So you accidentally dropped your phone in the river and your GPS ran out of battery. Now what? Now, it’s time to go old school. Pull out that map and compass baby, it’s time to navigate!

Learning to navigate using a map and compass is an essential skill you will need if you do any backcountry hiking. It may be the difference between getting horribly lost and enjoying your hike, ticking off landmarks along the way. Learn how to navigate using a map and compass in this post

Introduction to navigation

I know what you are thinking, what’s the point in learning how to read a compass and map when there are all sorts of gadgets out there that will do the job for you. This is true, but batteries can die and gadgets can do that thing that technology often does, fail. Alternatively, you could drop them in a creek or they could break. Any number of problems can arise. This is why you need backup in the form of a paper map and compass.

Part of the 10 essentials is navigational tools. And the know-how to use them. If you don’t know how to read a topo map, go and take a look at that post now then come straight back to read the rest of this one. It is not good enough to simply be able to read a map, you need to be able to orient yourself correctly as well. Which is where this post comes in handy.

Compass 101

Compasses are fairly simple at a base level. They are just a magnetised needle within an adjustable circle. The main working part of a compass is the magnetic needle. This floats on a central pivot. The red (or sometimes white) end always points to Magnetic North. The circle is 360 degrees where 0 indicates north, 90 degrees indicates East. South is 10 degrees and yup, you guessed it, 270 degrees is West. Your compass will have markings every 2 degrees and these markings are used to get bearings (the direction from where you are to where you want to go). 

However, even though the mechanics of a compass is fairly straightforward, it may take a bit of practice learning to use it correctly.

compass, map + snacks

Get to Know your Compass

First things first, let’s get to know your compass. A wee compass anatomy lesson, if you will.

On a  basic compass, you should find the following features:

1. Baseplate: This is what the compass is mounted on, it usually has rulers and scales on it to help you measure distance. It should be clear, so you can see the map below it, it should have at least one straight edge for taking bearings and transferring them to your map.

2. Compass scales Or romer scales – these can help you measure distance and accurately help you work out your six-figure grid reference.

3. Ruler(s): Can be used in conjunction with your map’s scale to determine distances.

4. Direction-of-travel arrow: Tells you which direction to point the compass when you’re taking or following a bearing.

5. Rotating bezel: Also called the “azimuth ring,” this outer circle has 360 degree markings.

6. Index line: On some compasses, it is a fixed black line within the bezel, on others, it could be an arrow on the base plate. It is at this mark that you take your compass bearing.

7. Magnetized needle: The end that always points to the magnetic pole is usually coloured red or white.

8. Orienting arrow: Used to orient the bezel, it has an outline shaped to exactly fit the magnetized end of the needle.

9. Orienting lines: These lines are fixed within the compass housing and move when you rotate the bezel. The lines can be aligned with the easting lines on your map to ensure you accurately align the compass with grid north.

compass anatomy

Magnetic North vs True North

Magnetic north and true north are two different norths (who would have thought?). The magnet that compasses point to is the magnetic north. True north is where your map points to. Magnetic north changes slightly every year whereas true north stays the same.

When you line up the compass needle with the sight line, you are facing Magnetic North. To navigate correctly, you will have to account for the difference between the two Norths, a process that is known as adjusting for declination.

 

Adjusting the Declination

While north is easy to find on a map, it is at the top of the map, in most locations in the real world, magnetic north (where your needle points) and true north differ by a few degrees and you need to adjust your compass to compensate.

You’ll want to get this right as even a single degree of error can set you off course by 100 feet over a mile. You can find the declination value of the area on your topo map or online (go to magnetic-delination.com to check your location).

Finding Your Declination

Most maps should have a note on them along the lines of “Subtract 7° to adjust for declination.” Others will just tell you the declination by saying “Declination: 7°E,” or “7° W.” If the map does not tell you whether to add or subtract, you must remember to always subtract the eastern declination or add the western. Keep in mind though that old maps will be out of date as the Earth’s axis change over time.
For example, my map of the Ruahine Range from 1984 stated that magnetic north is 23 degrees east of grid north, however, 35 years on is it 21 degrees east.
The way you adjust for declination can vary between compass brands so make sure you follow the instructions provided with your compass. Once this is set, you shouldn’t need to adjust it again until you go further afield.

wharite peak map

Orienting Your Map

Right, you know your compass anatomy and have adjusted the declination. Now you need to orient your map in order to be able to read it properly.

  • First, place your compass on the map with the direction of travel arrow pointing towards the top of the map.
  • Rotate the bezel so that N (north) is lined up with the direction of travel arrow
  • Slide the baseplate until one of its straight edges aligns with either the left or right edge of your map
  • Then, while holding both map and compass steady, rotate your body until the end of the magnetic needle is within the outline of the orienting arrow.

Now you have a correctly oriented map. Huzzah! Have a look around you to become familiar with your surroundings and try to correlate the landmarks to the features on your map.

Pro Tip: Keep reading your map as you go along, this will mean that you are always aware of where you are on the map which makes it much harder to get lost.

Taking a Bearing

A bearing is a precise direction that you want to be travelling in from your present location to where you want to go. Rather than a vague ‘northwest’, you will be following a bearing of 315 degrees.

Bearings are always relative to a specific location. Following the same bearing from two different places will not get you to the same destination.

 

Taking a Bearing from a Map

First, set your compass over your current location. Draw a line on your map or use a straight edge (a string pulled tight generally works well) to connect where you are now with your destination and note the direction on the compass you need to follow to reach that destination. Make sure that the direction of travel arrow is pointing in the direction you want to go in.

Next, twist the azimuth ring around your compass, so the direction you need to travel (your bearing, indicated on the azimuth ring) lines up with the sight line on the compass. Keeping the compass needle pointed towards Magnetic North, or 0° on the azimuth ring, you can now follow the site line of your compass to reach your destination.

Pro Tips:

  • If you are travelling a decent distance with this method, stop and take a new bearing every few kilometres.
  • You don’t want to be glued to your compass when you are in Mother Nature’s glory. A good way around this is to look for a landmark in the direction you need to travel and make your way to it.
  • Make sure that your landmark can’t move. For example, a sheep is a poor choice of a landmark, but a distinctive tree or mountain peak is a great choice.
  • Waypoints are a great way to get to your destination. There may be some choice landmarks or locations on your map. Use these to navigate towards your destination and tick some cool shizz off along the way. Just remember to take a bearing with each location. This is much more fun than following a line from A to B.
Readin' my map

Taking a Bearing in the Field

You can also use a bearing to find where you are on a map. You might want to know exactly where you are along a trail.
First, you need to find a landmark around you that you can identify on your map as well. Hold your compass flat with the direction of travel arrow pointing away from you and directly at the landmark. Rotate the bezel until the magnetized need is inside the orienting arrow and look at the index line to read the bearing you have just captured.

Once you have done this you can transfer the bearing to your map to find your location. To do this lay your compass on the map and align one corner of the straight edge with the landmark. Make sure that the direction of travel arrow remains pointed in the general direction of the landmark, rotate the entire baseplate until the orienting lines are running north/south and the north marker on the bezel is pointing to north on the map. Now you can draw a line on the map along the straight edge of your compass. The point where that line from the landmark crosses your trail is your location.

Using multiple bearings to find where you are on a map

If you aren’t on a linear feature like a trail, you can still find where you are on a map. This process is called triangulation. Triangulation simply requires you to follow these same steps with a second and a third landmark that are at least 60 degrees away from your first landmark and each other.

If the lines you draw meet at a single point, that’s your location. Most of the time, though, the three lines will form a small triangle, your location will be somewhere in or near that small area. If the lines form a very large triangle, recheck your work because you have at least one significant error.

 

Taking a bearing without a Map

Hopefully, you aren’t out in the wild without a map (those 10 essentials are essential for a reason), but hey, sometimes it happens. If you have a compass, you can still use it to help you get to where you need to go. If you know the declination of the region in which you are in, adjust for it. You may have to guess though, if you have cell phone coverage, check online.

Have a look around you and take in your surroundings.Check to see if there are any landmarks or geographical features that you can use. If there are, line up the sight line with your chosen feature, twist the azimuth ring so that the needle is pointing towards 0 degrees and get going.

Pro Tip: Try to use your knowledge of the surrounding area to get to the nearest road, ranger station, etc. This may involve linking several landmarks together.

wharite peak track

Top tips for beginners

  • Always ensure you have a recent map of the area you will be travelling through
  • Plan ahead, and plot your planned route beforehand then share it with a friend or family member
  • Make sure that the direction of travel arrow is pointing in the direction you want to walk in – it’s called the direction of travel arrow for a reason
  • Always make sure that the orienting arrow is pointing to grid north (the top of the map) rather than grid south (the bottom of the map) – even if you are walking south – the orienting arrow still needs to point north.
  • Unless you always want to walk due north – follow the direction of travel arrow rather than the compass needle.
  • Make sure that the landmark you pick is a feature on the landscape that is not going to move. A distinctive tree is a much better landmark to follow than a cow.
  • Learn the basics of using a map and compass BEFORE going on your trip. Practice, practice, practice! Grab a map of an area you know well and try to navigate using it and a compass.

 

Final Thoughts

Learning to navigate using a map and compass is an essential skill you will need if you do any backcountry hiking. It may be the difference between getting horribly lost and enjoying your hike, ticking off landmarks along the way.

Jem

 

Other Essential Backcountry Skills

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Learning to navigate using a map and compass is an essential skill you will need if you do any backcountry hiking. It may be the difference between getting horribly lost and enjoying your hike, ticking off landmarks along the way. Learn how to navigate using a map and compass in this post

Learning to navigate using a map and compass is an essential skill you will need if you do any backcountry hiking. It may be the difference between getting horribly lost and enjoying your hike, ticking off landmarks along the way. Learn how to navigate using a map and compass in this post

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