The Idiot’s Guide to Using a Map & Compass

The Idiot’s Guide to Using a Map & Compass

Long ago, before a host of satellites and space junk orbited the earth, before Uber and Google Maps, people got lost. Through city and forest, they wandered about, flailing here and there, growing more and more desperate. They would have asked someone for directions, but back then, there were fewer people around. If they ever made it out of their quagmire, they made certain that they either stayed within a five-mile radius of their homes for the rest of their lives, or they learned to read a map.

Today, that problem only afflicts those peasants who forget to charge their devices. It’s no mystery that map illiteracy rates are through the roof. Here at, we are committed to helping lost people find their way.

Regardless of whether or not you think navigating is cool and that it will endear you to attract future mates, if you’re headed out into the bush, you should know how to read a map, and use a compass. Even using GPS devices to get around, you’re going to have to be able to orient yourself. The second your GPS gets wet, runs out of juice, or when you need to point lost hikers in the right direction, or direct others to that sweet cave you saw a few days back, you’re going to use that map. And if you can’t use that map, at best you’re going to look silly, and at the worst, some professional folks may be lifting you out of the wilderness with a chopper after an unexpected elongation of your trip.

Whether you’re going old school on your next adventure in the bush, or just hoping to orient yourself in your local labyrinthine underground mall, read on and discover exactly what it takes to navigate using a map and compass.

Looking for the Best Guide on How to Use a Map & Compass

You’re in the right place! In this guide we will be covering the following:

  • How to read a topo map
  • The low-down on coordinate systems
  • Basic navigational skills
  • How to use a GPS
  • How to stop yourself from getting lost


  • Always ensure you have a recent map of the area you will traveling through
  • Learn the basics of using a map and compass BEFORE going on your trip
  • Plan ahead, and plot your planned route beforehand & share it with a friend or family member
  • If you get lost – S.T.O.P.


  • Solely rely on modern technology – batteries can die, phones can be dropped in streams
  • Keep walking if you think you are lose – S.T.O.P.

The Topographical Map

The first thing you’re going to need is a reliable map. Many national parks and reserves provide basic maps that show trails, natural features, canoe routes, etc. These maps tend to keep you on the beaten path. If you want to do some real exploring, you’d best equip yourself with a topographical map.

According to Natural Resources Canada, topographical maps “depict in detail ground relief (landforms and terrain), drainage (lakes and rivers), forest cover, administrative areas, populated areas, transportation routes and facilities (including roads and railways), and other man-made features.” In short, they include almost everything that comes in handy when navigating anywhere on planet earth.

There are numerous methods mapmakers have used to show relief and land features in the past. Conventional topos today, however, use a system of lines and symbols. Even knowing the basics of a topo, it can still resemble the integrated circuitry layout of your old desktop. The following are a few aspects to understand before navigating:

Maps and Compass
  • Contour lines: The thin (usually brown or black) lines running hither and yon across your topo are known as contour lines because they show, well, contour. Each line represents one particular elevation.
  • Symbols: Every map series will indicate features slightly differently. They will describe what each item means in their respective keys. A map’s key not only lays out the symbols it has for campsites, parking, emergency services, and outfitter locations, it also will detail how the map describes the land. Green typically indicates land, and water is blue. But trails, state roads, interstate highways, dirt tracks, boat launches, and open camping can be represented in a variety of different ways. Make sure you familiarize with these symbols before setting out.
  • Scale: Your map stretches, perhaps, a meter square in your hands, but how many square kilometers does it cover? The map’s scale tells you what a distance on the maps represents in terms of kilometers or miles. It is usually depicted as a ratio of in either inches or centimeters. 1:100,000 in centimeters means one centimeter on the map equals 100,000 cm (or one kilometer) on the ground. Make sure you know the units and their conversions before setting out.
Map Legend
map scale
Typical map legend (first picture) and scale (second picture)

When picking up your topo, it’s best to get one that’s designed for what you’re going to use it for. In many remote regions, however, you may have only one choice.

How to Read a Topographical Map

Reading and correctly following a map can be challenging in rough terrain, even for seasoned adventurers. Problems often arise around contour lines and accurately determining scale and distance. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • One contour line represents one elevation. One line will link together in a round shape to indicate a hill, or run in long, twisting lines to show a ridge. As you cross over contour lines, you are going either up or down hill.
  • The space between the contour lines is known as the contour interval. This is the difference in elevation between each line, and every map will include this interval in its legend or near its scale. If the contour interval is 50 feet, that means that, as you leave one line and move to the next on the map, you are changing your elevation by 50 feet.
  • When the contour lines are spread wide apart indicate flat, or gently sloping ground. Lines that fit close together indicate steep pitches. If you’re lucky enough to see a multiple, nearly overlapping contour lines crossing a river, it’s definitely worth checking out (you may just find an impressive waterfall).
  • Determining distance on a straight road on a topo map is easy. But if you’re trying to determine distance on a curving track, it becomes much more challenging. Avoid estimating; you will probably be way off and may accidentally plan exceptionally long or short days. One trick is using a short string. Cut it at a specific length based on the map’s scale. Then use it to trace your path on the map. This will give you a much better idea of distance.

Contour (Topographic) Map Examples

Contour Example

The top-left map shows an example of a hill/mountain structure – the contour interval on this map is 500 feet/contour line. As you start in the north-west (point A) and move south-east along the line you begin to increase in elevation from around 8500 feet at the start. You will cross nine of these contour lines or 4500 feet (nine multiplied by 500 feet) before you reach the summit in the center of the map, which is just over 13,000 feet. Continuing south-east you will then begin to drop in elevation, until you reach the map edge (point A’), which intersects with the 7500 foot contour line. You can see the shape of this topography by looking at the Cross-Section A-A’ on the right.

The bottom-left map shows a valley (or depression) structure. Again, if you start in the north-west (point B) and move south-east you will cross multiple contour lines until you hit the middle of the map. This time, however, you will see that if you read the numbers you are decreasing in elevation, from over 6500 feet to under 500 feet in the center. Moving from the center of the map further south-east to point B’, the contours indicate an increase in elevation. Again, this is demonstrated in cross-section B-B’ which shows the change in elevation along the line B-B’. 

You can see that the center of the valley is fairly flat, as indicated by the contour lines being wide apart. Conversely, the walls of the valley are very steep, as indicated by the contour lines being very close together.

Coordinate Systems

Now that you’ve learned the skills necessary for reading a topo map, we’re going to cover some other information you will need to correctly follow the map.

Longitude & Latitude

A geographic coordinate system allows us to indicate an exact position on the globe with a series of numbers and symbols. The most common method of doing this—and the one we usually go with—is the true geographic coordinate system, which uses a measurement of longitude and latitude.

To understand longitude, imagine a series of lines stretching from North to South Poles in a straight line. If one were to look straight down at either pole, these lines would divide the globe up into 360° (like a circle). Longitude measures how far East or West we are. 0° begins at the Prime Meridian, or Greenwich England. Measurements of longitude then stretch in both East and West directions and reach up to 180° (180°W and 180°E are the same longitudes).

Latitude is the corresponding measure to longitude: it determines one’s location either North or South of the equator. To understand latitude, imagine that a line stretched from the equator to the center of the earth. Another line stretched from the center of the earth to another location. The angle formed by that line is the degree of latitude. The North Pole is 90° North, and the South Pole is 90° South. The equator is 0°.

Keep in mind that the distance between different longitudes at the equator are quite farther apart from the same lines closer toward the poles.

It’s easy to mix these two up. Just remember, latitude is like ladder, and you’re using the lines (rungs) to climb up and down (North and South).

Both latitude and longitude are represented as either degree number values with decimal places or as degrees, minutes, and seconds. One minute is 1/60 of a degree, and one second is 1/60 of a minute. The city of Dunedin in New Zealand, for example, is represented as either 45.8788° S, 170.5028° E (number value with decimals) or as lat. -45° 52′ 43.5378″, long. 170° 30′ 10.0714.” If you’re using the degrees, minutes, and seconds method, positive latitudes are North and negative are south while positive longitude values are east and negative are west. This video is helpful in explaining the minutes and seconds.

Using Latitude and Longitude on a Topographical Map

In addition to all the other lines that crisscross your topo map, latitude and longitude will be represented as well. In one corner, you should find the coordinates (of that corner), or longitude and latitude are recorded on each line. From there, choose a particular point on the map and either count the spaces from coordinate in the corner to see which longitude and latitude it corresponds to. This video helps to describe the process.

The Universal Transverse Mercator (UTM) Coordinate System

Another popular coordinate system is the UTM. Like the previous system, it breaks the earth up into zones determined by latitude and longitude. It differs, however, in how each coordinate is calculated.

It is broken up into zones. Each zone between 80°S and 84°N is regularly sized by 6° of longitude. Zone 1 is 180° to 174°, and so on down to the prime meridian. These are known as eastings. Latitude is measured in regular bands of 8° each (between 80°S and 84°N) and indicated by a letter. Known as northings, they begin with A and B at the South Pole (although the UTM system is not commonly used to map this region) and continue up to Y and Z in the North Pole. A simple way to keep this straight is that ‘N’ is the first letter in the northern hemisphere. Every letter before that lies in the southern hemisphere.

Recall that the distances between longitudes in the previous system differ based on your latitude. The UTM system fixes this issue (in all zones besides the North and South Poles, that is) and it is used to reduce distortion of mapped regions. That said, most topo maps use the true coordinate system.

Navigation Skills

Now comes the tricky part. Correctly reading a topo map is not enough to find your way—you also need to orient yourself. This means using a compass to accurately determine which direction you need to travel.

Using a Compass

The basics of a compass are simple enough. It’s just a magnetized needle within an adjustable circle that shows 360°. 0° indicates North, 90° means East, 180° is South, and we guess you can figure out what West is. This is known as the azimuth ring. Your compass will also have a sight line, or a straight line running through the compass. Using a compass correctly, however, can be a little tricky until you have practiced a few times and become comfortable using one.

Suunto MC-2G Mirror Compass_Vertintext

Here’s the situation: you are in a known location in the bush, and you’re trying to get to another particular location shown on the map. Hold your topo map flat. Place your compass on top of the map and orient it so that the edges of your compass align with both latitudinal and longitudinal lines, with the north arrow (0 degrees) line is parallel to the lines of longitude. Now stand up and look out at the surrounding country.

As you turn on the spot with the map and compass, the view you see should roughly correspond to the information on the map. Eventually, you will need to determine what direction you need to travel from your present location to reach your destination and follow that direction in a straight line. But we’re not there yet. Before you can take that step, you need to understand the following things:

True North vs. Magnetic North

Many people do not realize there is a difference between these two terms. The magnet in your compass points to the magnetic pole of the earth or Magnetic North. This is not, however, a fixed location; it changes slightly every year. True North, on the contrary, does not change, and your maps are oriented along the longitudinal lines that converge at this point. When you line up the compass needle with the sight line, you are facing Magnetic North. To navigate correctly, you will have to account for the difference between the two Norths, a process that is known as adjusting for declination.


Because Magnetic North lies somewhere to the South of True North, you’re going to have to either add or subtract a few degrees (shown on the azimuth ring of your compass). Maps will have a small note on declination, saying something like “Subtract 7° to adjust for declination.” Others will just state the declination by saying “Declination: 7°E,” or “7° W.” If the map does not tell you whether to add or subtract, you must remember to always subtract the eastern declination or add the western. Remember this with the saying: ‘West is best, and East is least.’ Another way to remember this is if the declination is to the East, move the compass adjustment towards the East, and vice versa for West.

In North America, declination ranges from 30°E in Alaska to about 30°W in Newfoundland. No declination is needed along a line that stretches from roughly the center of Lake Superior down to around Jacksonville, Florida. If you are not traveling in North America, make sure to familiarize yourself with the declination adjustment necessary in the region before traveling.

World Magnetic Declination Map
Magnetic Declination of the world a few years ago – note the magnetic south pole is located a long way north of the geographic south pole.

Once you determine the declination of your region, rotate the azimuth ring around your compass with the corresponding degrees. Or alternatively, some compasses have a small screw adjustment without that will correct the declination without the need to adjust the azimuth ring. Now, if you line the needle up with Magnetic North, the top of your compass will be pointing towards True North. Place the compass back on your map and readjust the map below the compass so that your longitudinal lines now point to True North. Once you have done this, you are ready to take a bearing.

Keep in mind that declination changes over time. As the years go by, the earth wobbles on its axis. If you’re using old maps, therefore, you’ll want to get a more up to date measure of declination. Just find your location on this site, and it will tell you your current declination.

Taking a bearing

A bearing is a determination of the direction you need to follow to get from your present location to the place where you want to go. Set your compass over your current location (if you don’t know your current location, you’ll need to triangulate it). Draw a line on your map or use a straight edge (a string pulled tight generally works well) to connect your present location with your destination and note the direction on the compass you need to follow to reach that destination.

Now, twist the azimuth ring around your compass, so the direction you need to travel (your bearing, indicated on the azimuth ring) lines up with the sight line on the compass. Keeping the compass needle pointed towards Magnetic North, or 0° on the azimuth ring, you can now follow the site line of your compass to reach your destination.

Many compasses have an outline of the needle pointing north (which is often colored red). Once you have your bearing, remember to ‘put the red in the shed,’ or keep the compass needle pointing toward 0° as you follow your sight line.

If you are traveling any significant distance with this method, we recommend stopping to take a new bearing every few kilometers. Even with the help of a compass, it is easy to stray from your path, and you might quickly pass by your destination, especially when in dense foliage or uneven ground.

Using this method of navigation, you don’t want to be wandering through some beautiful scenery with your eyes always glued to your compass. One way around this is to site an object—like a distinctive tree, rock, mountain peak, etc.—in the direction you need to travel. Make your way to that object. Once you have reached it, consult your compass again, and pick a new object. You’ll save yourself some stiffness in the neck.

This is one way of navigating, by using waypoints. Waypoints are exactly what they sound like: points along your way. On your journey to your destination, you may want to hit a couple of cool locations, like the spot on the map where those overlapping contour lines cross that river! Waypoints can also be helpful regarding navigation. It’s much easier to link distinctive features together when trekking through the bush than following a straight line from A to B. If you’re using visual waypoints, as we mentioned above, just remember to take a new bearing every kilometer or three. If you’re linking a few waypoints together using the map, take a new bearing after each location.

Taking a bearing without a map

If you find yourself in the unfortunate situation of navigating through the bush without a topo map, you can still use a compass to help you get where you need to go. If you know the declination of the region in which you’re traveling, great—adjust for it. If not, try to guess. If you can’t guess, consider a well-worded prayer to any god or spirit of your choosing.

Take account of your surroundings. Are there any landmarks or geographical features near your destination? If so, link up your compass’s sight line with that feature, twist the azimuth ring so that the needle is pointing towards 0°, and get stepping. Try to use your knowledge of the surrounding area to get to the nearest road, ranger station, etc. This may involve linking several landmarks together.

If you’re planning on using a map and compass to navigate through the bush, we highly recommend picking up a sighting compass (also known as a prismatic or hand compass). These devices have a mirror that flips up over the compass which allows you to simultaneously follow your sight line while making sure you’re keeping your needle pointed at 0°. Flip it up periodically to make sure that you’re looking utterly fabulous (Check out our guide to the best compass for hiking to help decide which suits you best).

If you’re going to use a map and compass to navigate out in the bush, it’s vital that you remember these steps. Don’t wait for day one on the trail to use these tools for the first time; practice at home first. See if you can navigate yourself to the grocery store, or to a cold beer at your favorite bar across town.

Navigating with a GPS

While these methods of navigating were once a necessity, satellites and space junk do currently orbit the earth in vast quantities, and our society is now equipped with a Global Positioning System that makes navigating a whole lot easier.

There isn’t a whole lot to say on this subject. GPS devices will take care of everything for you. They will determine your current location, adjust for declination, and provide the route you need to travel and show your location along that route.

We’re all for working smarter, not harder, but relying on a GPS does not exactly fall under that category. These devices take up extra space, require sufficient battery power, and are prone to impact or water damage. If you’re headed off to remote locations, treat GPS devices as a luxury, not a safety net.

What to do if you get lost

In the best of cases, getting lost wastes your time and brings you to new locations you probably would not have otherwise seen. In the worst of cases, it can lead to bodily injury and death. Romantics tend to envision hidden waterfalls and caves, but realists know that 99% of the time, getting lost totally sucks.

Right now, you’re probably thinking that we’re going to hit you with some boy scout mnemonic device to help you remember what to do. Well, you’re absolutely right. Following S.T.O.P. will get you out of most personal location crises:

  • Stay calm: Don’t worry, getting lost isn’t poisonous. Breathe deeply and drink some water.
  • Think: What might have brought you off your course? The majority of the time, you know when you took a questionable turn, and you might just need to return to that fork in the trail.
  • Observe: Look at that owl. Isn’t it beautiful? Now, look around you. Look where you’ve come from. Does everything you know about your route add up with what you’re seeing?
  • Plan: Crowdsource some ideas with your group and come up with a solution. This is the most basic way to deal with getting lost. But you’re not basic. You’re a bush native, and you know how to use a map and a compass.

If you’re navigating with a compass and a topo map, then no worries. Remember your training. Get yourself to a safe place where you can see as much of the surrounding area as possible, take a seat, and whip out your navigational tools. Orient yourself with your compass, and figure out where you are on the map.

There might be some significant alarms that go off at this point, like ‘that big mountain that’s off to the left should be over my right shoulder. If nothing so obvious appears, then compare the features of the map to the surrounding terrain. The map will show you hills, valleys, rivers, lakes, and the steepness of the terrain. Does that hill over there look like the one on the map? Remember, the map tells you roughly how high the terrain dips and rises. Use your common sense and if the country around you doesn’t resemble where you think you are on the map, then hunt around on the map and see if another location nearby suits what you’re seeing.

These moments call for calm, levelheaded thinking. If your current state is swinging closer to the irrational, then you may want to consider drinking some water and eating some calories, resting and waiting till you are in a calmer frame of mind.

The worst thing that can happen is that you set an incorrect bearing when you set off, especially if you’ve been traveling in the wrong direction. You are effectively taking yourself further off course.

If you’ve forgotten the correct steps to take or you aren’t confident that you remember them correctly. Explore your options. Have you met other people along the way who might be able to refresh your memory? Do you still have cell service? You can always call a friend. Since you’ve read this guide, the information must be locked in your brain somewhere, take a break and do your best to jog your memory.

If these options are not realities, and you can, then retrace your steps and get yourself back to safety and shelter before you revert to drinking your own urine.

If you are unable to do this, then the best advice is to stay put, and wait for someone to find you. To that end, it is helpful as part of your trip planning to let someone know your route, and arrange to check in with them regularly. As soon as you fail to check in, they can then contact the authorities with your planned route.

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