Navigation 101: Mastering The Map And Compass

An Introduction To Navigation.

The great outdoors is a place of beauty and wonder, but it can also be a place of danger if you don’t know how to navigate. Knowing how to read a map and use a compass is essential for staying safe while hiking, backpacking, SUPing, wild swimming, camping, bushcrafting or doing any other kind of outdoor activity. This guide will give you a basic understanding of wilderness navigation, so you can feel confident and prepared next time you hit the trail. 

Navigation is a critical skill that has been used for thousands of years. In the old days, people used to rely on the stars, rivers, and other landmarks to find their way. But today, with the advancement of technology, navigation has become much easier and more accurate. One of the most popular navigation tools is a map and compass. However, reading a map is not always straightforward, especially for those who are not familiar with the symbols and features used on the map. In this article, we will provide a comprehensive guide on how to read a map and compass for navigation.

For clarity we understand that more and more outdoors folks are now using their smartphones for navigation, we cover this at the bottom of the article. Smartphones are good, but knowing how to read and navigate with a map and compass is top trump. 

This article is broken into two distinct sections, Map Reading 101 and Compass Reading 101.

NOTE:  I have included a number of videos at the bottom for visual reference learners, due to some of the concepts covered.

First off the Five D’s of Navigating.

Remember these tips to assist your navigation.


This could be specific, like on a 215° bearing or more general SW, or towards a feature like a rock or distant landmark on a clear day.


How far will you be walking in this direction? 1km or 150m? In clear weather, you can be a bit looser with this, in poor weather or at night be as precise as possible.


How long should it take you to get there? Take into account the gradient and terrain you’ll be walking on- are you heather bashing or knocking along a clear path?


What will you see along the way? Rivers, fence lines, trees or other features?


How will you know when you get there or if you’ve gone too far?


Map Reading 101

A map is a representation of an area of land, showing features like topography, bodies of water, and man-made structures. In order to navigate using a map, you need to be able to read it.

-First, familiarise yourself with the map’s legend and symbols. This will tell you what different colors, lines, and symbols on the map represent. Al well as be able to identify features like contour lines, which show elevation, and natural features like rivers, lakes and mountains.

-Next, practice using the map’s scale to measure distances. Knowing how far it is between two points on a map can help you plan your route and estimate how long it will take you to get there.

-You also need to know how to orient the map. This means aligning the map with the terrain so that the features on the map match up with what you see around you.


Understanding Map Scale and Legend

Before we start reading a map, it is crucial to understand the map scale and legend. The map scale refers to the relationship between the distance on the map and the actual distance on the ground. The scale is usually represented as a fraction, such as 1:100,000, which means that one unit on the map represents 100,000 units on the ground. The legend, on the other hand, is a key that explains the symbols used on the map. The legend usually includes information about topographical features, such as mountains, rivers, and roads, as well as symbols for man-made features, such as buildings, bridges, and railway lines.


Identifying Topographical Features

Topographical features are natural features of the landscape, such as mountains, valleys, rivers, and lakes. On a map, these features are usually represented by contour lines that show the shape and elevation of the terrain. The closer the contour lines are to each other, the steeper the terrain is. For example, if the contour lines are close together, it means that the terrain is steep, and if the contour lines are far apart, it means that the terrain is flat.


Understanding Man-Made Features

Man-made features are structures and infrastructure built by humans, such as roads, buildings, bridges, and railway lines. On a map, these features are usually represented by symbols and colors that are different from those used for topographical features. For example, roads are usually represented by thick, black lines, and buildings are usually represented by small squares. It is important to know the symbols used for different man-made features so that you can easily identify them on the map.

Using Grid References

Grid references are used to locate specific points on a map. The map is divided into a grid of squares, each of which is numbered. To locate a specific point on the map, you need to know the grid reference of that point. The grid reference is usually represented as two numbers separated by a comma, such as 6, 8. The first number represents the column, and the second number represents the row. By knowing the grid reference of a specific point, you can easily find it on the map.

Reading Map Directions

Reading map directions is a critical skill for navigation. On a map, directions are usually represented by north arrows and orientation grids. The north arrow shows the direction of north, while the orientation grid shows the relationship between the map and the ground. To read map directions, you need to know how to use a compass. A compass is a tool that helps you find the direction of north by using the Earth’s magnetic field.

compass guide nav 1

Orienting Your Map

Orienting a map refers to aligning the map with the terrain, so that the features and directions on the map match the real world. Orienting a map is an important step in navigation and is usually done by using a compass. You can orient your map using the features of the map in relation to your environment but it will not be as accurate. I.e There river is on your left, you turn the map until the river is on the left of the map.

Here’s how you can orient a map:

  1. Place the map on a flat surface and hold the compass on top of the map, with the straight edge of the baseplate touching the map.

  2. Rotate the map so that the north arrow on the map points towards magnetic north. Magnetic north is the direction the magnetic needle on your compass points to.

  3. Hold the compass still and rotate your body until the magnetic needle on your compass is inside the orienting arrow, which is usually found near the bezel of the compass. This will ensure that the compass is correctly orientated with the map.

  4. Check that the map and compass are aligned by sighting along the direction-of-travel arrow on the compass and checking that it points towards the top of the map. This represents the direction you will be facing when you start to navigate.

  5. Once you have orientated the map and compass, you can use them together to determine your location, find your destination, and plan your route.

Orienting the map is a simple but essential step in navigation, as it allows you to match the features on the map with the real world and find your way to your destination with confidence.


Compass Reading 101


If I were facing North I wanted to walk east, I would turn 90 degrees to walk east.  If I were facing North I wanted to walk South, I would turn 180 degrees to walk east.  A compass allows us to accurately take a bearing and walk at any bearing with accuracy, be it 24 degrees or 124 degrees. 

Using a compass for navigation

A compass is a simple tool that uses the Earth’s magnetic field to point north. By aligning the compass with a map, you can use it to determine your bearing or the direction you need to travel in order to reach your destination.

-First, learn how to orient the compass by aligning the needle with magnetic north.

-Next, learn how to take a bearing. This means aligning the compass with a feature on the map, like a trail or a peak, and then reading the bearing off the compass.

-Then you can use this bearing to navigate. When you’re on the trail, align the compass with the bearing you took, and then follow that direction.


Using a Compass to Read a Map

A compass is a vital tool for reading a map and navigating in the great outdoors. A compass works by using the Earth’s magnetic field to determine the direction of north. When used in combination with a map, a compass can help you determine your location and find your way to your destination.

Here is how you can use a compass to read a map:

  1. Align the compass with the map: Place the compass on the map, aligning the straight edge of the baseplate with the direction you want to travel.

  2. Orient the map: Turn the map so that the north arrow on the map points towards the north magnetic needle on the compass. This will orient the map to the landscape, allowing you to see the topographical and man-made features on the map in relation to the ground.

  3. Find your location: Once you have orientated the map, use the grid references or other landmarks on the map to determine your location.

  4. Determine your destination: Identify your destination on the map and draw a straight line from your location to your destination. This line is called a bearing, and it represents the direction you need to travel to reach your destination.

  5. Follow the bearing: Hold the compass flat in your hand and align the magnetic needle with the orienting arrow. Then, turn your body until the north magnetic needle is inside the orienting arrow and the direction of travel arrow points towards your destination.

By using a compass in combination with a map, you can easily navigate in the great outdoors, finding your way to your destination with confidence.

how_to_use_a_compass_guide_compass bearings

How to Take a Compass Bearing

Compass bearings are essential for navigation. It’s essential to understand how to take accurate compass bearings. 

What is a Compass Bearing?

A compass bearing is a direction measurement expressed as an angle, relative to magnetic north. In navigation, a bearing is used to determine the direction of one point relative to another. When taking a compass bearing, you’ll be measuring the angle between magnetic north and the direction you want to travel in.

compass guide nav

Why is it Important to Take a Compass Bearing?

Taking accurate compass bearings is critical for navigation, especially when you are in a remote area with limited visibility. By knowing the correct direction, you can stay on course and reach your destination safely. It also helps you avoid getting lost and prevents you from wandering in circles.

How to Take a Compass Bearing

Taking a compass bearing is a straightforward process, and with a little practice, anyone can do it. Here are the steps to follow when taking a compass bearing:

  1. Determine the location of magnetic north. The needle in a compass always points to magnetic north, so start by holding your compass level and rotating your body until the needle points to magnetic north.

  2. Identify your target location. This could be a mountain peak, a lake, or any other distinctive feature in the landscape.

  3. Align the compass with your target. Hold the compass level and rotate your body so that the direction-of-travel arrow on the baseplate points towards your target.

  4. Read the bearing. The bearing is the number on the rotating bezel that lines up with the direction-of-travel arrow on the baseplate. This is the bearing you will use to navigate.

  5. Follow the bearing. To follow your bearing, hold the compass level in front of you and rotate your body until the needle lines up with the orienting arrow in the housing. The direction-of-travel arrow will now point in the direction of your bearing.

Tips for Taking Accurate Compass Bearings

Here are some tips to help you take accurate compass bearings:

  1. Make sure the compass is level when taking the bearing. If the compass is tilted, the reading will be incorrect.

  2. Hold the compass as steady as possible when taking the reading. Any movement will affect the accuracy of the bearing.

  3. Keep the compass away from metallic objects and electronic devices, which can interfere with the needle’s accuracy.

  4. Check your bearing regularly to ensure you are staying on course.

Common Mistakes to Avoid

Here are some common mistakes to avoid when taking compass bearings:

  1. Not aligning the compass with magnetic north before taking the bearing.

  2. Not holding the compass level when taking the bearing.

  3. Not regularly checking the bearing to ensure you are staying on course.

  4. Not considering other factors that can affect the accuracy of the reading, such as nearby metal objects or electronic devices.

Navigating – The skill of Putting it all together: 

Map and compass navigation in the wilderness. Once you know how to read a map and use a compass, you can combine these skills to navigate in the wilderness., including finding your location and route-finding.

-Start by planning your route on the map. Identify your starting point, destination, and any key landmarks along the way.

-Take a bearing from your starting point to your destination, and use that bearing to navigate.

-As you travel, keep checking your position on the map and adjusting your bearing as needed.

Tips for successful wilderness navigation

Practice navigation skills in a safe and controlled environment before heading out into the wilderness.

-Carry a backup navigation method, such as a GPS device or a personal locator beacon.

-Be aware of the changing weather and terrain conditions, and adjust your navigation accordingly. 

-Bring enough water, food, and other supplies for the trip, and always let someone know your itinerary and expected return time.

-Stay on established trails and paths, and avoid shortcuts that could lead you into dangerous terrain.

Phones And Navigation

Smartphones can be very useful, but there are so many things that can go wrong. 

Top tips if you’re using a phone to navigate.

1: Have a map and compass and know how to use it.

2: Download all your maps before you leave. You’re not guaranteed reception.

3: Make sure your battery is at 100% before you leave.

4: Carry a spare battery or battery pack.

5: Have a map and compass and know how to use it.

Conclusion: Navigation 101: Mastering Map and Compass in the Wilderness

In conclusion, wilderness navigation is an essential skill for anyone who enjoys outdoor activities. By mastering map reading and compass use, you can feel confident and prepared while exploring the great outdoors. Remember, practice and preparation are key to successful wilderness navigation, so take the time to learn the basics and hone your skills. With the right knowledge and tools, you can safely and confidently navigate through any wilderness environment.


  1. What is the difference between magnetic north and true north? Magnetic north and true north are two different directions on a map. Magnetic north refers to the direction of the Earth’s magnetic field, while true north refers to the direction towards the North Pole.

  2. How do I know if my compass is working correctly? To know if your compass is working correctly, you can perform a simple test by placing the compass on a flat surface and checking if the magnetic needle is pointing towards magnetic north.

  3. Can a map be used without a compass? Yes, a map can be used without a compass, but it can be more challenging to determine your location and find your way to your destination.

  4. How accurate is a compass for navigation? A compass is generally accurate for navigation, but it can be affected by magnetic interference from nearby metal objects or electronic devices. To ensure the most accurate readings, keep your compass away from these sources of interference.

  5. Can a smartphone be used as a compass for navigation? Yes, most smartphones have a built-in compass app that can be used for navigation. However, it is important to keep in mind that the accuracy of a smartphone compass may not be as reliable as a traditional compass, especially in areas with strong magnetic interference. Plus the battery and loss of data. 

Compass Navigation Videos

A video playlist from the Ordnance Survey - Map and Compass

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