How to Navigate With a Map and Compass





Introduction: How to Navigate With a Map and Compass

Alright, so everyone knows a few fundamentals of navigation- north is always up, the sun rises in the east, and compasses usually point towards magnetic north. But at some point in time, outdoor enthusiast or not, you'll want to be able to find out where you are, and where you need to go.

I decided to create this Instructable after a challenging three day backpack in Olympic National Park, located in Washington State. In 2008, our snow levels were 165% of what they usually are. This means that in July, we found snow as low as 3500'. Great for skiers, but for the casual hiker or backpacker, it makes trips just a little bit more challenging.

Lucky for us, I'm pretty comfortable with rudimentary navigation. In this Instructable, I'll explain to the best of my ability how to use a map and compass to keep you found.

P.S. My first Instructable. woot!

Step 1: Choosing a Good Map

The map is your most important tool, as you can always squeak by without a compass (not recommended!). Right now I'll stick to what kind of map you'll need, and save map features for later.

USGS maps are the standard for wilderness navigation.
A scale of 1:24000 (1 inch equals 24,000 inches) and line intervals of 50 feet make them pretty detailed.
They have WGS84 (lat/long) and UTM coordinate systems.
The 7.5minute maps are huge and can be unwieldy.
Many maps haven't been updated since 1950.

Custom Correct Maps- Exclusive To Washington
15 minute coverage
Scale is 1:62500
Derived from USGS maps, but arranged to show popular loop hikes and trails.
Updated more recently- 1990-84
Both lat/long and UTM
Less detailed
Only for Washington
100 foot contour lines

Green Trails Maps-
15 minute coverage
Originally based on USGS, but updated frequently.
Compact size
Uses lat/long, UTM, UMS coordinates
Scale is 1:69500
Only Available for WA and OR right now, with plans for AZ CA NY and NV.
100 foot contour lines.

Essentially, be sure your map-
-Covers the entire hike.
-Has a map scale or datum that you are comfortable with.
-Includes features like roads, boundaries and streams.

For the cash-strapped, you can download USGS maps in pdf form, for free, on their [ website].
Unfortunately, the maps are difficult to read when compressed to 8.5x11.

As you can see, I've only included maps found for Washington State (except usgs). If you've got any more favorites I'd love to expand this list.

Step 2: Choosing a Good Compass

The compass is your second most important navigation tool, but it is also the most important to get exactly right. Unfortunately, there's not much room for DIY here.

Your compass should have specific features, and they're absolutely worth a few bucks extra.
It should have:
1.A clear base plate- To see underneath the compass.
2. A sighting mirror- To sight objects at eye-level.
3. A rotating bezel, marked with 360 degrees in 2 degree increments.
4. Meridian lines- For map use.
5. Declination Adjustment and arrow- to correct for the difference between magnetic and true north.

And there are many more features. Just be sure you at least have the basics.

Compass Models:
I personally recommend the Suunto MC-2 D ($40+). It works great, and is fairly inexpensive.
The MC-2 G (45+) is alright, and you can use it worldwide. Its more expensive and I still prefer the MC-2 D.
The Silva Ranger CL515 ($40+) is another good one.

Step 3: Taking a Bearing on a Map

This step is pretty simple. When doing any map work, be sure you ignore your compass needle and declination arrow. Those guys are only helpful when you're using the compass in relation to the world around you. For now, consider it more of a protractor.

This is the simplest of the exercises. Imagine your on a mountain lookout. You see another mountain, what heading is it?
1. Open the Compass, and lay it flat on the map.
2. Move the compass so that the base is along point A (where you are), and the mirror is along point B (the other mountain).
3. Rotate the bezel until North matches the maps north, and the meridian lines line up with a north south line (lat/ long lines, UTM grids*).
4. Read the bearing at the top of the compass.**

*The edge of the map is the ideal line. Any lines that parallel it will work too.
**On the bottom of the compass, 180degrees around, is the bearing from Point B to Point A.

Step 4: Follow a Specific Bearing on a Map

Alright, you're on a mission. You know that there's a cave filled with treasure, unmarked on your map, It's 308NW of your position.

1. Open the compass and turn the bezel to 308NW
2. Orient the compass with the clear part along your current position.
3. Turn the whole compass, keeping one edge along your position, until the compass matches the maps north, and the meridian lines match North/South lines on the map.
4.The destination is somewhere along the line created by the base of your compass.

Step 5: Taking a Bearing on a Real Object

Before we use your compass, we'll have to set the declination.
First, find the declination in your are by visiting NOAA Geomagnetic Data
Then, follow the directions that came with your compass to set the declination properly.

Now you can take a bearing on a real object.
1. Choose an object to take a bearing to. Ideally this is something you can do, then reference on a map. But you can practice with objects that are a minimum of twenty feet away.
2. Stand well clear of your computer. Large, metal objects usually mess up compass readings.
3. Tilt your mirror ~45 degrees in relation to the base.
4. Hold the compass outward, level, relaxed, and at eye level.
5. Close your non-dominant eye.
6. Match the object up in the compass sights. Be sure its level!
7. Turn the bezel until the north (red) needle is in the declination arrow.
8. Read the heading from the bezel.
9. Give the bezel a spin, rinse, repeat.

Step 6: Following a Bearing in Real-Life

Woohoo! You know your campsite is only a mile away, at heading 40NE. But how do you translate the heading into an actual direction?

1. Dial the bearing in on your compass.
2. Set the sight mirror at ~45degrees, hold it level, and bring it to eye-level.
3. Close your non-dominant eye.
4. Turn your body until the north needle is within the declination arrow or box.
5. Take note of an object on that heading. Choose a peculiar tree, peak, or anything else in your direction of travel.
6. Head to that object, then re-shoot your bearing.

Method 2
Shoot the bearing, then have a partner travel in that direction until he's just at the edge of your sight distance. Once he's there, tell him to move left or right to get him aligned. Move to your partner, then repeat. It's a great method if you need to be super accurate.

Step 7: Conclusion

Woot! Hopefully you just learned four new skills. I'm not an expert, but those few things are enough to keep most people out of trouble.

The easiest place to practice is around home... it may be worth finding a partner to check on your work. If you head out to the wilderness, find a spot where you can pick out a bunch of landmarks. Shoot them with the compass, then compare your bearings to the actual bearings on the map.

I'd love input on this instructable, I plan on using this as a base to build on other topics, like map reading, advanced compass use, and map in hand with GPS.

Remember the best way to avoid getting lost is to stay found. Have fun!

Acknowledgments- Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills 7th Edition
If you're serious about the outdoors, the book is a great reference.



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    Hey, there are some great low priced eBooks called Which Way Out? on

    Hey, there are some great low priced eBooks called Which Way Out? on

    Finding North - Adjusting for Magnetic North Did you know that there are three different variations of North? So, let's look at finding "North". When taking a compass bearing on the map you will have aligned the compass using the grid lines and your resulting compass reading will therefore be by reference to "Grid North". This is not quite the same as "True North" but the difference can be ignored. However when you take your compass off the map it will read by reference to "Magnetic North" and so your bearing will be slightly inaccurate. Therefore before walking off in the direction of the compass bearing you need to adjust from "Grid North" to "Magnetic North". To do that look at the information section on your map which will tell you the "magnetic variation" for that area. If your map is not a recent one you should update the "variation" using the information printed on the map. Having determined the "variation" adjust your compass bearing. For example the "variation" in the UK Lake District is about 4 degrees. If your compass bearing off the map is reading say 154 degrees turn the compass housing to add 4 degrees to obtain a magnetic bearing of 158 degrees. In some countries you may need to deduct the variation so check your map! Also in some areas the type of underlying rock formation may affect your compass and whilst this phenomonen is quite rare a little reading up on the area you intend to walk in should reveal any such problems. If you are following a distinct path - taking a bearing for a short leg of the walk and then adjusting for the magnetic variation is not critical but it will be at path junctions and in mist or at night and for longer distances. Me I use the "military" style compass; better and more accurate. What wasn't mentioned you read a map from right and up.. YOU NEED TO CORRECTLY ORIENT YOUR MAP FIRST. You don't you guarantee you will get lost.. ALWAYS let some one know where your going and the time you should be back.

    Keep in mind that you don't have to orient your map before taking a bearing.

    Hey! Thanks for your input! However, instructions concerning your magnetic declination and how to find the declination in your region are mentioned in step 5. Also, map orientation is less relevant when working with a compass as a measuring tool- so long as the compass and map are oriented relative to each other, like step 3. You're correct about reading a map- if using UTM then right and up, or easting then northing is the way to go. Unfortunately, this 'ible doesn't have much to do with using the coordinate grid on a map.

    Thanks for the instruction. I have a question, however: since I've already adjusted my Silva Ranger Compass for magnetic declination in my area, when I place the compass on my map to sketch a bearing I have taken in the field, I am lining up the orienting lines in my compass housing with the UTM grid lines on the map. These orienting lines in my housing are no longer parallel with the black north arrow outline on my baseplate ... since the north arrow outline reflects the adjustment I made for declination. Does this make a difference when plotting a bearing on the map? That is, do I continue to line the orienting lines in my housing with the grid lines on the map, or do I try to line the grid lines on the map so they are parallel with the black north arrow outline in my housing? ... hope this makes sense!

    The answer to your question is to continue to orient the lines in your housing to the grid lines on the map. The black north arrow you refer to is called an "orienteering arrow". Think of it this way; when sketching a bearing on the map, ignore the magnetic needle and the black (red on many compasses) arrow. You can sketch a bearing upside down if you wanted. This is because you are using your compass as a protractor. You don't need to orient the map to sketch a bearing. This is your "true" bearing or "grid bearing". Now when you put your map away and box the magnetic needle inside of the orienteering arrow, you are headed in the right bearing. Hopefully this info helps whoever comes across it.

    If you've noticed, some of the grid lines move a tad. nothing on the map seems to be static except the edges. Those are true North. This is because they warp the terrain just a tad so the map lays flat. Look at a master map and you will see all the little section maps are pointing to the top of the planet, slightly smaller at the top of each section; and slightly larger at the bottom. Put that map flat and it has to fit in a square. They stretch the top of the terrain out to fill that void so every square inch of your map is square with the paper.

    Put your compass bezel on the declination setting that is printed on the map. Then put the straight ruler edge of your compass base on the edge of the map along the black line against the white boarder, NOT a grid line on the map face. Turn your map until your compass red/white arrow lines up with the north in the bezel window and your map will be "orientated" to true north. The red tip and the white painted arrow in the bottom of the bezel will be magnetic north and the edge of the compass along with your entire map will be dead on true north.

    After you orient the map, any reading you take on the compass will give you the correct magnetic reading. When you see a peak at 43 degrees on the paper, you can look up and it will be exactly 43 degrees from where you are sitting.

    I recomend ya'll get down to the Boy Scout Office in your area and buy the "Orienteering" Merit Badge Book! It's the best, easiest to read, common language book ever writen on map and compass, not to mention one hell of a great sport. Find a local Orienteering club in your area. Warning: it's an adictive sport lol!!