How To: Learning to Navigate by Map and Compass

There are many different types of compasses; all can point you in the right direction IF used correctly! (David Shedd photo)

Last summer I went on my first solo hiking trip, and spent two nights in the back country of Bretton Woods, NH. Looking back, it is clear I lacked some skills which would have made the whole experience less challenging and more pleasurable.

One area that needed work was navigation skills. At one point in my solo adventure, several hours of working against uneven, steep terrain where visibility was limited made me fatigued and disoriented (a recipe for potential disaster). Don’t want that to happen again! In fact, I want to get so good at wilderness  navigation that it becomes second nature, even if I get tired, hungry or scared. Just like setting up a tent, the more practice you have at using map and compass, the easier it is to do it correctly under stress. In fact, familiarity reduces stress.

Understanding how to use a map and compass can keep you away from places like the face of Webster Slide Mountain! A map & compass course is the best way to learn. (David Shedd photo)

For those of you who (like me) do not regularly go out in the woods and plot courses in unfamiliar terrain, I have a simple suggestion: take a map and compass lesson before you head into the woods.

Like many women (Editor’s note:  and many men, as well!), I have become accustomed to relying too heavily upon someone else who knows what he is doing. I also assumed I could trust electronic devices. I made the mistake of assuming that, since I was comfortable navigating with a GPS and a road map, and have years of experience charting marine courses, that I would not have a difficult time adjusting to using a map and compass in the woods. Although similar, they are not the same (my bad)! In particular, visibility is limited in the woods, so being able to follow a compass line rather than relying on heading for an object in the distance is extremely important.

I should have taken more time learning how to navigate with a topographical map and compass on my own.  If I had studied my map more closely and really understood it, my solo trek could have been a whole lot more fun.

Not liking to repeat mistakes, I went seeking a (you guessed it), map and compass course! The Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) has regular map and compass classes  at the beautiful Highland Center in Crawford Notch, NH, not far from where I found troubles on my solo trek. Since my son Daniel is enjoying the woods as well, we thought this would be a great experience for both of us. Plus, if something were to happen to me during a hike, he would be armed with the skills to navigate to safety and get help.So, we signed up, and headed up for the class.

Arriving at Highland Lodge, we were immediately greeted by Tim Innes, AMC’s senior guide, and his assistant Becca, a Seasonal Adventure Guide. The other students were a mother and her two children, a father and two sons. We were all eager to learn!

We had arrived prepared with a compass, a ruler, and pencil (although they had a supply readily available for those who did not).  In the “classroom” segment of the 1.5-hour course we would learn 1) what the legend/key on a map is and how to use it, 2) how to determine true north, 3) how to use a map and compass together, and 4) how to plot a course to a destination lacking a trail (perfect for my adventures!). Then, we would head outside to apply what we had learned.

The “classroom” turned out to be a comfortable lounge area with large windows and cozy leather chairs, which immediately put Daniel at ease — on summer vacation, he wouldn’t have appreciated a typical classroom.

Here’s what we learned:

Reading a topographical map (TM)

Studying the map is essential to planning and remaining on the right path! When you plan a hike, your TM can alert you to many important terrain features: mountains, valleys, trails, waterways, railways, AMC huts, woodland, sand, mud or rock, wetlands, etc..  When you look at a TM you’ll notice lines which represent altitude variations. Tightly gathered lines denote steeps or cliffs, small circles represent summits, and broad areas with few lines indicate relatively level areas.

During my solo trip, I spent more time with the GPS and compass than with the map; if I’d fully understood the map and what the lines meant, I’d have avoided some of the misery I encountered. For the record, using the map and compass together is a lot more fun!

Tim Innes (center) is providing instruction for our first challenge! (Susan Marean photo)

The map we were looking at had contour intervals of 100 feet (meaning the change in elevation from line to line is 100 feet; this varies from map to map, so always check the key/legend!); this information allowed us to determine where the peaks and valleys were.  The key/legend told us that trails were red dashes, contour lines were gray, rivers and water were blue, etc. (this information is helpful in plotting your course for a hike).  It was easy to see that the trails tend to move through areas that aren’t particularly steep…smart!

It was surprisingly easy to read the map once we understood how the contour lines worked.  Feeling more confident in our map-reading skills, we moved on to learning how to use the compass effectively.

Understanding and Using a Compass

NOTE:  there are many different styles and types of compasses, but a very basic one will help you find your way.  There are different things on a compass that you need to know: 1) there is a dial on the outer section of most compasses that spins 360°; 2) the compass is numbered clockwise with north as 0°, east 90°, south 180°, and west 270°;  3) in the center of the compass is a double-ended needle, with the RED end always indicating north;  4) on the dial that spins (called the “bezel”), there is another red arrow-shaped marking, wider than the needle; this is used for lining up the north end of the arrow inside the other  (Becca made this easy to remember– “put Fred in his red shed”), which helps you to follow the bearing you set with the bezel; and 5) on the outer edge of a map-reading compass there are measurements: half inch, quarter inch, one inch, and centimeter – these are there to use when you mark your distances from your map. For example, if your legend on your map says that one inch equals one mile, you can use your compass to measure your mileage to aid in determining how far you’d like/expect/need to hike.

The line with the star points to true north, but the line to the left shows where your compass thinks north is (David Shedd photo)

Using the compass with the map turned out to be easy once you orient your map to “true north”. Compasses find magnetic north…in this part of the country, that means that the north arrow points about 15 degrees west of true north (if you hear “15 degrees west declination”, that’s what they’re talking about; it’s almost like the compass needle falls off or “declines” to the west!). Luckily, down by the legend on the map, it shows true north, and also the magnetic declination. To align the map to true north, you put it down, put one side of the compass along the magnetic north line, and turn the map and compass together until the magnetic north line on the map and the north needle on the compass line up. Now, your map is aligned exactly with what you see…you can figure out which mountain is which, how far away they are, all sorts of things like that! Want to figure out what direction you have to go in order to get to that mountaintop you want to visit? You achieve this by orienting your map to north; then, decide where you want to start from and go to, lay your compass back down on the map so that the side of the compass touches both spots. Spin the dial to where both red arrows line up (put Fred in his red shed), now, your compass will aim you directly to your target. Hold it out so Fred’s in his shed again,  turn your body to face the way your compass is pointing, and you’ll be aimed exactly where you want to go. Sounds pretty easy, and it is…just takes practice (which is what we did – and everyone had fun!). If you look ahead and find something directly on the line ahead of you, walk to that, then pick another point on the same line, do it again, and keep doing it, you’ll get to exactly where you wanted to go. You can practice this in your backyard, or on local trails and woods; you may learn a surprising amount about the area you live in if you get off the standard trails.

Daniel is getting individualized assistance from Becca (Susan Marean photo)

Tim and Becca were fabulous to work with. They were detailed in their presentation, encouraged questions, and gave each of us the opportunity to study the map and compass before bringing us outside to test our knowledge; that way, we focused on HOW to use them, not WHAT they were aimed at. Their approach was easy to understand for all age groups; they were organized and  in sync with each other. Outside they had us play a game in which we had to figure out what the “design” was— a rectangle, a triangle, etc). They provided the coordinates, and we used our newfound knowledge to determine the answers. Like us, the other parents and children enjoyed the lesson– everyone felt successful and ready to venture into the woods. As we departed, Daniel wanted to test his skills out further (he had a blast), so he plotted the way back to the car with a direct route – a job very well done (we didn’t get lost – looks like we’ll take him out more often!).

One really important hint, though; watch out for your watches and jewelry!  If you’ve got steel in your watch, it can throw your compass off (steel’s magnetic, remember?).  If you want to get an idea of how badly steel can mess up your compass needle, stand about 10 feet away from your car and look where the compass says north is.  Now, walk toward your car, and watch what happens to the needle!  Almost everyone who has used map and compass a lot has gotten fooled once by being too close to steel, but now you know to avoid the problem.

Hiking and backpacking are even better when you’re equipped with the knowledge you need, not just the gear. Although I prefer to backpack with my loved ones and close friends, another solo trek is not out of the question;  the next time I head out alone, it’ll be “nice” to have my  a cell phone and GPS accessible, but not “necessary” for survival.  And, when I’m out with other people, I’ll now know what they’re talking about when they’re discussing where we might be going, and how to get out or help them if there’s an emergency!  If you haven’t been using a map and compass all your life, find a course like this; it’ll change your confidence level, and you’ll enjoy your time in the woods much more.


About Susan Marean Shedd

Susan Shedd is a mental health therapist, and an avid outdoor woman who loves to sweat and get dirty while enjoying cycling, running, backpacking, and skiing (alpine and cross country). She had no idea how much fun racing was until she met her husband, Publisher and Senior Editor David Shedd - now she enjoys competing with him and sometimes even against him.