Basics Of Maps and Compass – What they are used for

We grew up with Maps and Compasses and sometimes take them for granted, forgetting that there’s a lot of people that have very little idea of what they are and what they are used for when you’re out and about having an adventure.

Whether you are taking a hike in the local forest, backpacking in a national park, exploring an unmarked wilderness, camping in Yellowstone or hunting, you should always know where you are and your orientation, you should also know how to read a map and use a compass.

The GPS systems and phone networks are not always reliable, there are many areas with weak connection and signal or none at all, so it is really useful.


Actually, I would say it’s essential, to know how to find your way with the help of good old map and compass.


To know how to orientate yourself means to know how to read and understand what the compass is telling you and knowing how to transfer that information to the map. You can go anywhere you want to go on the map if you have the compass as your guide.

Here are some basics on how to read and navigate with the help of a topographic map and compass.


If you go on a hiking trip, camping or any adventure in nature, the best maps for orienteering and finding the right path are the topographic maps.


The topographic maps have contour lines and a legend that tells you everything about the terrain, man-made and natural characteristics of it. Produced by the USGS (United States Geological Survey), the most used topographic maps are usually on the scale of 1:24,000, also known as the seven and a half minute maps. This scale means that what is 24,000 inches on the ground, is one inch on the map in your hands.


On the topographic maps there are also brown lines that follow the terrain, also know as contour lines.



These lines represent the difference in altitude in real life, and the distance in height between each line is 40 feet. If lines are close to each other, that means that the terrain is steep and that there is an increase in the altitude. The further apart the lines the more gradual the terrain is sloped.

Usually, on the topographic maps, there are also symbols that give you information on manmade features, depressions, water bodies, etc.


It is harder to use a map for navigation without knowing how to use a compass since they go hand in hand with each other, it is really important to know how to use them separately and together.



The main component of the compass is a needle that always points in the direction of magnetic north, which is the point on Earth where its magnetic field points downward towards earth from the atmosphere.

Around the needle, there is a circular bezel that has numbers on it, from zero to 360, that represent degrees and this helps you with directions on the map.



If you are facing north, the needle on the compass will be pointing at 360 degrees and will land on a triangle mark on the base of the compass.

So if you want to go east from the spot where you are, turn the bezel so that 90 degrees are on the top of the compass, then, holding the compass in your hands, turn around until the needle stops at the mark.

This way you will know that you are facing east, and you are ready to continue your journey.


This is very basic to give you an idea of what the Map and the Compass do. Just with this little knowledge, you are better prepared to venture forth, but you do need to learn more about using maps and compasses before you are properly prepared to go on your next adventure and explore the wilds of the world.  Make sure that you learn more and practice so that you can use them proficiently and have confidence in them and your own ability to use them.


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tomi-stojanovik is one of the authors writing for Outdoor Revival