How to Use a Compass with a Map

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One of the most important skills you can learn before heading outdoors is how to use a compass with a map. While it may seem like a good idea to just work with a GPS (it gives you an exact location and even children can use them with ease), they do not work if their battery fails you. A map and compass will work no matter what the conditions are, saving you in case you get stuck in a sticky situation.

In a previous article, you will know that I discussed how to make a campfire. Skill with a map and compass, like knowing how to make a campfire, is part of the top safety essentials when heading outdoors. It is worthwhile read if you want to know how to be free from harm whilst outdoors.

Otherwise for this article, you will need a topographical map and a compass. Once you have those items in hand, you should be all set and ready to learn this handy skill.

My Top 5 Tips

Before learning some basics of map and compass use, it is important that you follow these top 5 tips. When you follow these below, you will be setting yourself up for success.

  1. Get a good map. There are 3 types of maps you can expect to get: a United States Geologic Survey (USGS) map, custom correct map, and green trail maps. Your map is the most important tool in your chest. Know your map and understand your map to be able to read it.
  2. Get a good compass. The second most critical component in your arsenal is a compass. It is your guide when using your map. If you get a solid compass, you can rest easy knowing that you can rely on it.
  3. Practice at home first. While it is nice to practice when camping, you have much more control of the situation when you rehearse at home. If something goes bad, you can slow down and analyze the issue. You know your home, so there is no reason to panic.
  4. Learn from an expert in person. While this post will give you an overview of map and compass use with plenty of detail, an in person professional, like those found at REI, will guide you with a personal touch. If you think of a question or have a concern, they can respond instantly.
  5. Be patient. It is going to take time to learn this skill and that is okay. Breathe in deep and let the air out slowly. No one ever mastered a skill on the first try.

Compass Anatomy and Map Vocabulary

Before diving further into this article, you are going to need a basic understanding of compass anatomy and map vocabulary. When you understand everything that follows, you will be talking like a cartographer in no time.

Rulers help you to know the distance on the map. If, for example, your map says that 1 inch corresponds to 5 miles and your destination is 4 miles away, then you will have to travel 4/5 of a mile to reach it.

Direction of travel arrow, when traveling with your compass, this arrow indicates the course you want to take.

Baseplate, this is the clear frame underneath the compass, so you can see the map below.

Rotating Bezel, this is the 360° ring surrounds the compass.

Index line, when you take a bearing off of your compass, this is where you take it.

Orienting arrow, this is red outlined arrow you see in the photo above. It is designed to fit the magnetized needle.

Magnetized needle, this is the end of the needle that points to a magnetic pole and is usually colored black and white.

Orienting lines, these serve to align your compass with the compass on a map, allowing you to properly orient your compass.

Declination adjustment, this will be discussed in further detail later in the article.

Cartography, the science or practice of drawing maps. While much of the world has been documented and outlined, there is still more detail work to be done.

Compass rose, this is the compass you will see on maps. North points to the top of the map. On your map, it will look something like the image on the right.

Map key and map legend, many maps will have a small box with symbols to indicate important points and terrain features.

Map scale, this is usually a ratio like 1 inch equals 10 miles or 1 centimeter equals 5 kilometers. Usually located next to the map key or legend, the map scale allows you to get an idea of distances on the map. Your compass’s ruler in conjunction with the map scale will help you to gauge distances in real life.

Bearing, a person’s way of standing or moving. It is your direction of travel.

Declination Adjustment

The world is a sphere, not a circle (sorry flat earthers). Consequently, different parts of the world have to take declination into account. Declination is the difference between magnetic north, where your arrow points, and true north. You need to take declination into account when charting your course because a slight degree error can set you off your path by 100 feet or more.

To adjust for declination, you need to know the declination value in your area. Many maps will state the value, but they can be old depending on the age of it and, consequently, incorrect. The map, shown above, indicates different declination values for various areas of the world. To find the correct value, head on over to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to get the value for your area.

Once you know the declination value for your area, you need to use it with your compass. Each compass is different, so you will have to read your compass’s instruction on declination. There is no general way I can recommend as all compasses are different, so my best advice is to adjust for declination based on what your compass’s instructions state.

Orienting Your Map and Compass to Read a Map

Now that you have adjusted for declination, you are ready to orient your map and compass. Once you do that, you can then actually read your map, so let’s get going.

  1. Place your compass flat on the map with the direction of travel pointing toward the top of the map.
  2. Make sure your compass’s baseplate is touching one of the sides of the map. By placing your compass on the side, you get a better view of the map. While you can place it more centrally, you will not see the map in its entirety as well as you could.
  3. Rotate the bezel so that North is aligned with 0°, the direction of travel arrow, and the index line. When these three compass features are in alignment, then you know you are on the right track.
  4. Finally, get your magnetized needle into the orienting arrow. While keeping both map and compass level, rotate your body until the magnetized needle falls into the orienting arrow’s outline.

Once you have completed these steps, you are ready to read your map. Look at your map and, if possible, at the landscape before you. Familiarize yourself with the map and your environment, spotting landmarks and learning your surroundings. As you travel, take note of significant points you spot along the way. You are now all set to take a bearing and set a course.

Compass Bearings Part 1: Traveling to a Destination

Now it is time to do what a map and compass were meant to do, take a bearing and set a course to your destination.

  1. Find two points on your map and draw, with a pencil, a straight line between them. Both points will be where you are now and where you want to go. The pencil line will be your route.
  2. Align the side of your compass’s baseplate on the route between those two points. Make sure that the direction of travel arrow is pointed parallel to the straight line you just drew towards your travel destination.
  3. Rotate the bezel so that 0° is pointed North as indicated by the compass rose. Make sure that the orient lines on the compass are aligned with the North-South grid lines.
  4. Read the bearing as indicated by the index line. For example, if the index line reads 320°, then I will be traveling 320° NW.
  5. Alright, it is time to start walking. Place the compass in your hand with the direction of travel arrow pointed away from you.
  6. Get the magnetized needle back into the orienting arrow. Your direction of travel arrow is facing the bearing you just took down. You are all set to follow it to your destination. If you feel you are lost or disoriented, stop and repeat these steps.

Compass Bearings Part 2: Finding Your Current Location

Now that you know how to plot a course, you probably want to find out your current location. If you are lost and need to be found, then this is a crucial skill. If you are just backpacking with no technology, then this also matters.

  1. Find a landmark in the field that you can identify on your map. Recall the steps listed in compass bearings part 1? We are to going to do that, but a bit differently.
  2. Hold your compass flat with the direction of travel arrow pointed at the landmark.
  3. Rotate the bezel until the magnetized needle falls into the orienting arrow’s lines.
  4. Read the bearing found in the index line.
  5. Lay your compass on the map and align one corner with your landmark in the same bearing you took. Rotate the bezel so the orienting lines align with the compass rose.
  6. Draw a straight line along the compass’s baseplate’s edge.
  7. You now know your exact location. This method is wonderful if you are on a linear object like a river, trail, or road. If you are anywhere else, then that is a different issue.

Compass Bearings Part 3: Triangulation

The best way to get an idea of your location is through triangulation. One landmark can only tell you so much. With triangulation, you follow the same steps as listed in part 2, but you take the bearing of two additional landmarks. If all three lines intersect, congratulations! You found your location. More often than not though, you will get a small triangle, roughly indicating where you are. If you get a big triangle, then double check your calculations.

Final Words

You should be all set to venture off with a map and compass into the outdoors. If there is any sliver of doubt about your abilities, play it safe and continue to learn the skill. Otherwise, grab your map and compass and set a course Captain, because you are ready to find that buried treasure.

If you have any thoughts, questions, or think I missed anything, do not hesitate to comment below and please do share this article. Thank you so much and I hope you make it a great day!

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6 Comments on “How to Use a Compass with a Map”

  1. Alex this article was amazing. I feel so much less stupid that I’ve struggled with using a compass. It is so much more involved — but also far more helpful to use a compass — than I realized! I hope to do a lot of hiking in the years ahead, so the skill you’re teaching here will be very useful to me. I’m sure others will find this very helpful information as well. Thanks for being so detailed. Happy trails!

    1. I appreciate the compliment Cheri. You should not feel stupid for struggling to learn how to use a compass. It is just a matter of patience and persistence. I like the fact that you plan to use this skill in the future. Thank you for sharing and I hope you make it a great day!

  2. I have never used a compass at all and this is awesome! Makes me want to journey now, but I would definitely need to practice this. Unfortunately, my wheelchair keeps me from doing something like this. But my husband hikes, so I probably should get him a map and compass and print this post for him. Nice article and site. – Shirley

    1. It is good to hear you enjoyed this article Shirley. I also appreciate the compliment on my site. With a map and compass, it is very important to practice. When it comes to being confined wheelchair, you can still enjoy the outdoors. Plenty of national parks provide handicap access to many stunning places. Thank you for sharing and I hope you make it a great day!

  3. Excellent compass and map training Alex. I have several maps and compasses in my backpacks but I have never taken the time to use them correctly. I am even a private pilot and understand everything you’re teaching but have never put it all to use.

    I really appreciated the triangular method of learning your exact spot. Is there any way I could get my location down to within one foot? Us engineers need to be exact.

    1. It is good to hear you enjoyed this training Rick. That is really cool to know you are a private pilot. It must be magical to see everything from up above.

      That is a good question Rick. Precision is important when attempting to pinpoint your exact geographic location. The first thing to do is get more skilled with the map and compass. You want the three points you choose and their lines to be as close to perpendicular with one another as possible, ideally a 60-60-60 triangle. Otherwise, take your bearings carefully. I hope this helps.

      Thank you for your comment and I hope you make it a great day!

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