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How To Use A Map And Compass For Hiking


Modified: December 28, 2023

by Amitie Sauceda



When it comes to hiking, having a sense of adventure is key. But in order to fully enjoy your hiking experience and ensure your safety, it’s important to have the right tools at your disposal. This is where using a map and compass becomes essential.


In today’s digital age, it may be tempting to rely solely on GPS devices and smartphone apps for navigation. However, these electronic gadgets are not foolproof and can fail at the most inconvenient times. That’s why having the knowledge and skills to effectively use a map and compass is crucial for any serious hiker.


Using a map and compass not only helps you stay on track and find your way, but it also enhances your overall hiking experience. It allows you to connect with your surroundings on a deeper level, as you become more aware of the landscape, the topography, and the landmarks along the way. It’s like having a secret code that unlocks a whole new world of exploration.


In this guide, we will explore the importance of using a map and compass for hiking, as well as provide you with a step-by-step understanding of how to navigate with these tools. Whether you’re a beginner hiker looking to improve your skills or an experienced adventurer seeking to sharpen your navigation abilities, this article will serve as your comprehensive resource.


So let’s dive in and discover the wonders of using a map and compass for hiking!


Importance of Using a Map and Compass for Hiking

As mentioned earlier, relying solely on GPS devices and smartphone apps for navigation while hiking can be risky. Technology can fail and signals can be lost, leaving you stranded and disoriented. This is where the traditional tools of a map and compass come to the rescue. Here are some reasons why using a map and compass is crucial for hiking:

  • Reliability: Unlike electronic gadgets, maps and compasses do not rely on batteries or a stable signal. They are reliable tools that can be used in any weather condition or remote areas without worrying about losing connectivity.
  • Backup Plan: In case your electronic device dies or malfunctions, having a map and compass as a backup plan can save the day. It provides you with a reliable method of navigation, ensuring you can continue your hike safely.
  • Understanding the Terrain: A map provides you with valuable information about the terrain you’ll be hiking in. It shows the elevation, contours, and landmarks, allowing you to have a better understanding of the environment and plan your route accordingly.
  • Developing Navigation Skills: By using a map and compass, you develop essential navigation skills that can be useful in various outdoor activities. These skills include orienteering, reading topographic maps, and understanding compass bearings.
  • Connecting with Nature: Using a map and compass allows you to develop a deeper connection with nature. As you navigate through the landscape by using these traditional tools, you become more aware of your surroundings, enabling you to appreciate the beauty of the natural world.

While technology can certainly enhance our hiking experiences, it’s important not to become overly reliant on it. By learning and using a map and compass, you become self-reliant and empowered to navigate through any hiking challenge that comes your way. So, let’s delve into the basic components of a map and compass to get started on our navigation journey.


Basic Components of a Map and Compass

Before we dive into the intricacies of using a map and compass, let’s familiarize ourselves with the basic components of these essential tools:

Map Components:

A topographic map is a detailed representation of a specific area, usually used for hiking and outdoor activities. Here are the key components of a map:

  • Title: The title of the map provides information about the area it covers, such as a national park or a specific region.
  • Scale: The scale of the map indicates the ratio of the map’s distance to the actual distance on the ground. It helps you understand the size and proportions of the area you’ll be navigating.
  • Legend: The legend explains the symbols and colors used on the map, such as contour lines, vegetation, water bodies, and man-made structures. Understanding the legend is essential for interpreting the information displayed on the map.
  • Contour Lines: Contour lines are the curved lines on the map that represent the elevation of the land. They provide a visual representation of the terrain, allowing you to understand the steepness of slopes and the shape of the land.
  • Landmarks: Landmarks on a map include prominent features such as mountains, rivers, lakes, and buildings. These points of reference are essential for orienting yourself and navigating effectively.

Compass Components:

A compass is a navigational instrument that uses the Earth’s magnetic field to determine direction. Here are the key components of a compass:

  • Magnetic Needle: The magnetic needle is a crucial part of the compass. It aligns itself with the Earth’s magnetic field and points to magnetic north.
  • Baseplate: The baseplate of a compass provides a stable platform for holding and manipulating the compass. It often has a ruler and scales to aid in measuring distances on the map.
  • Orienting Arrow: The orienting arrow on the compass is used to align the compass with the map. It helps in ensuring that the map’s north is aligned with the compass’s north.
  • Rotating Bezel: The rotating bezel is marked with degrees and is used to determine and measure compass bearings.
  • Direction of Travel Arrow: The direction of travel arrow indicates the direction you want to go. It helps you orient the compass and keep it aligned with your desired heading.

Understanding and becoming familiar with these components is the first step in using a map and compass effectively. In the next section, we will explore the importance of understanding map scale and symbols for successful navigation.


Understanding Map Scale and Symbols

When it comes to using a map for navigation, understanding the scale and symbols used on the map is crucial. Here’s why:

Map Scale:

A map scale helps you understand the relationship between the distance on the map and the actual distance on the ground. It allows you to estimate the distance between two points, plan your hiking route, and determine the time it might take to travel from one location to another.


For example, a scale of 1:25,000 means that one unit on the map represents 25,000 units in the real world. If the scale bar on the map indicates that 1 centimeter represents 1 kilometer, you can easily calculate the actual distance between two points by measuring the distance on the map and multiplying it by the scale.

Map Symbols:

Map symbols are graphical representations used to convey various features and information on the map. Understanding these symbols is essential for interpreting the map accurately. Here are some commonly used symbols on topographic maps:

  • Contour Lines: Contour lines are one of the most important symbols on a map. They represent the elevation of the land and help you visualize the terrain’s shape, steepness, and relief.
  • Vegetation: Different types of vegetation, such as forests, grasslands, or marshes, are depicted using specific symbols and colors. These symbols provide you with information about the vegetation cover in the area.
  • Water Bodies: Lakes, rivers, streams, and other water bodies are represented using symbols, often accompanied by text indicating their names and important details such as water depth or flow direction.
  • Man-Made Structures: Buildings, roads, bridges, and other man-made structures are depicted on a map using symbols. These symbols help you identify and navigate around significant landmarks and infrastructure.
  • Contours of Elevation: Lines indicating the contour of elevation help you visualize changes in elevation and the shape of the land. The pattern and spacing of contour lines can indicate the steepness of slopes.

Understanding map scale and symbols allows you to interpret the information displayed on a map accurately. It helps you plan your hiking route, identify landmarks, and navigate through the terrain more effectively. In the next section, we will explore how to orient your map to the terrain using a compass.


Orienting Your Map to the Terrain

Orienting your map to the terrain is a critical step in using a map and compass for navigation. It involves aligning the map with the actual landscape, allowing you to read the map in relation to your surroundings. Here’s how to orient your map:

  1. Select Your Reference Point: Choose a prominent feature or landmark that you can easily identify both on the map and in the field. This can be a mountain peak, a tower, or a distinctive rock formation.
  2. Place Your Map Flat: Lay your map flat on a surface, making sure it doesn’t move or slide. Use the map’s edges or the baseplate of your compass to hold it in place.
  3. Align the Map with the Field: Rotate the map until the grid lines on the map are parallel to the north-south lines in the field. You can use a compass to help you align the map accurately.
  4. Align the Map with the Compass: Place your compass on the map with the edge of the compass baseplate aligning with the north arrow on the map. Then, rotate the map and compass together until the compass needle aligns with the orienting arrow on the compass.
  5. Verify Alignment: Double-check the alignment by identifying other landmarks on the map and matching them with the actual landscape. Ensure that the map is correctly oriented and aligned with the terrain.

Orienting your map to the terrain is crucial because it allows you to interpret the map accurately. It helps you identify your current location, plan your route, and navigate using the compass bearings more effectively. By aligning the map with the actual landscape, you can confidently navigate through the trails and maintain a sense of direction.


Once your map is properly oriented, you’re ready to take compass bearings and start moving along your planned route. In the next section, we will discuss how to take compass bearings and use them for navigation during your hike.


Taking a Compass Bearing

When hiking with a map and compass, taking compass bearings is an essential skill that allows you to determine the direction you need to travel. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to take a compass bearing:

  1. Select Your Destination: Identify your destination or the next point you want to navigate to on the map. This could be a landmark, a trail junction, or a specific location.
  2. Hold Your Compass Flat: Hold your compass flat in your palm, ensuring that the direction of travel arrow is pointing away from you.
  3. Align the Compass: Rotate the compass housing until the orienting arrow aligns with the magnetic needle, ensuring they are parallel.
  4. Read the Bearing: Look at the degree markings on the rotating bezel of the compass. Read and note the number where the index line intersects the bezel.
  5. Double-Check Alignment: Confirm that you have accurately aligned the compass by sighting a landmark or feature in the field and verifying that it matches the corresponding landmark on the map.

Now that you’ve taken a compass bearing, you have a reference point that indicates the direction you need to travel. It’s important to note that a compass bearing represents a straight line from your current location to your destination. However, obstacles such as cliffs, bodies of water, or dense vegetation may require you to adjust your route accordingly.


Remember, as you move along your compass bearing, periodically check your compass to ensure you’re still heading in the right direction. Stay aware of any landmarks or features along the way that will help you confirm your progress and maintain your intended course.


In the next section, we’ll explore how to follow a compass bearing to navigate effectively during your hike.


Following a Compass Bearing

Once you have taken a compass bearing, the next step is to follow that bearing to navigate towards your destination. Here’s a guide on how to effectively follow a compass bearing:

  1. Hold Your Compass Level: Hold your compass in front of you with the direction of travel arrow pointing away from your body. Ensure that the compass is level and parallel to the ground.
  2. Find a Visual Reference Point: Select a landmark or feature in the distance that aligns with your compass bearing. This could be a tree, rock formation, or any distinct object that you can easily see along your desired path.
  3. Move Towards the Visual Reference Point: Start walking towards the chosen reference point while keeping the compass aligned with your bearing. Continuously monitor your compass to maintain the correct direction.
  4. Occasionally Check Your Progress: Look back at the landmark you started from, and ensure it stays in line with your bearing. This helps you confirm that you are maintaining the correct course.
  5. Adjust for Obstacles: Pay attention to any obstacles, such as cliffs, rivers, or dense vegetation, that may require you to adjust your route slightly. Make sure to recalculate your compass bearing if necessary.
  6. Use Additional Landmarks: Along your route, use other landmarks or features to confirm your progress and maintain your intended direction. This can help you stay on track and avoid any deviations.
  7. Constantly Update Your Bearing: As you navigate, periodically check your compass to ensure you are still aligned with your original bearing. Adjust your course if needed to stay on track.

Following a compass bearing requires concentration, attention to detail, and a constant awareness of your surroundings. It’s important to stay focused and avoid distractions to maintain your direction accurately.


By successfully following a compass bearing, you can confidently navigate through unfamiliar terrain, stay on course, and reach your desired destination safely. In the next section, we will discuss how to use contour lines on a map for navigation and understanding the terrain’s elevation changes.


Using Contour Lines for Navigation

Contour lines are an invaluable tool for understanding the shape of the land and navigating through varying elevations during your hike. By learning how to interpret contour lines on a map, you can effectively plan your route and adjust your navigation strategy accordingly. Here’s how to use contour lines for navigation:

Understanding Contour Lines:

Contour lines are curved lines on a map that connect points of equal elevation. They represent the three-dimensional shape of the land on a two-dimensional map. Here are key points to know about contour lines:

  • Close Contour Lines: Contour lines that are close together indicate steep slopes or changes in elevation. The closer the lines, the steeper the terrain.
  • Far Apart Contour Lines: Contour lines that are spaced apart indicate flatter areas or gradual changes in elevation.
  • Index Contour Lines: Index contour lines are thicker and labeled with the elevation of that line.
  • Counting Contour Lines: By counting the number of contour lines crossed between two points, you can determine the elevation gain or loss along your route. Each contour line represents a certain interval, such as 10 meters or 50 feet.
  • Shape of Contour Lines: The shape of the contour lines can reveal the topographic features such as valleys, ridges, and cliffs. For example, a V-shaped contour line with a sharp point indicates a valley.

Navigating with Contour Lines:

Using contour lines, you can navigate certain terrain features more effectively. Here are a few tips:

  • Identify Steep Slopes: By recognizing closely spaced contour lines, you can locate steep slopes, which may require extra caution during your hike.
  • Identify Valleys and Ridges: Contour lines that form a V-shape point towards valleys, while lines that form a U-shape indicate ridges. Orienting yourself to these features can help you understand the direction of the terrain.
  • Plan Efficient Routes: Understanding the contour lines can help you plan the most efficient routes, avoiding unnecessary elevation gains or losses. Look for contour lines that are evenly spaced to find flatter sections for easier hiking.
  • Use Contour Lines as Checkpoints: Along your route, use contour lines as checkpoints to track your progress and ensure you’re on the intended path.

By utilizing contour lines on a map, you can navigate through various terrains and anticipate the challenges that lie ahead. With experience, interpreting contour lines will become second nature, allowing you to make informed decisions and navigate the terrain confidently.


In the next section, we will discuss how to identify landmarks and features on a map, assisting you in recognizing important points during your hike.


Identifying Landmarks and Features on a Map

When hiking with a map, being able to identify landmarks and features is crucial for successful navigation and orientation. By familiarizing yourself with these points on the map, you can effectively recognize and locate them in the field. Here’s how to identify landmarks and features on a map:

Prominent Landmarks:

Prominent landmarks are easily recognizable features that can serve as key reference points during your hike. Here are some examples:

  • Mountains: Mountain peaks are often labeled on maps and serve as prominent reference points. They can help you orient yourself and track your progress as you move through the terrain.
  • Water Bodies: Lakes, rivers, streams, and ponds are important landmarks. They not only provide a valuable water source but also serve as navigation guides, especially when planning routes near or around them.
  • Summits and Passes: The highest point in an area, such as a summit, or a low point in a mountain range, such as a pass, are significant landmarks. They can help you identify your location and understand the general topography of the region.
  • Distinctive Rock Formations: Unique rock formations, such as arches, cliffs, or spires, are distinctive landmarks that can serve as navigational aids. These formations often have distinct shapes, providing visual markers on the map.

Man-Made Structures:

Man-made structures on a map can also be useful for navigation. These structures are often depicted using specific symbols. Some examples include:

  • Buildings: Houses, barns, cabins, and other structures are typically represented on maps. They can serve as landmarks to help you orient yourself and determine your position.
  • Trails and Roads: Established hiking trails, roads, and paths are important navigational aids. They are typically indicated by dashed or solid lines and can guide you through the area more easily.
  • Bridges: Bridges are notable structures that appear on maps. They can be significant landmarks, especially when crossing rivers or other water bodies.
  • Towers or Lookout Points: Towers and lookout points are often marked on maps and provide excellent vantage points for taking in the surrounding landscape. They are valuable landmarks for navigation and orientation.

By identifying these landmarks and features on a map, you can navigate with greater confidence and accuracy. By noting the positions of these points and their relations to each other, you’ll be better equipped to plan your route and monitor your progress during your hike.


Next, let’s move on to the practical aspect of planning your hiking route using a map and compass.


Planning Your Hiking Route

Planning your hiking route is a crucial step in ensuring a safe and enjoyable outdoor adventure. By using a map and compass, you can carefully plan and navigate your desired path. Here’s how to effectively plan your hiking route:

Identify Your Start and End Points:

Begin by determining your starting and ending points for the hike. This could be a trailhead, a parking lot, or any other designated area. Consider the distance, difficulty level, and available amenities at both ends.

Study the Map:

Examine your topographic map and identify any specific landmarks, natural features, or points of interest along the way. Look for trails, water sources, and potential campsites to include in your route.

Evaluate the Terrain:

Take note of the elevation changes, steep slopes, and potential obstacles such as rivers or dense vegetation. Consider your hiking ability and level of experience when planning your route. Be prepared for challenging terrain, and make adjustments as necessary.

Determine Checkpoints:

Select checkpoints along the route that will help you stay on track and measure your progress. These could be distinct landmarks, trail junctions, or other notable features that can be easily identified on the map and in the field.

Consider Safety and Time:

Ensure that you allocate enough time for your hike, taking into account factors such as daylight hours, weather conditions, and your physical capabilities. Consider safety precautions such as informing others of your plans, carrying essential gear, and selecting a route suitable for your experience level.

Plan Alternative Routes:

It’s always wise to have alternative routes in mind in case unforeseen circumstances arise. These could include possible detours, bypasses, or safe exit points, allowing you to adjust your route if necessary.


Remember, flexibility is key when planning your hiking route. Conditions on the ground may differ from what is shown on the map, so be prepared to adapt your plans as needed. By thoroughly planning your route, you’ll have a clearer vision of your adventure and can navigate through the terrain with confidence.


In our next section, we’ll discuss some valuable tips for successful map and compass navigation during your hike.


Tips for Successful Map and Compass Navigation

Mastering map and compass navigation takes practice and experience. To help you navigate with confidence and efficiency, here are some valuable tips:

1. Practice Before Your Hike:

Take the time to practice using your map and compass in a controlled environment before heading out on a hike. Familiarize yourself with the tools, symbols, and techniques to build confidence in your navigation skills.

2. Keep Your Map and Compass Handy:

Ensure that your map and compass are easily accessible during your hike. Keep them in a waterproof case or pouch for protection and quick access when needed.

3. Use Landmarks for Orientation:

Refer to prominent landmarks, such as mountains or lakes, to orient yourself on the map. Comparing the features on the map with the landscape around you will assist in accurate navigation.

4. Continuously Monitor Your Progress:

Regularly check your compass and map to track your progress along the predetermined route. Confirm your location by identifying landmarks and comparing them with their representations on the map.

5. Don’t Rely Solely on GPS or Technology:

While GPS devices and smartphone apps can be helpful, they should not be solely relied upon for navigation. Preserve battery life and use them as backup tools rather than primary navigational aids.

6. Trust Your Compass Bearing:

Once you’ve established a compass bearing, trust it and stick to your intended direction. Avoid unnecessary deviations unless required due to safety hazards.

7. Regularly Update Your Map:

Make sure to mark your progress on the map by identifying notable features or waypoints. This will help you stay oriented and serve as a reference point for your hiking route.

8. Stay Calm and Patient:

If you find yourself unsure of your location, take a moment to stop, breathe, and reassess your surroundings. Panicking can lead to poor decision-making, so stay calm and think rationally.

9. Always Carry a Compass Backup:

It’s important to carry a backup compass in case of loss or damage to your primary one. Being prepared with a spare compass ensures you can continue navigating in the event of any unforeseen circumstances.

10. Continuously Learn and Improve:

Map and compass navigation is a skill that can always be enhanced. Attend workshops, join orienteering clubs, or seek guidance from experienced outdoors enthusiasts to improve your knowledge and abilities.


By following these tips, you’ll be well on your way to becoming a proficient map and compass navigator. Remember that practice makes perfect, so get out there and explore the great outdoors while developing your navigation skills!


Now that you’re equipped with valuable advice for map and compass navigation, you can confidently embark on your hiking adventures. Remember to be prepared, stay aware of your surroundings, and enjoy the wonders of the natural world. Happy hiking!



In conclusion, using a map and compass for hiking is a fundamental skill that enhances your outdoor experience and ensures your safety. While technology can be helpful, it’s important not to solely rely on GPS devices and smartphone apps as they can fail during critical moments. Embracing the traditional tools of a map and compass allows you to develop self-reliance and a deeper connection with your surroundings.


By understanding the basic components of a map and compass, including map scale and symbols, you gain the ability to interpret and navigate through various terrains. Orienting your map to the terrain and taking accurate compass bearings become second nature, enabling you to plan your route and follow it confidently.


Using contour lines for navigation helps you understand the shape of the land, anticipate elevation changes, and choose the most efficient paths. Identifying landmarks and features on a map aids in orientation, confirming your position, and tracking your progress along the way.


By planning your hiking route carefully, considering safety, time, and alternative options, you ensure a well-prepared and enjoyable adventure. Implementing tips such as continuous monitoring, using prominent landmarks, and practicing good navigation techniques, you can navigate with efficiency and accuracy.


Remember, map and compass navigation is a skill that requires practice, patience, and a willingness to learn. By continually honing your skills and seeking opportunities to expand your knowledge, you can become a proficient navigator and confidently explore new trails and wilderness areas.


So, embrace the tradition of using a map and compass, immerse yourself in the wonders of nature, and embark on your next hiking adventure with confidence. Happy trails!