Map and Compass Navigation: The Basics

compassModern technology can be a curse, as well as a blessing, in terms of GPS units. Yes, the devices are a big help, but dead batteries or faulty operation can leave you lost, especially if you’re unfamiliar with using a map and compass. While some may think compasses are obsolete, using a compass and map is still an effective navigation technique. Many hardcore outdoorsmen use them for navigating throughout the day and only use a GPS at camp each night obtain their coordinates, mark a waypoint, and set a bearing for the morning. Backcountry navigation is not easy, so arming yourself with as many skills as possible is smart. Today we’ll take a look at some tips on orienteering, or using a compass and map to navigate.

Compasses, in essence, serve as reference points to keep you oriented in unfamiliar territory. For this reason, it helps to keep track of as many other references as you can. Using the stars, sun, wind direction, moss on a tree, and animal migration patterns are all ways you can boost your navigation references. These references serve to back up the information provided by the map and compass.

Trust in your compass. I’ve heard stories from people who’ve looked at their compass, looked at the map, and looked back at their compass only to think that there is something wrong with it. They actually thought their compass’ needle was broken. A compass’ needle works because the earth is a big magnet. The red North end of the needle points North due to its attraction to the North Pole. Now, the location your compass needle points to is called “magnetic north,” which will differ from North on a map. The difference is called declination, which can be as much as 15 to 20-degrees depending on where you are. Look to your map here, which should clearly display the declination of your location.

Once you set your compass bearing, turn your body until the red end of the compass needle aligns with the orienting lines. Then, scan forward along your direction of travel and pick out a reference point to keep in mind before moving forward.

Using a compass in conjunction with a good map is the foundation of navigating a route in the wilderness. Learning this valuable practice requires practice and patience, but it's not difficult. The tips outline above can help you take those first few steps into the realm of orienteering and further boost your outdoor skills.