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Old School Navigation: Reading Maps And Compasses

Most probably assume that a standard compass is enough to help guide them through any terrain. Sure, we know it points north, but it turns out that there is a more complicated and exact science to navigation beyond a needle pointing in a general direction! Here’s our guide to old school navigation that will help with reading maps and compasses for safe and accurate navigation!


There are several factors to take into consideration when looking at a map. Different types of maps contain different information, so it is important to know which type of map you are looking at and how to read it!

pile of maps

Types Of Maps

Road Map Or Geographical Maps

These maps are probably what you typically think of when you hear the term “map.” Each show the general outline of the surrounding area, and will often include items like roads, railroads, borders, landmarks, and more. These probably aren’t the best for navigating out in the wilderness, but are good for road travel or if you end up stranded or lost while driving.

geographical map

Physical And Topographical Maps

These types of maps are best when heading out into the wilderness, as they provide the most comprehensive sense of the land's physical layout around you! A physical map is a colored map that shows physical features like mountains, hills, rivers, lakes, etc. Typically, lower elevations are shaded in green, water blue, and higher elevations are brown. This will help you look for surrounding landmarks so you can find your precise location and get oriented from there!

Topographical maps are similar to physical maps, but instead of a solid colored landscape, a series of lines are used to show elevation across the landscape. Lines that are farther spaced apart signify lower altitudes, while lines that are closer together indicate higher altitudes. These maps can be helpful if you plan to navigate through terrain with varying altitudes.

typographical map

How To Read Maps

Here are some important things to look for on a map in order to figure out how to read it! It is important to keep each aspect in mind when determining location and trying to navigate.


It is very important to know the orientation of your map, especially for determining your location and for use with a compass! It can be assumed that a map will always be oriented north if the writing on the map is right side up, but you’ll always want to check to make sure! Many maps have a compass rose that shows the main directions and will indicate which way is north on the map.


Maps usually have a scale present as well, which relates distance on the map to the distance in the real world. For instance, a common ratio of 1:100,000 can be found on many maps. This means that one inch on the map is equal to 100,000 inches in real life. You can use this feature when out in the wilderness by assessing your steps and estimating the amount you have traveled, or have yet to travel.

map scale


If you’re using a road map or geographical map, a legend will probably be present. This tells you what each different symbol on the map means, from different types of roadways, borders, landmarks, buildings, and more! It is always important to check the legend before using your map, as legend symbols can have different meanings between different maps, especially in different countries!

map legend


An index can be useful as well, especially if you are lost and looking for a specific landmark or city. An index uses the grid of road in combination with geographical maps, and lists major areas with a number and letter for quick identification on the map!

Latitude And Longitude

Most maps are orientated with a handy grid system. These grids are helpful for determining location and destination! Maps will show major latitude and longitude lines to help with exact location, and are something you will want to know before heading out in order to determine factors, which are discussed later.

latitude and longitude


There are several different types of compasses, each tailored to a different need. If you are hiking or traveling, an orienteering compass will suit your needs perfectly! These compasses use the Earth’s magnetic field to point you north!


Magnetic North Vs. True North

Although it is common knowledge that even a simple compass can point you north, the fact is that the “north” that a compass points to is not actually the exact direction of the north pole. The magnetic north pole is just south of the geographical north pole, caused by variations on the Earth’s surface, which changes over time. True north is the geographical point of the actual north pole. This discrepancy between magnetic and true north is know as magnetic declination, or magnetic deviation.

It is important to adjust your orienteering compass to account for this deviation if you need an accurate reading. First, visit the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's website, where you can calculate your degree of declination using the latitude and longitude of the location where you will be visiting. Be sure to remember this number, and adjust accordingly when calculating direction on your compass.

true north

Parts Of A Compass

Most compasses come with some complicated dials and lines, but are helpful for accurate navigation once you have deciphered what they mean! Just like a regular compass, there is a needle that will indicate the direction of magnetic north. A dial with the cardinal directions and degree marks up to 360 degrees is moved to help maintain the location of north. A red arrow with lines parallel to it is used to help orientate the location of north. An arrow above the dial is used to help determine your direction of travel. Most compasses come with ruler markings on the side to help determine scale when looking at a map!

How To Use A Map And Compass Together

Although a compass looks intimidating, it is not difficult to use one to help determine directions for seamless navigation! There are a few easy steps to use your compass to navigate your map!

1. Lay your map flat, with the north side up. Place your compass on the map with the red arrow (NOT the needle) aligned with your direction of travel arrow (above the dial). This should be pointing north with the orientation of the map, with the lines next to the arrow aligning with the lines of your map. Rotate your whole map, making sure not to move your compass, until the needle lines up with the red arrow.

2. Next, move your compass so that the straight edge forms a direct line on the map between your current location and the location of your desired destination, making sure that the direction of travel arrow (the line above the dial) points in the direction you want to go.

3. Move just the numbered dial so that the red arrow (NOT the needle) points north on the map.

4. Determine your adjustment for declination. If the declination is positive, subtract the amount from be bearing of the location. If the declination is negative, add the amount. Do this step mentally.

5. Now adjust your compass for the amount of declination determined in the last step. Take the compass off the map and hold it flat in your hand. The direction of travel arrow will now be pointing in the direction you need to travel!

map and compass

Things To Remember

-Always be aware of your surroundings. Use your map to determine nearby landmarks to both affirm your location and help to guide you in the right direction.

-When moving from one location to the next, keep your map pointed toward the north at all times, and keep your finger on your current location.

-Always trust your compass. You may be fooled by the position of the sun sometimes, but the compass will always be right!

-Stay safe! Always bring enough food, water, and appropriate clothing along with you if you’re out hiking. A compass isn’t a guarantee, so it’s best to always be prepared!

Hopefully this guide has provided some useful insights into old school navigation and will help you to read maps and compasses accurately! If you still don't feel confident in your map and compass reading skills, considering investing in a GPS navigation system for worry-free and easy exploration. Remember to stay safe while hiking, and have fun! Have any other tips for compass and map reading? Share them with us in the comments!

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