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How to Orient Yourself With a Map and Compass

Flickr/Team BMC

Knowing how to use a map and compass is vital if you want to avoid getting lost outdoors, and there may come a time when you need know the ins and outs. 

Learning how to use a compass is an important skill that outdoor lovers will find useful, particularly if they are walking in isolated areas or areas that are more challenging. In order to navigate correctly, you need to use your compass along with your map, which means that you need to have some map-reading skills under your belt.

Compass Features:

  • Baseplate: the plastic base
  • Compass housing: where the compass needle rotates freely with the red section of the needle always pointing to magnetic north and the white pointing to south
  • Compass lines: within the compass housing, these are known as orientating lines, which are the lines that will be used to line up with the grid lines on a map
  • Orienting arrow: this fixed arrow will be lined up with the magnetic north compass needle before heading off in your direction of travel
  • Direction of travel arrow: this is the big arrow at the end of the baseplate and is the direction you will follow once you have taken your bearing
  • Map scales: these will vary but can be used to accurately measure distance
  • Magnifying glass: to help see small details
  • Index reading: this is a small arrow at the top of the compass housing and is what gives you your bearing, and is exactly in line with the direction of travel arrow
flickr/Jess Feldon
flickr/Jess Feldon

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Magnetic North

The main thing to understand about using a compass is that the compass needle will always point to magnetic north. This is different from map-grid north, as magnetic north will point in different areas throughout the world, and it will change throughout time as well. A good compass will take this into account, but with a basic compass, you will need to adjust your compass accordingly.

To do this, simply look at your map and somewhere on it, it will tell you the difference in degrees, either east or west, as to how much you need to adjust the bearing. As a rough guideline, you should adjust the compass housing by two degrees, either east or west counterclockwise.

Setting the Map

In order to know where you want to go, you first need to know where you are on your map. But once you have located yourself, the process is straightforward as to where you want to go.

  • Find where you are on the map and call this Point A.
  • Locate where you want to go and call this Point B.
  • Take one of the straight sides of the compass and run a straight line from Point A to Point B, making sure that the direction of travel arrow is pointing in the direction you want to go on the map.
  • Rotate the compass housing so that the orientating grid lines in the compass housing line up with the map grid lines. Make sure that the orientating arrow within the compass housing is pointing north on the map.
  • Once you've done that, take the compass off the map and, while standing up, hold the compass close to your body, making sure it is not near any magnetic fields, such as cell phones, which could affect the needle.
  • Turn around until the compass needle lines up with the orientating arrow on the baseplate. Look at the direction of travel arrow and pick a spot in the distance. See what features, if any, this is pointing to.
  • Now you're ready to head off in the direction the arrow is pointing and put your compass away until you need to take another bearing.

Now you won't get lost in the wilderness!

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How to Orient Yourself With a Map and Compass