the day… far easier to lengthen it if necessary…

And then terrain needs to be factored in…

  • How comfortable with the terrain are you?

  • How do you think the group with their experience will manage the terrain?

  • Does the route offer some places to check and coach their skills on the journey, so for example how are they moving, will you need to do some basic footwork coaching?


There are so many ways to plan a route and here I’ll take it 1 stage further and look at ways that your route could be left with someone as part of your safety umbrella.

1 Route Tracing

Old school, bit of blue tack and create a line tracing of your route, add some key features like Sheet number, start / finish point, a couple of girds and anything significant on route, even some key timings and anyone could see where you were planning on going.

Ordnance Survey

I get folk on ML assessment to plan a mini break-in the hills in whatever format they choose and someone last year actually did it in this style - I loved it -proper belt and braces!


2 Same thing on a map - like the route tracing probably more likely to be just a planning tool rather than actually being taken out..

Ordnance Survey

3 Route card - as simple or complicated as you decide - so could be left with someone and / or taken with you

DofE Route card

4 Mapping software -there are different platforms available so these are just a few of the options -Viewranger is one of the most common. These are fantastic resources, quick and easy to use and can be forwarded on to someone else, printed out and also followed on the hill and a few other options…


5 Ordnance Survey Maps - fantastic platform that offers a lot of options…

Ordnance Survey

6 Some type of GPS platform - this is a Garmin version - they provide a lot of tools and the reason I like this particular one is for when I’m away overseas I can do a lot of planning on the maps that they have available. Also you can get HD maps too, so really crisp when zooming in. The basics are you can plan your route and then upload it to your GPS unit. All GPS manufacturers will have their own platform


7 And there’s plenty more type of web based platforms that offer a planning element some folk will be able to access the DofE one for example— this is another one - called Fatmap- that’s appeared the last few years and has some very innovative tools


Let’s explore a couple of these options further…

The Viewranger app has a good suite of GPS functionality - creating routes, being able to follow them, way marking Points Of Interest, buddy beacon, create simple route cards and plenty of others too. These can all be created on your phone and tablet- I often use my tablet and then sync to my phone…

So to create a route

Press the plus symbol

A menu appears - click on plot a route


It’s then just a case of holding your finger down and creating waypoints - these are easy to edit and update.

I like this top feature where it zooms in allowing you to be really precise, you can put as many as you like in, to capture every single bend in the path.


You get this continual updated distance and elevation panel and an estimated time it will take - in your settings you can set the icon in the top right to walking or cycling and the horizontal speed and vertical speed you anticipate so it gives you a fairly accurate route plan


Once completed you can access the Details and get a good overview of the route and also start route if you were at the beginning….., you can drill further down into the waypoints too - additionally can also set a proximity alarm for each waypoint so as you’re walking the route it will go off when you get within the set distance!


You can then edit the route, sync to your phone and export as a GPX file which allows you to upload it to a GPS unit.

This route took me about 2 mins to mark out and I’ve got all this information. I often use this to quickly plan a route, get a total distance, height gain, estimated time add some break and faff time into the day and then I get a quick idea of whether the day is a feasible objective or not.

There are so many other features that are useful, you just need to spend a bit of time drilling down through every page and setting…

Yes it will drain your battery on your phone, when using it outside, easy to manage though and importantly it is accurate on the hill without a phone signal


So from a planning perspective Ordnance Survey desktop site does everything that Viewranger offers, but with some additional tools….

ordnance survey

The menu button in the bottom right offers a whole suite of options

This is the National Park pathways - shows good paths on the ground - often more than those on a 1:25, so a good little recce tool

ordnance survey

Aerial - this just lays over Google images and is absolutely fantastic for planning when used in combo with the mapping

ordnance survey

When you zoom in, the detail (see below) is exceptional here you can see the red line was what I planned from the map, whilst in Aerial I can actually see a physical path on the mountain up this spur - its just right of the green line . The path is not identified on any map. So I can adapt my route and also know that when I’m in that area there is a good way up the hill - I could even annotate my paper map I’m taking on the hill…

ordnance survey

Aerial 3D - this is a stunning visual of what the route is going to be like - good to show clients to give them a real sense of perspective. You can use the right hand menu to move around and the surrounding peaks can also be named…

ordnance survey

In the route menu you get all the usual options, again you can set the mode of movement and the speed

ordnance survey

Great to share with folk I reckon…

Another great tool when you’re plotting the route is a snap to feature….if there is a public right of way for example you can just waypoint the start and finish point and the route will automatically snap to that path - so it gives precise distance and speeds your planning up!

Everything is printable including the map to scale. Like Viewranger it has hundreds - probably thousands of routes that folk have shared, so easy to get inspired of where to go next or a different way up your favourite hill…


And so we get to Fatmap….


I’m just going to show you a couple of things that are unique to this platform

Like before we have a menu on the right, accessing the layer menu gives you a range of options - this comes from a skiing background, so the options are geared to the winter environment

Winter mode of the Northern Cairngorms


In aspect mode - which way the slope faces


In avalanche mode - slope gradient - both aspect and gradient are useful in summer too

fat map

Personal walking or working, especially in winter this really compliments good weather and avalanche forecasting sites, along with other more traditional methods.

It does so much more than the few items I’ve showed you and certainly if you’re into your winter walking then this is an excellent tool to use in your planning and refer to all day. Its available world-wide and I’ve certainly used it in 4000m mountains to help confirm aspect and gradients. A great planning tool to have on your phone.


This is where it all starts for either a personal walk or for work.

A lot of preparation can be achieved from home, call it an arm chair recce, but the tools available to us really do help on the day.

I’ve just offered some ideas of what I use and how I might use them, as always there are plenty of other options out there….

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