By Joshua Andrews

With how far technology has come, everyone carries a map and compass in their pockets these days. But if you’re out for a hike where the signal drops out, or your battery runs down, there’s a navigational backup we all should keep on us when undertaking a longer, more arduous journey. There’s a reason maps and compasses have endured – they work. But, like with anything, the user needs to ensure they’re working correctly. Here’s how to use your map and compass to ensure you get to where you’re heading – and back again!

Why bring a map and compass?

For any journey longer than a walk along the coast or a trip to a local nature reserve – where you’re likely to find location points and user-friendly paths, a map and compass should be in your backpack. They’re lightweight and reliable. OS maps are great for a detailed plan of the area you’re heading to, routes included.

Navigation is vital, especially when it comes to an unfamiliar trail. Take note of your surroundings, such as landmarks or other identifiable, memorable features.  Even small differences within the environment could help you find your way. 

Sometimes, this will not be enough to help navigate an area. Memory can be unreliable and when we’re starting to panic we may question if the landmark we remember is different to the one we’re currently seeing. That’s where the humble map and compass come in. Physical, tangible and oh so simple. A map and compass won’t only help you traverse a forest, but a desert, and even an ocean. 

I hear what you’re saying, “Maps and compasses were fine for Christopher Columbus and his friends back before youtube tutorials were a thing. But we have these devices in our pockets nowadays that you may have heard about, they’re called phones.” And yes, you’re absolutely right. The technology we carry around with us can do pretty much anything, or at least it can when it’s functioning properly. If your phone loses signal, which has a good chance of happening when going off-grid, your magical technological devices will be little more than a video camera that is also a calculator and clock – and perhaps a music device and television if you’ve downloaded your favourite shows. So it won’t be rendered useless, but there’s still a chance it won’t be able to help you find your exit. A map and compass will.

How to use a compass effectively

You will need to use your compass alongside a map if you want to know more than the direction you’re facing. But even just knowing your direction is important. Many people who think they’re going in a straight line actually get turned around and end up circling back to where they started. The dial on a compass will always face North (that’s the red end), allowing your arrow to fly straight and true.

  1. Hold your compass flat, parallel to the ground. If you don’t use the compass correctly, it won’t be able to pick up magnetic north. The best way to do this is by holding your hand out flat and placing the magnet face up on your palm.
  2. Know the difference between Magnetic North and True North. This could mean little difference depending on where you are in the world but is still handy to know. In short, magnetic north points towards the magnetic field around 10 degrees just off the Earth’s axis, whereas true north is the point of the North Pole where all longitudinal lines meet on a world map or globe. 
  3. Metal will affect your compass reading. Remember that you are dealing with a magnet at the end of the day. I’m sure we all remember from school that magnets can be manipulated, so it is always best to be aware of anything affecting your compass, such as; wristwatches, keys, mobile phones, and even heavy-framed spectacles.

How to use a map effectively

There are very few areas of the world that haven’t yet been mapped, so it should always be possible to find a map for where your next adventure is planned. And if there isn’t, you could always put your cartography skills to the test and draw up your own. Instead of trying to simply remember landmarks, draw them within the map for points of reference. Remember to use your compass when entering a location so you know which direction you’re starting from.

  1. Use the key. A key can tell you the differences in the environment through colours, symbols or shading that make it easy to quickly understand the map, whether pre-made or creating your own. 
  2. Locate your position and other points of interest. Sometimes it’s difficult to know where you’re going if you don’t know where you are. And unlike GPS, a map won’t have a little mark displaying where you are at all times. However, it will have points of interest and small notable landmarks that you can locate. Once you find these both on the map and in the environment around you, you’ll find yourself, and the map will become much easier to navigate once you do this. Refer to your map regularly to stay aware of your location.
  3. Setting the map. This is the term used for aligning the map and compass together so that they are both facing North. This way, you will always know what direction you’re facing. To do this, place the map down as flat as possible. Next, place the compass on top of the map. Lastly, turn the map and compass until the red needle is pointing towards the north of the map. Every map should have an indication of North, South, East and West -Remember that when crafting your own!
  4. Learn to take bearings. After setting the map, you can chart your journey. start with the map flat and your compass laid upon it. Draw a straight line between where you are and where you’d like to go, then rotate the degree dial so the arrow points North. This should align the compass orienteering lines with the map’s North-South markers.

Learning to use a map and compass effectively takes time and effort, like with most skills. Practice your navigational know-how by visiting your local park for a test run and you’ll soon have enough skills to decrease the risk of getting lost or into a precarious situation.