Introduction: How to Navigate With a Map and Compass

Picture of 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

Picture of 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

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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

Picture of 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

Picture of 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

Picture of 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

Picture of 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

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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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menahunie (author)2010-09-02

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.

PhillipG10 (author)menahunie2015-12-10

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

zwild1 (author)menahunie2010-09-02

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.

bellrom (author)2008-12-31

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!

PhillipG10 (author)bellrom2015-12-10

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.

GrapeApe226 (author)bellrom2011-06-21

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!!

nikiS1 (author)2015-01-08

this is awesome! thank you!

tonymo77 (author)2013-12-12

wow cool

britman (author)2013-08-25

Yeah you camp maybe a mile away . But to get there the mile is through a Forrest up hill down the otherside over a 10 foot wide stream . That mile could turn in to a few hours by then it might be getting dark or is already dark in the Forrest so you might need a flash light to help you check your bearings

ddjj123 (author)2012-05-20

This way is better and low cost, but how to locate one piont on map, i mean the piont where a person stand in real world?

zappenfusen (author)2011-10-06

Pardon my exclusion of congatulations for a fantastic instructable. A load of info not available in the Scouts of America hand book.

zappenfusen (author)2011-10-06

When my grown son's were young, they, their Scoutmates & I taught ourselves Orienteering from the Scout manual. I was Scout Master through default of parents with no interest in monthly camping trips. I had never had involvement in scouting of any kind. Luckily the Parents could afford our camping and equipment including quality compasses and supplying the troup other quality gear in order for Scoutmaster Arnsdorff to dissappear with their kid's one weekend a month with which they could do as they please without what they considered their idiot children. I was priveledged to escort the kid's too camp grounds located throughout the State of Georgia and participate in mutual learning with a great bunch of Kid's (Billy Goats?) I set up orienteering courses at every State campground we patronized and we had a fantastic time getting lost and locating each "Lost Patrol" while never losing a Scout. It's great fun, keeps the boy's interested & involved, and I will never forget the times we had and the boy's unfailing good behavior when separated from their well intentioned parents. Teaching a kid use of a compass I hope is something they'll treasure also for a lifetime.

dataphool (author)2011-07-10

Interesting! You did know that early maps were oriented so the top of the page was East, not North. I grant you that east-oriented maps are really only useful over a small piece of land. I mention this, because in your first paragraph you make quite a point that North is up.

rwb1971 (author)2010-05-16

Great!!! I would add how to triangulate one's position using map/compass.  Sight compass on a hill that you know, take reading, draw line on map from hill in same degrees.    sight compass on a different hill that you know, draw line on map from hill #2 in same degrees.   Where the lines cross.....there you are!

s14slide (author)2010-01-28

That is a great instructable.  I've been wondering about how to use a compass for real for years, but never got around to it.  Your instructable makes it seem very easy.

lentenaar (author)2009-11-24

You made a very good, clear and understandable Instructable.
"Keep up the good work!"

james.mcglashan (author)2009-09-21

wahoo this is great for geocaching without a gps hehe

stuuf (author)2009-05-06

Someone needs to explain to the people at the USGS why taking a simple JPEG image and packing it inside a PDF inside a ZIP does nothing but waste my time and disk space...

zwild1 (author)stuuf2009-05-06

Haha yep- Their website and interface is pretty cumbersome. But at least they are available for download :D

stuuf (author)zwild12009-05-06

Yeah, especially how you have to click an extra time to switch to "marker mode" and another extra time after you set a marker. But they do have high resolution maps for free... better than any commercial mapping company will give you.

HAL 9000 (author)2008-12-20

Excellent! i am an Eagle Scout and have been involved in scouting for most of my life, and i can tell you all that this is a wonderful skill to have if you do any hiking. most of you will never need it if you can follow a trail (its that long dirt thing you walk on). i never needed to use my Orienteering skills until earlier this year, and i was glad that i knew how to shoot a bearing and take an azimuth and triangulate and all that. i was backpacking in the mountains with another Eagle Scout and there was a bit of snow on the ground, and we lost the trail for about a half a day. it could have been a lot worse, but as it was it was a good reality check. here were two eagle scouts who had hiked hundreds of miles through much worse terrain, but we got lost on a nice leisurely hike. it can happen to anyone, and i hope everyone who goes backpacking has these skills. way to share the knowledge!!

zwild1 (author)HAL 90002008-12-20

Roger that! I wrote this guy right after a pretty similar experience- It's a little scary to rely on your compass, but in the end it offers a lot more freedom and security. Whereabouts were you guys backpacking? Edit: I'm definitely going to try out some of your hammock ideas- when it stops snowing of course.

HAL 9000 (author)zwild12008-12-21

we were trying to do the three sisters loop in southern oregon. we decided to just do an in-and-out after us getting lost and my friend, scott, getting really sick. he's pretty prone to altitude sickness. fortunately, though too late, on the last day he realized that he had a very special medicine that would help his nausea and appetite. If you don't know, I'm not going to tell you what it was, but we're from Humboldt county... and yes, we were sleeping in hammocks! i bought a replacement in santa rosa at the REI for $20, its great that theyre so cheap!

purduecer (author)2008-07-19

Great instructable (I was going to do it but you beat me to it, dang) At any rate, however, check out my first instructable (also posted today) if you're bored. --Purduecer

haclil (author)purduecer2008-12-03

Thanks, your instrux are a model of clarity and so concise. I'm printing it out for use on the trail, ok?

zwild1 (author)haclil2008-12-03

You bet! Just be sure that you've got plenty of practice under your belt before you head too far off trail!

purduecer (author)2008-07-25

Hey, how do I rate your instructable? I wanted to give it the 5 it deserves

Vautikos (author)2008-07-21

Excellent instructable, very well written and concise. Any chance of an engineering compass version? Also: is your avatar a picture of a Crossbow sailboat?

zwild1 (author)Vautikos2008-07-22

Thanks! I don't know much about engineering compasses, partly because of my budget and partly because of weight ;) every pound counts in the pack. And the baby in the pic is a Capri Omega 15- 1968 I think. Nowadays they're sold as Capri 14.2's. She sails great but I haven't had time to take her out. She's for sale btw... WA area.

Vautikos (author)zwild12008-07-22

Mmm, I wish I could have a sailboat again.. no space or time at the moment though. Lee Valley sells a decent engineering compass if you ever felt the need to play around with one, and the price isn't outrageous by any means.

LarrySDonald (author)2008-07-20

Orienteering (i.e. running while trying to find specific points) was and probably is a huge sport back home. I sucked at it by competitive standards doing it in PE and such, but ended up pretty ok by average joe standards, sort of like anyone who grew up in the US probably have half a clue about how to throw a football or baseball even if they were picked last during grade school. Liked the instructable. I never liked sighting mirrors, but perhaps I just never got used to them. A good tip while moving is to always grip the folded map so that a predetermined finger (usually the thumb of your dominant hand) indicates where you were (or believed you were). I still do this while moving on foot once I start moving rather then holding the map, giving a quick way to see what I was thinking earlier at next look. Getting used to what is what is probably mostly a matter of practice and learning to "see" the formations the map is displaying in your head and matching them to what is actually reaching the eyes.

zwild1 (author)LarrySDonald2008-07-22

Sweet- Orienteering is dead in my area schools, but I've been looking into joining a local club. Great tips- thanks for the comment!

k-twizel (author)2008-07-21

You didn't mention anything about magnetic/grid North declination. One could be off of mark by a considerable distance. Quick tutorial: add when converting Mag to Grid... Subtract when converting Grid to Mag. There is a mnemonic too... General (grid) demoted to Major (mag) = Subtract... Major (mag) promoted to General (grid) = Add

Basically this give more acrruate berings as what is printed on a map is True (grid) North and using a compass is Magnetic North. :) Happy Trails!!

zwild1 (author)k-twizel2008-07-22

Thanks! But check this from step five- "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. " I also mention declination in other steps. Nowadays, compasses have a declination ring that can be set to your areas variation. No math req'd.

Tovinney (author)2008-07-22


purduecer (author)2008-07-21

Congratulations on being featured, that's awesome!

bumpus (author)2008-07-19

Wow, Excellent for your first instructable!
The only suggestion I would recommend is, to include a video with and example on how to do the four different tasks.
5 stars!

why didn't this get featured yet?

zwild1 (author)bumpus2008-07-19

Thanks for the props! A video would be pretty neat, maybe I'll work on it. You wonder if it takes them a few days to feature an ible?

bumpus (author)zwild12008-07-20

Congratulations! I noticed your instructable has been featured on the homepage! I hope too see more from you, and learn more about navigation techniques!

bumpus (author)zwild12008-07-19

It depends on who sees it, a selective few of members who are non-administrators, who have the ability to feature things... I'm not one of those people, but consider yourself featured in my book!

sound91 (author)2008-07-20

do you ever use triangulating in your hiking to determine where you are in relation to the map? i have found that it is very useful when backpacking.

zwild1 (author)sound912008-07-20

You bet! But I think I'll save that one for more advanced compass techniques (ie. trig, offsetting)

About This Instructable




Bio: I like to explore.
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