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There’s something about the pull of the great outdoors that seeps into your bones. You start off slow, maybe for a walk in the woods near your house. But soon, that call of the wild has you gearing up and walking off the beaten path for hikes through Yosemite’s backcountry, stepping where no human has ever stepped before. 

That isolation, though alluring and excellent for Instagram snaps, is dangerous, especially when you go so far off the trail to the point of no returning to your vehicle and the safety it represents. That’s when understanding how to read a map and compass together comes into play. For your average boot, this is a simple task taught in basic, but for newer enthusiasts and civilians, it’s not a readily taught skill. 

To enhance everyone’s survival abilities, as well as ensure Task & Purpose’s readers stay safe, the editors put together a guide on how to use a map and compass to get you out of the sticks and back to civilization. *checks compass* This way!

Doing it right with a map and compass

Time You’re Going to Need: An hour to a lifetime

Difficulty: Beginner to veteran field guide

What is a map?

A map is a detailed topographical layout of a specific section of land. Forests, lakes, rivers, mountains, hills and other geographic features are all marked in their exact location. Every map has a scale ratio that can be used to measure the distance between two points.

What is a compass?

Per our detailed discussion on How to Use a Compass, “In the most basic forms, a compass is made up of a floating dial marked with an arrow that is drawn to Earth’s magnetic north. With that single piece of information, you can get a rough approximation of your bearing. Any compass worth carrying will include degree markings for more precision.”

How are you supposed to use a map and compass together?

The conceit of using a compass and a map together is fairly simple. The compass dictates your direction or heading, and a map shows you where you are on that heading by giving you points of reference. You use the two together to determine where you are, where you’ve been, and where you’re going.

Mutually assured trekking safety

You can’t earn a Purple Heart in the great outdoors, at least not if you’re doing it for fun, so there’s no need to put yourself at risk. Ensure you come out the other side by following the directions, taking your time, and understanding that what we’re doing here can be extremely dangerous if you just go off into the wilderness unprepared. Keep your awareness up and you won’t need stitches—maybe.

If you’re going backwoods hiking, here are a few things you’ll need to stay safe.

  • Depending on where you’re hiking, it’s best to wear layers. You can always take clothes off, but you can’t put any more on if you’re staring at a long, cold night in the woods.
  • Always pack a knife. It’s the handiest of tools when out in the wilderness. 
  • Don’t forget to grab some snacks and water, or at the very least, grab something that can be used to filter out the contaminants of stream or lake water. 

What you’re going to need to use a map and compass

Everyone has different gear in their kit. Make sure you have the best tools of the trade on hand for this specific task. Don’t worry, we’ve made a list.

Tools

Components

Before you head off into the field, it’s best if you organize your bag ahead of time. Cleanliness is next to Godliness, or so the saying goes, and we’re big believers of that mantra. Set everything up and then proceed, you’ll save yourself a headache of rummaging around your tools or having to hike all the way back out of the woods just because you forgot your knife.

The map and compass brief

Gear up, here’s how to use a map and compass.

Set up your compass

You’re going to have to adjust your compass’ declination because, and we’re sorry to be the bearers of bad news, it doesn’t actually show you the same North as on your map. A compass shows you magnetic North, somewhere in the middle of Canada. That isn’t True North, which is the North Pole and how you normally think about directions. 

You’ll have to do a bit of math and adjustment to make up for the difference between the two. First, determine the declination of your target area of operation. You can find that either on your map or through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s website. 

You’ll then have to adjust your compass’ individual declination per the manufacturer’s directions—these vary from manufacturer to manufacturer. 

Orient the map

Find a reference point in the real world, something like a mountain, river, lake, etc, that’s visible to you from where you’re standing. Once you’ve found your geographical feature, use it to find the same feature on the map. 

Orient yourself with the compass

Now that you have a reference point in the real world, and know where True North is versus Magnetic North, orient yourself to the direction that you wish to travel. 

Get your bearing and bug out

Set a starting point and endpoint on your map as precisely as possible. This will give you two points that you can then use to determine your location if you get lost again. Set your compass’ bezel ring arrow to the correct destination heading per your endpoint—this will help you keep on track. 

There’s only one thing left to do: Head out! Stick to your heading as closely as you can. Try to pick straight lines that are easily accomplished, no sticky topographical features like slot canyons, thick woods, or river deltas. Try heading through a small park near your home before you tackle Zion. 

A specialist’s pro tips to not getting lost

We’ve all been in a national park, a local park, or just out in the field and thought, “Where the heck am I, and how do I get back?” It’s happened to us more times than we care to count. But we’ve always found our way back to civilization at the end of the day, and that’s thanks to a few key strategies that we’re sharing with you, our dear readers. You’re welcome!

  • You likely already know that the sun moves from East to West every single day thanks to 5th-grade science. But that’s an invaluable tool in the wilderness. o long as you can tell which way it’s moving, you can figure out North, South, East, and West without issue and find your bearings.
  • If you’re traveling along a river, try to keep it along one side of you. Don’t crisscross it as you can use that to get your bearings on where you’ve come from. 
  • If you’re not bringing a physical map with you, take screenshots of where you’re heading ahead of time and keep them on your phone. Make sure you orient them properly before you take the screenshots though, as that might throw off your headings. 
  • Be sure to account for the location’s topography. A map is 2D, the world isn’t. Don’t plan a hike that you start at sea level only to find yourself nearly at dusk at the top of Mt. Timpanogos, unable to make it down. 

A POG’s FAQs about using a map and compass

More questions? Task & Purpose’s has an additional brief for that. 

Q.What’s the purpose of a compass on a map?

That may seem like an obvious answer, but it’s one that’s worth stating for the record. For those beginners out there, the compass on a map is designed to help orient yourself amongst the terrain. 

Q. What’s the easiest way to find a heading?

Remember that top tip of knowing which way the sun heads? Yeah, that’s the easiest way to find your bearings. 

Q. How do you read a compass without a map?

So you have a compass but no map? No problem. Before you set off, determine which way you’re about to enter. Once you’re in the field, you can then orient yourself to that direction to return. 

Q. Does your phone work as a compass?

Most do! Apple’s iPhone has a specific compass app that can be used to orient yourself in the woods. So long as you have power…

Got questions, comment below & talk with T&P’s editors!

We’re here to be expert operators in everything How-To related. Use us, compliment us, tell us we’ve gone full FUBAR. Comment below and let’s talk! You can also shout at us on Twitter or Instagram.

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