How to use a map and compass

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Long before GPS, people were using maps and compasses to find their way around. You may be surprised at what you can do with these two important tools.




A topographical map

When we talk about a map in this article, we are generally referring to a good topographical map such as what can be found at or Road and street maps are pretty much worthless out in the woods. Topo maps have all sorts of information on them like elevation, water, land types, land marks, etc. They also have degree or utm grids or hashmarks on them so you can actually compare where you are on the map to your gps coordinates (or find your gps coordinates if you know where you are on the map).


A very nice mapping compass

For purposes of this article, a compass means a mapping style compass. Usually they have a clear base and magnet chamber and straight edges with which to take bearings.


Following a Bearing

Generally, your compass will have two needles built into it:

  • One that you can rotate and set to a specific position (the bearing needle)
  • One that rotates by itself acording to the earth's magnetic field. (the magnetic needle)

When you know the direction that you want to travel, point your compass in that direction, and then align your bearing needle with the magnetic needle. Sight through your compass at a landmark in the distance that you can walk to. Once you have identified your landmark, walk to it. When you get there, sight through your compass again, making sure to hold it so that the magnetic needle lines up with the bearing needle. Choose another landmark in the distance that your compass is pointing to

Aligning your map and compass


Determining your location on a map

Yes, it can be done without a GPS

Figure distance



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