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How to Plan a Hiking Route in the UK

How to use a route card

The best way to plan a hiking route is to use a route card. This is a short summary of your planned walk, key points and times that allows you to plan effectively and easily share your route with others. In this post, we will look at what a route card is, how to complete one and why creating and sharing a route card is important.

To complete your route card, you will need a map of the area you are planning on going to – I always use an Ordnance Survey 1:25000 map as that is what I am most comfortable using – and a compass.

What is a route card?

A route card is simply a way to log and note your hiking route, the direction, distance and time for your route on one table. To do this, you split your route into legs; short sections of your route that are analysed individually. Each leg is then taken in its own right and the required information calculated and filled into the table.

Once it is complete, the route card will serve several purposes. Firstly, it will be useful to you on your walk to help keep you on track. You can measure your progress along the sequential legs, track your overall time against the estimated time and use it to help navigate in real time. The second purpose is its use a safety feature. You can leave a copy of your route card with someone that is not on the hike with you, leaving instructions that “if I have not been in contact with you after X hours, then try to contact me. If you cannot get into contact with me, contact Mountain Rescue and hand them this route card.”

Handing a route card to Mountain Rescue will be an invaluable tool for them to know roughly where you should be or where you have been. I would think that being told that they are in the general area of Rannoch Moor (about 50 sq miles of featureless moor land in Scotland) is a much harder challenge than “here is their planned route, they set off 8 hours ago and planned to go in this direction” which should mean they can find you and help you much faster.

What does a route card look like?

A route card will usually fit onto one piece of paper, depending on the length of your route and number of legs. At the top of the page it contains key information such as the route name, the target hills, the starting grid reference and start time. All key things that set up your walking trip.

The route card itself is a simple table with specific headings within it. The headings I use for my route cards are: Leg Number, Grid Ref and Description, Bearing, Distance (km), Time for Leg, Height Gained (m), Time for Height Gain, Total Time for Leg, Escape Route detail.

Route Card Headers

We will go through these headings in detail to explain what goes in each column.

Leg Number

This column is just used to make sure that the legs are in order and a the legs run sequentially. You wouldn’t want to take the bearing from the wrong leg when you are trying to navigate on the hill. When I am using a route card, I sometimes cross off the legs as they are completed.

Grid Reference and Description

Try and be as accurate as you can with your grid references here as they will help keep your bearings accurate and you on course. I tend to use 8 figure refs on my route cards as I am completing the card at home and that is accurate enough to keep me where I need to be.

Use the romers that are on your compass to get accurate grid refs for each way point. Your way points are the beginning and end of each leg. An example entry into my route card in this column might be:

4824 5376 – base of steeper slope at path junction

Always put your first way point in the first line. You will be standing at your start point anyway, so you wont need that in the first line of the route card (the starting grid ref will be above the table in the sheet anyway).

Bearing

A simple notation of the bearing you need to walk on to reach the waypoint grid reference in the previous column. When calculating your bearings at home, you will be using your map and compass (I like to use my Silva compass for this – you can get yours here) and taking grid bearings. Be sure to convert these to magnetic bearings before you write them on your route card. Remember grid to mag – ADD; mag to grid – GET RID!

My advice here as always is to be as accurate as possible. Navigating on a bearing is easy enough if you are accurate. Inaccurate bearings and sloppy route planning has been the undoing of more than one hiker over the years.

Distance (km)

Measure the distance using the ruler on your compass from the start of the leg to the end of the leg. The convert this using the scale on the map to the overall distance for the leg. For example, on a 1:25000 Ordnance Survey Map (my preferred map type) 1cm on the map equates to 250m on the ground. One grid square (4cm) is equal to 1km in this mapping format.

Time for Leg

It is now time to break out your primary school maths (or use a calculator 😉 ), To work out how long it should take me to cover the distance I use Naismiths Rule. This states that on average people will cover ground at around 4km/hour. You can add and subtract time for climbing and descending – but we will look at that in the next two sections. In this column, we are only interested in getting a base line time for the distance covered.

If we accept that 4km/hr is our average speed (mine is slightly quicker than that) then we will cover 1km in 15 minutes and 100m in one and a half minutes. I will then calculate the base line time for the distance of that leg and enter that time into the route card.

Height Gained (m)

The brown/orange lines that run all across your map are contour lines. They (on a 1:25000 OS map) denote a vertical height gain of 10m. Be sure to check the key on your specific type of map to ensure that this is the case on the map you are using. Orienteering maps and maps of a different scale can be different.

To work out the height gained or lost, simply count the number of contour lines that your leg crosses. Be careful to understand which direction you are crossing the contour, either uphill or downhill, and account for both. You will end up with an overall height gained or lost figure to the nearest 10m, enter this into your route card.

Time for Height Gain

Naismith’s Rule stated that you should add on 1 minute of time for every 10m of vertical height gained. That’s easy enough to apply when you think about it. However, on a mixed route where you are ascending and descending at different gradients it can become a little more challenging.

Walking down a gentle gradient will probably speed you up a bit, however, walking down a steep gradient will likely be slower than walking on flat terrain. There have been several extensions to Naismith’s rule that try and allow for this, however, in my route card, I tend to apply the 1minute per 10m for ascent and the same for descending on steep ground where the contour lines are packed close together.

In this box on the route card, total up the additional time you calculate for height gain/loss over the length of the leg.

Total Time

Enter the total of the time for leg column and the time for height gain column. This is the time is should take you to walk from the grid reference at the start of the leg to the grid reference at the end of your leg using the route you have selected.

Escape Route

I don’t fill this is in on every line, but I do fill it in when there are obstacles (such as river crossings), steep ground (both ascending and descending) or cliffs/crags near to that leg.

What you are looking to in this column is a ready to go route out of danger should something happen on that leg. It helps you when on the route, as should something happen, an injury for example, you will already know which direction to turn should you need to get off the hill and back to civilisation quickly.

An example entry in this column might be “Head north east down hill towards the river, use bridge to cross river at grid 1234 5678 and then walk on bearing 240 to reach land rover track. Turn left at the track and follow.”

Summary

A route card is really important, especially if you are walking alone or the route is particularly challenging. I would not fill one in for a walk with my kids in the hills as we would not be going far, high or long and I would be confident in my ability to get them out of there if I needed to.

However, I would definitely fill one in for a multi-day or solo walk, leaving a copy with the wife with clear instructions on what to do should things turn sour.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief run through of how I plan my routes, please let me know if there is anything different that you do or something I could add to my route cards to make them more useful.

Thanks

Dave

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