How to Navigate with a Map and a Compass

old school navigation tools

Learning how to navigate with a map and compass isn’t as complicated as you may think, and it can be a true lifesaver when you’re traveling through the backcountry and your phone or GPS device dies on you. In reality, nothing can be more reliable than a compass and a map. You won’t have to rely on electricity to keep your navigation devices charged. Instead, you’ll use your trusty compass and a hard copy map to get by on your next adventure.

How to Avoid Getting Lost

Backcountry camping can be scary. You’re traveling through hundreds of miles of rural land, some of which lack dedicated trails. So, do you rely on your phone or your GPS? You can, but if you don’t know how to use a map and a compass, then you’ll be totally at their mercy, with no hope in sight once the battery dies.

An experienced backpacker will have excellent navigational skills and will know how to use these very important tools.

Using a map and compass are simply the most reliable way to ensure you remain on course. Below, I’ll go over how to correctly use both of these tools, so you can have some much-needed peace of mind the next time you’re backpacking through unknown land.

Map Basics

Modern maps are easier to use compared to the maps we used just ten years ago and learning how to use one can prove invaluable in the woods. Maps will come in a variety of shapes and sizes. A couple of different maps on the same sized piece of paper may only cover a city or it can cover an entire state.

One of the first things you’ll look at when you pick up the map is a scale. Scales will tell you a couple of important pieces of information using a single set of numbers. The scale will tell you the size of the area the map shows and the level of detail, such as minor and major landmarks.

1:50,000 is a large scale since things appear large on the map, while 1:200,000 is considered a small scale since the information on the map appears very small.

In survival scenarios, the scale will be very important. If you’re traveling by car, then you probably won’t care too much about the level of detail a map displays. But if you’re traveling by foot then a larger scale map is a must. When you purchase a map you need to use your own judgement in terms of what type of scale size you need and what will work for you.


When you look at a map, you’ll also notice the legend. The legend is what explains the information you need to know about how the map is designed, such as what the different textures, colors, and symbols mean. The legend will also note the scale of the map, explaining how much land is covered.

If the map you’re using has topographic contour lines or grid lines, the measurements for these will be covered in the legend. As an example, the legend may specify that one of the grid blocks that’s overlaid on the map will be equal to one or two miles. It will also go over elevation and explain that any contoured lines represent one hundred feet.

When you’re shopping for a map for your camping trip, make sure you pay attention to the legend and how detailed it is. Does it include the right type of information, such as a magnetic declination, symbol charts, and map scale?

Topographic Map

These maps will come in handy, more so than a plain road map since they will show you the lay of the land and plenty of geographical features, and will also include roads and manmade features.

This is done by making the map three dimensional instead of two dimensional, using contour lines to show the features of the terrain. A contour line is a line of equal elevation. This means that every spot that a contour line touches is the same elevation. The small numbers in the lines will explain the elevation at that line.

Maps with contour lines come with a contour interval, which will be listed somewhere in the legend.

Learning How to Use a Compass

Beautiful landscape

These days, navigating using a compass is now something of a lost art, thanks to GPS. With a modern GPS device, you can easily determine your location and the path that lies ahead, no skills required. But since GPS devices run on electricity and electronic devices tend to die on you when you need them the most, you need a more reliable way to navigate on your journey. Additionally, these devices can even fail on you for no obvious reason, so you’re left stuck in the middle of nowhere, with no way of knowing where you’re headed or if you’re going in the right direction.

Compasses are very accurate tools that don’t require batteries, don’t rely on software updates and don’t come equipped with delicate screens that can break from a simple fall.

But a compass can also be totally useless if you don’t know how to use one. There are many different types of compasses to choose from, so the parts they possess will mainly depend on the type you carry.

Below, you’ll find a list of common compass components.


This is the clear back that allows you to view the map underneath. The edges are ruled and designed to help with triangulation.

Direction Arrow

The arrow will point in the direction you’re facing.

Index Line

This is basically an extension of the direction arrow and it indicates where to read bearings.

Rotating Bezel

This is a circular shaped area that is marked with number degrees zero to three hundred and sixty.


The needle is magnetized and located inside the bezel. The needle will always point north, instead of true north.

Orienting Arrow

This arrow will help with lining up the bezel with directions on the map.

Declination Scale

These are hash marks located on the inside of the bezel and they will help with adjusting declination.

Declination Correction

One of the most challenging parts that comes with using a compass to navigate is the fact that magnetic north is different from true north. The angle that’s placed between them is referred to as declination and it will vary depending on your location. It can also change gradually over time based on the shifts of the earth’s tectonic plates. If you’re not aware of this and you fail to adjust your compass in order to compensate, then you may end up heading off in the wrong direction.

The simplest way to find the right angle of declination is to take a look at your map. Most will come with diagrams for declination, in addition to the date it was last changed. Since declination will change over time, a new map will come equipped with more accurate figures. If you have an older map, then be sure to check online. You’ll find a variety of services that will use the location you’re planning to hike through to calculate the declination. Once you have the declination, you’ll be subtracting it from the compass bearing for west, adding it for east.

Compass Types

There are many different compasses to choose from, but backpackers often use the baseplate compass. This compass consists of a face that’s liquid filled and attached to a clear, flat piece of plastic. Aside from being basic and cheap, these compasses feature a see-through design that makes them very easy to use with a map.

Lensatic compasses are also popular with backpackers because of their flip open design. These compasses will use a rear lens and a sighting wire located in the cover to take more accurate bearings. However, they’re not as beginner friendly as the baseplate compass, yet they are more accurate and durable.

Since the baseplate is more commonly used by the backpacker, I’ll focus on discussing how to use this type alone, since the lensatic compass requires different steps.

Using a Compass to Find Your Location

Man checking for the direction

Figuring out your location with the help of a compass and map is pretty simple. First off, you will need to find a couple of known landmarks such as lakes or mountains. If you can find more landmarks, that’s even better. Keep in mind that you will need to adjust for declination.

With the help of your compass you will orient the map so that north will be pointing toward true north.

Next, take a bearing on one of the landmarks you have chosen, lining up your direction of travel arrow with the landmark. Next, you’ll rotate the bezel until the needle lines align with the marking for the north.

Now, take your map, placing one corner of the compass’s straightedge on the landmark, rotating the compass until the needle correctly lines up with north on the bezel. Draw a line across the edge.

Now, you’ll repeat these steps on the second landmark you have chosen. Your approximate location will be the point where all of the lines intersect.

Finding Your Bearings

You can use your compass to figure out the way to get to any point on your map if you already know your location. Once you have adjusted the declination, you can begin by orienting the map to true north.

Start by placing the corner of the baseplate on the location. Next, you’ll rotate the device until the edge forms a line between the destination and your current location. The bezel should be rotated until the grid lines on the baseplate match up to the grid lines on the map. Your bearing will be the number that’s next to the index line.

Hold the compass level in front of you, then turn until the north arrow on the bezel matches up with the needle on the compass. The travel arrow’s direction will be pointing towards the destination.

Smartphone Compass

With a smartphone, you can choose from a variety of apps, so it’s not a big surprise that you can also download a compass app. With this type of app, you can use your phone to navigate, without the use of GPS. These types of apps work by using the smartphone’s magnetometer. Calibrating the compass is a cinch, and once done, the app can do whatever a handheld compass can. It can also lock onto a bearing and tell you where you’ve gone wrong.

But there are downsides to using the compass on your phone. Just like with a GPS device, the compass app requires some juice in order to work. This defeats the purpose of using a compass as a low-tech solution. Your best bet is to ditch the phone and focus on using a traditional compass.

Final Thoughts

While it’s true that learning how to navigate with a map and a compass can seem complex in the beginning, you can practice using this navigation method way in advance, so once it’s time to head out on your latest hiking or camping trip, you can feel confident that you can easily find your way through any type of rural location. By following the steps in this guide and choosing the right type of map and compass, you can easily find your way through the backcountry, without having to rely on your failing GPS or smartphone battery. In fact, using this type of navigation can be lifesaving when you’re far from civilization and it’s definitely a more reliable way to travel through parts unknown. Even if you plan on mainly relying on your phone or GPS, learning how to utilize this navigation method will come in handy in the event your electronics fail on you and you’re left in the middle of the backcountry, with the nearest outlet miles away.

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