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  • Writer's pictureAlex Moran

Planning and Preparing your Hike, Rock Climb, Winter Climb or Scrambling Day.



The planning and preparation for your day out will have a huge impact on your overall safety, enjoyment and most importantly success. There are many elements to good preparation for an adventure in the mountains such as checking weather forecasts, reading conditions reports and guide books. However, a big part of planning and preparation for any mountain day or longer expedition is your understanding of the terrain you will face, how your day will look and how long it will take. This is where preparing a route card comes in. If you have an understanding of what your day will look like and how long each section will take you will be mentally prepared and much less likely to make poor decisions on the day.  You can adapt route cards for your chosen sport and include all elements of your day, be that rock climbing, hiking, scrambling, biking, skiing or any other mountain sport.

A good route card should have all the information regarding your chosen route alongside some clear alternatives and escape routes. Remember to prepare for the unexpected! Route cards are an important element of safety. Your route card provides clear information which should be left with a friend or family member who can pass this to rescue teams in the event of an emergency. This will dramatically speed up being found, even in the most miserable weather! 

Your route card waypoints can then be loaded onto a GPS device to help with your navigation, however, make sure you are always using your map and compass first and the GPS is a backup. Route cards are only one small part of the whole navigation picture. There is a route card template attached at the end of this document to guide you.

To develop your skills and to have a clear understanding of the often complex world of mountain navigation, sign up to my start to finish suite of navigation courses, from beginner to advanced, macro to micro, online and in person!


Your Journey in the mountains should be broken down into manageable sections each with a clearly defined start and end point, we call these legs. As a general rule you will start and end each leg at a key feature and the leg should not have too many changes of direction or more than one complex section of navigation. This will help to avoid errors creeping into your navigation and allow you to always start your leg at a clearly defined, known point. 

An example of a leg can be seen in Figure 1, here we have chosen to start our leg where the path crosses the river, a very obvious point and then finish our leg where there is a dramatic change in slope angle at 750m and a stream. Here you can see whe have obvious key features to start and end the leg and the navigation between these two points only has a couple of steps. 

Figure 1


The ability to take accurate 6-figure grid references is really important, not just for planning your day but for relocating and alerting others to your location. On your route card each leg will have a starting point and the starting point of your next leg will be the finish point of your last leg. To take a 6- figure grid reference first take the 4-figure grid reference making sure you use the horizontal numbers before the vertical and you take the grid reference from the bottom left hand side of the grid square. In the FIgure 2 example the 4-figure grid reference for the red dot is: 02, 10. Now you have this you add two more digits. These are added in the following places 02 X, 03 X. These numbers tell you how far along the grid square you are with 5 being the middle of the square. Therefore,  the 6-figure reference for the red dot in figure 2 is 022, 105. Make sure you double check all your 6-figure references from the comfort of home before you need them in the mountains. 

Figure 2


This is a very important metric as this will form the basis of all of your timing calculations for the rest of the route card. It will also help you to monitor your progress on a leg and, if needed, carry out micro navigation with pacing and timings. I would recommend using metric measurements unless you have a map which uses imperial measurements. Metric makes quick mental calculation easier and is the most common unit of measurement on most maps worldwide. 

When working out distance travelled you can use the scale on the edge of your compass base plate or a ruler. However, I would highly recommend downloading mapping software to your phone as this will take out a lot of the hassle of working the distances out and will avoid possible human error. 


The ascent and descent in metres will determine the speed at which you complete your leg. It is a common misconception that you will be faster in descent, actually both ascent and descent add time to your leg. Walking on flat ground is the fastest. Calculating times for ascent and descent can be done using a simple formula. There are many variations on this between countries and also corrections on these variations. However, I feel that keeping it simple is best and allows mental calculations on the move. I use the following:

Every 10m ascent = Add 1 minute to your time

Every 10m descent = Add 30 seconds to your time


Now you know the distance, ascent and descent of your leg you can calculate your total time for that leg. For each mountain sport the timings will differ. For example, if part of your day is a rock climb you will need to make an estimation of time based on your usual speed and the difficulty of the route. The example here is for hill walking, use the following process:

Time for distance: You will need to know your average walking speed in kms per hour. If you are fit and the ground isn’t rough then you are looking at 4kms per hour (15 mins per km). If you are slower or the ground is rough then 2 - 3 km per hour (20 mins per km) would be more likely. As you gain more experience out on the mountains you will become more accurate with your speeds. You can work out an exact time for the distance section of your leg before moving on to add the ascent or descent. It is best to underestimate your speed and have a more gentle pace with less breaks rather than a fast pace where you are constantly needing to stop and rest.

Additional time for ascent/descent: Add the time for ascent and descent to your time for distance using the formula:

Every 10m ascent = Add 1 minute to your time

Every 10m descent = Add 30 seconds to your time

Time allowed for break: The last thing to add is the time that you will take for breaks. Be realistic with this and look at the terrain you will cover. As mentioned before, a steady pace with fewer rests is far more efficient and better for maintaining overall speed than fast paced sections with long rests.


So, here you have a couple of options. Which option you choose will depend on the terrain, your experience, presence of paths and complexity of your legs. You can either put down very specific compass bearings or a general cardinal (N,S,E,W) or half cardinal (NE, SE, NW, SW) direction. I would recommend that everyone starts out with the specific compass bearings as you will get practice taking bearings and you will have a more detailed route card to follow.


Any good leg of navigation will have several features which you will check off during your journey. A key feature is a clear and obvious point which you can identify easily on the map and in the landscape. An example would be a path junction or a stream junction, the summit of a hill with a obvious summit marker (eg. cairn or cross), a clear change in slope angle. The start and end of the leg should have a key feature and you may have other key features along the leg which you can tick off to be continuously relocating yourself. 

In Figure 1 above the leg begins at a key feature where the path crosses a river, the next key feature used to relocate is where there is a change in slope and the path begins to climb steeply up the hill at 024,104. The leg then ends where the slope changes dramatically at the top of the hill to flatten out. As you walk through each leg you should tick off your key features and this will mean you have a clear idea of where you are at each stage.


No matter how much planning we do in the days and weeks before a mountain adventure, the mountains are a dynamic and unpredictable environment. This is part of the experience. However, on the day you can find that the weather can change, the terrain can be more difficult or you yourself could find that you are not on top form that day. Because of this, any good plan must have clear escape routes to get off the mountain should the conditions of the mountain or yourself change. An escape route should take the fastest, SAFE, route off the mountain. In many cases this may be going back the way you came. In figure 1 and 2 above there are no alternate paths to get off the mountainside so the clear escape is to go back the way you came. 

At each leg you need to include the plan of escape from that point to get back down to the valley if things go wrong. This will also help rescue teams to locate you if there is an emergency, they will know the routes you will have taken to get yourself out of trouble. Remember, if things are not going your way that day it is far better to retreat to try again next time rather than push on when things are telling you to stop. The mountains will always be there!


This section of your route card is key to be sure that you can still make something of your day even if you turn up to the parking and the wind much stronger than expected or unforecast rain has soaked the route you were going to do. Here you can give details of some possible alternatives to your day out. Perhaps these could be a lower level hike or an easier route. This will help you to make easier decisions when on the mountain as you will already have weighed up the options. It will also mean that any rescue can be more focussed. Make sure that you let your contact back at base know you have chosen an alternative route if you have reception to text. 


The best information to leave with a friend or family member is your route card with all timings for the day and a screenshot or map with your planned route drawn. You should make them aware of a time when they should call you and then a time to call the rescue services if they have not heard from you. This way rescue teams will have all of the information they need very quickly to hand. An example can be seen below. 

 Have fun out there! If you have any queries about anything - get in touch!

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