Route Planning

Route planning is an essential navigation skill and one you must master if you are planning to take formal qualifications in navigation in the UK such as BELA or WGL. Even for the more experienced walkers who have been hill walking for years and only walk for pleasure a few minutes route planning is very valuable. Many experienced walkers see it as an unnecessary chore but even in a familiar area it can make you think about things you may have missed and help prevent you becoming complacent.

Think of route planning as a sort of risk assessment, the important thing is to think about what may cause problems and how you would get out. Also it is vital not to over estimate the fitness of your party. You may be much fitter than other members so escape routes and alternative routes are very important. Many people who are experienced day walkers also underestimate the difficulty of multi day walks with a full pack on.

Route Cards

A route card is quite simply the route you plan to take broken into stages with the time you expect to return on. It can be written on anything in any form as long as copy is left with a responsible person who will be able to contact help if you do not arrive back when you should. This means if you get into trouble help will know where to look, for a multi day expedition a card should cover each day. Make sure when you do get back safely that you inform the person with the card. The more detailed a route card the better as it is much better to work out compass bearing etc at home than up a mountain and allows you to plan a more enjoyable trip and means if something does go wrong from a sprained ankle to a broken leg you are much better prepared. Designing your own route card is fairly simple and most navigation books have an example. Below is an example, which you can use or adapt.

Members in group:
Weather Forecast:
Starting grid Ref:
Departure Time:

(Grid Ref)



Distance Time


Time for



of route

Escape Route

Finishing Point Grid Ref:
Estimated Arrival Time:
Phone Check in Time:
Party leaders Mobile No:

Estimating Time

The speed which you cover ground will depend on many things, fitness, how much your pack weighs, experience, weather and ground conditions, and the terrain. If you have time the best way is to work out a pace card where you time the number of paces and time it takes you to cover a set piece of ground say 100 meters and then work out your average speed over a 1km, but this takes time and experience to do. Generally you will cover 3km or 2 miles an hour over rough trails with a pack on with this falling to about 2km over hilly or steep ground. A large group will travel more slowly than a solo or pair of walkers as it will travel at the speed of the slowest member but also more time is needed while the group waits as they cross obstacles such as styles and streams or wait while people go to the toilet. On good way of estimating time is Nasmith’s Rule.  W. Nasmith was a Scottish mountaineer in the late 19th century who came up with a formula for estimating the time needed to complete a hike in the mountains which is still widely used today. The rule states that you should allow 1 hour for every 5km (3 miles) adding 30 minutes for every 1,000 ft (300 meters) that you gain in height. This rule assumes a fit experienced party and does not allow for rests (and is therefore used by the British military in its training). It also doesn’t allow for bad weather and makes no allowance for down hill (steep descents will also slow a party and contra to what people think you do not tend to gain time coming down compared to if the ground was flat). This rule works well for UK land ranger maps (1:50,000) where you can add 1 minute for every 10-meter contour line.

Example a 20km (12 miles) walk gaining 2000 ft of height would take 5 hours without breaks (4 hours for distance plus 1 hour for ascent)

Escape Routes

You will note on the example route there is a space for escape routes. This is an easy way off the mountain at a certain point or a quick route to the nearest shelter or help. They should be easy routes to follow even in bad weather (which may be the reason for needing the escape route in the first place) and should not be too steep of difficult as you may have an party member with a minor injury (I once saw a group try to bring down a member of a party with a head injury and bleeding arm down a steep scree slope with the causality walking by themselves!). The reason for using a escape route may not be serious, it could be that members of the party are not as fit as they thought or the weather is worse than planned. IF IN DOUBT, USE THE ESCAPE / ALTERNATIVE ROUTE, many groups get in trouble when they soldier on despite problems which then become much more serious, it may not be macho but it is sensible and mountain rescue will not thank you for getting yourself in trouble when you had a chance to get out of danger earlier.