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Ditch the GPS: How to Navigate Using a Map and Compass

GPS devices and GPS apps for your phone and even navigation watches with GPX files are nearly foolproof today. But what about when you run out of battery or your waterproof device isn't as waterproof as you had hoped? Even worse, what if you spend your entire trip with your head buried in your GPS without taking the time to get to know your surroundings?




15 minutes

What You Need

  • Topographic Map

  • Baseplate Compass

Here at The Manual, our number-one backpacking essential for every outdoor adventure is the humble map and compass. It's no use just buying these items and stuffing them into your backpack. First, you need to learn how to read a topographic map and know what all the twisting bits do and what the numbers mean on your compass. It can all look quite confusing, so we're going to demystify the art of navigating with a map and compass and let you go old school, ditch the GPS, and get to know your surroundings intimately.

A baseplate compass laid on top of a topographic map.
Hendrik Morkel

Know the Parts of the Compass

  • Direction of travel: the printed arrow at the head of the compass.
  • Scales and rules: printed scales down the side of the compass. These denote distances for maps of various scales.
  • Magnetic needle: the most important feature of a compass. The red end points north.
  • Rotating bezel: also known as the azimuth. This bezel is marked with degree increments.
  • Orienting lines and arrow: inside the rotating bezel are orienting lines and a red arrow. These are used for bearings.
Fingers pointing to a topographic map.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Orient Your Map

You don't want to set off in the wrong direction, do you? In a landscape with obvious features, lining your map up with the real world can be straightforward. In a forest or on an open hillside, where there aren't large and obvious features, you are usually best off using your compass to orient your map.

Step 1: Adjust your compass for declination: There are two types of north: magnetic and true. These two norths don't quite align, and with magnetic north drifting every year, you may need to use a geomagnetic calculator to check the current difference where you are.

If your compass has adjustable declination, alter it to the number of degrees for your location. This may be a moving bezel or a screw on the rear of your compass. If your compass does not have adjustable declination, you will need to add or subtract the number of degrees manually each time you take a bearing.

Step 2: Line up your orienting line with your direction of travel: Spin your bezel until the orienting lines and arrow align with the direction of the travel arrow printed on the baseplate. If you are manually adjusting for declination, remember to do so now.

Step 3: Line up the orienting lines with the northings: The north/south grid lines on your map, also called northings, should be aligned with your orienting lines in the compass housing. Place your map on a flat surface, or hold it level, and place your compass on top lined up with these northings.

Step 4: Line up your orienting arrow with north: Turn your body until the magnetic needle comes to rest in the orienting arrow. Give your compass a moment to settle and remember to keep it flat. Your map is now oriented north and you are ready to navigate.

Fingers holding a map and compass in the outdoors.
Daniil Silantev

Using Your Compass to Take a Bearing

Often, it can be enough to know that your desired campsite is to your east or perhaps your southwest. If you want to get more specific, a bearing allows you to give precise directions in increments of degrees. This is really useful in open ground or poor visibility where a slight error can lead you astray.

Step 1: Line your compass up with your direction of travel: Lay your compass on your map with the edge, and therefore the direction of the travel arrow, pointing from your current location to your endpoint.

Step 2: Line the orienting lines up with the northings: Turn the bezel until the orienting lines are aligned with the north/south grid lines. Make sure these are round the right way — as a hint, your orienting arrow should be pointing north on your map.

Step 3: Read your bearing: The markings around the bezel are degrees. There is an index line aligned with the direction of the travel arrow and this will give you your bearing.

Step 4: Follow your bearing: Remove your compass from the map and hold it level at around waist height. Remember, if you are adjusting for manual declination, you may need to add or subtract some degrees as you move from grid north to magnetic north to ensure a true bearing.

Turn your body until the magnetic arrow lines up with the orienting arrow. Your direction of the travel arrow will now be pointing towards your chosen destination.

We recommend practicing these skills before you rely on them in the backcountry. Your mind can play tricks on you, and it's not uncommon to meet experienced outdoorsmen with stories of disregarding their compass in favor of their instinct, only to find out that they should have trusted the needle. Lowering your dependence on technology in the backcountry not only means you're not relying on batteries, but you also get your head out of the phone screen. Using a map means looking around you, taking in the surroundings, and getting a deeper appreciation of where you are.

Need any more convincing? Well, a map isn't going to interrupt you with an urgent work email halfway through a hike.

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Tom Kilpatrick
A London-born outdoor enthusiast, Tom took the first ticket out of suburban life. What followed was a twelve-year career as…
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