☆☆ Callout ☆☆

“The team’s first callout of the year came in yesterday at 17:28hrs for a lost mountain biker on Black Hill.” Woodhead Mountain Rescue Team 13/01/2021

As mountain bikers we often put a lot of effort into practising our technical biking skills and keeping our bikes in top shape, but simultaneously forget that often where we ride is in effect a mountain environment with all the associated hazards. Writing as a professional Mountain Bike Leader, but with my Mountain Leader’s head on, I offer here 10 tips to be better at map reading for mountain bikers.

Tip #1 – Download these free resources and learn your map symbols

When you’re looking at a map, there’s no point guessing what you’re looking at. A natural starting point for map reading is learning to read a map: and that means learning what all those symbols mean. Map reading for mountain bikers is a relatively simple task since the key symbols we need to be aware of are the rights of way. As you gain familiarity with maps you should also quickly wish to learn about how the contour lines show relief and height change. Finally learning about various symbols that hint at what’s to come and where we are will all help.

Tip #2 – Don’t use the same tool for every job

Get used to using different maps for different jobs. For planning my rides I use Viewranger software on my computer. This allows me to plan my routes in detail using 1:25K OS mapping. Using computer software at this stage allows me to quickly see how far the proposed route will be, and how much height gain I’ve given myself to take on! Additionally I can look at a profile of the route and see where the hills will be and how steep they are in either direction. This also helps me make a decision which direction I wish to ride around the route. Once the route is planned I will print it off on an A4 piece of paper at 1:50K scale. This is less detailed than the 1:25K mapping, but with the smaller scale I can usually fit a whole day’s ride onto one sheet of A4 paper …

Tip #3 – Never carry a whole map

Print what mapping you need for the day onto an A4 Sheet of paper (and slip it into a waterproof case). Having to unfold a full-sized map and find the right place every time is a faff. The more you have to faff, the more likely you will try and just wing it. This is especially so on a rainy day when you will be reluctant anyway to stop to get your map out. And while I accept that you can have a full-sized map ready-folded, it will never be as good as the convenience of having it on an A4 sheet (which will fit into any convenient pocket). If you can’t print off your own A4 sheets at home, then use the simple paper maps (but protected inside a map case) which fold far more readily and easily than the laminated maps.

Tip #4 – Orientate your map to the ground

Don’t read your map like it’s a book. Maps are made up of symbols, they’re not words, so you don’t need to hold them the ‘right way’ up. Get used to orientating your map to the ground (maybe like the GPS in your car does), so that what is in front of you on the ground is at the top of the map, and what is behind you is at the bottom of the map. The simplest way to do this is to have the top of your map aligned with the red arrow tip of your compass. (This is called orientating your map to north). In turn you will make it easier for your brain to decode what is coming up next.

Tip #5 – Don’t worry about speed/distance/time

Normally map-reading and navigation at more advanced levels require the navigator to have a keen eye on the time and/or an idea how far they have covered since the last known location. As a mountain-biker you will cover ground at hugely varying speeds inside any given hour. To that end you will never be able to relocate your position on a map by simple speed/distance/time calculations. But you will be riding along big obvious linear features which makes life a lot easier.

So instead of using speed/distance/time calculations, simply consider what the map tells you. Before each stage, look at what the map describes to you about what is coming up in your next leg of the journey.

Tip #6 – Use collecting features & catching features

When you’re looking at a map, think about what you should be seeing/coming to as you ride. (The technical term for this is “collecting or tick features”). Chances are you will then be reassured as you see these anticipated features, but more importantly if you begin to see or experience things that you didn’t expect to see you will know you’ve probably gone wrong. (This is what I call the claxons sounding!) Also, have an idea of what should happen if you go too far. This is called a catching feature. For example if you go too far you may notice the gradient may change dramatically, or you’ll come to a wall, or to a building etc.

Tip #7 – Look at the map when you’re stopping anyway

Mountain bikers love flow and don’t want to keep stopping to look at maps for example. So instead of stopping to look at your map, look at your map when you stop! And often we have to stop anyway, for example to open up gates. Take these natural opportunities to quickly get your map out to look at the next section that you’re about to ride. Consider those collecting features that you need to tick off as you go along, and also what you might come across if you should overshoot.

Tip #8 – Anticipate where you’ll cock up

When you plan your route/ride have a think about where the route might get tricky. Anticipate where you might get lost and consider vary carefully what you might see should you go off route. Also, whilst I simply use a 1:50K map for the majority of my navigation, which I can easily print onto one side of A4, on the reverse side of the same sheet, I may have the tricky navigation section printed at 1:25K scale. That way I have the benefit of both map scales to hand.

Tip #9 – Ignore the claxons at your peril

When you do hear the claxons sounding don’t ignore them: stop! Stop, and take the time to look at your map. With an orientated map in your hand, look around you and figure out what is where. Take the time now to look at what the big obvious features around you are, and locate these on the map. Then close in and start picking out where the smaller more obscure features are, but which are closer to you. Now start working your way back to your location. Don’t talk yourself into denying that you’re lost: you’ll only compound the error! Take your time to relocate yourself and only justify your findings if you have two or three items of hard evidence to back them up.

Tip #10 – How bad can it be? Relax.

Worse case scenario – you just can’t relocate yourself. Ok, I’m not a huge fan of using a GPS out in the hills and certainly wouldn’t want to rely on them, but I do at least have OS Locate loaded to my phone. This is a free app and will give you a six figure grid reference even when there is no signal. So, if you head out armed with this back-up to hand, you can head out relaxed. And if you’re relaxed, there’s less chance you will need this back up in the first place!

screen picture of OS Locate App a very basic form of GPS Device

Ethics and rights of way

First of all let’s mention what might be a bit of a controversial topic for many countryside users – where can mountain bikers ride? Keeping this as simple as possible I reckon there are three guiding principles to consider: (i) other people; (ii) the environment and (iii) the law.

The countryside of the UK is pretty much unique in that we have so much access to our land. (If you travel overseas and try going off the road or off the beaten-track you’ll soon realise this). And so with the rights come responsibilities and that means respecting other users. Additionally we should consider this fabulous environment that we love riding through, and the fragile eco-systems that exist within it. To that end, whilst it may not be a criminal offence to ride on a public footpath for example, it will anger some walkers, and potentially create a bad name for the wider mountain biking community. (More information here).

So where can we legally ride off-road as mountain bikers?

As mountain bikers we should keep to byways, and bridleways. There will also be tracks that are in effect unclassified roads, but maps are not good at showing us what is a public highway or private driveway. For me, I either use published guidebooks to help me with this last point, or I might just go out and explore, and accept that I may need to change my planned ride en-route. Another clue that helps is that some tracks have just one building (usually a farm) at the end of them and this would suggest that they are very likely to be a private driveway.

In addition to byways and bridleways, you will also see marked on maps orange or green dots which indicate traffic-free cycle-routes that we have legal rights of way upon.

Who needs maps? I’ve got my phone/GPS …

As old school as I may be (or just old), I too carry a smart phone with mapping software and GPS capability loaded up. But, on a wet day in particular, my phone is useless. Wet fingers on a wet screen mean that just getting the phone to turn on becomes a mission. But also, by knowing how to read a map means you then have the freedom and independence to plan your own routes. And maps can’t run out of battery power either!


Three words born from ignorance that lead to disaster: “I’ll be fine”. Don’t underestimate this key skill. Learning how to read a map and to navigate is a vital skill for mountain biking. It allows us freedom to plan our own adventures and to explore new trails. It means we ride where we know we can and it helps keep us safe. It’s also fun to learn a new skill and to get better at it.

Will Legon

10 Ways to Be Better at Map Reading for Mountain Bikers was written by Will Legon, Peak district-based professional mountain leader and mountain bike leader.