How to Use a Compass and Map to Explore the Great Outdoors

How to Use a Compass

Navigating the great outdoors can be a thrilling and rewarding experience, but it can also be challenging and dangerous if you don’t have the right tools and knowledge. A compass and map are two essential tools for anyone who wants to explore the wilderness safely and confidently. In this blog post, we’ll explore the basics of compass and map reading and provide tips and tricks for using them together to navigate the great outdoors.

Understanding the Basics of Compass and Map Reading

A compass is a simple tool that helps you determine which direction you’re facing. It consists of a magnetized needle that spins freely on a pivot point, which is typically located in the center of the compass. The needle is usually red, and it points to magnetic north. The compass also has a rotating bezel, which is a ring that surrounds the needle. The bezel is usually marked with degrees, and it helps you measure the direction of your route.

There are many different types of maps, but they all serve the same basic purpose: to show you the layout of the land and the location of features such as roads, trails, rivers, and lakes. The most common type of map is a topographical map, which shows the contours of the land and the elevations of different features. This can be very useful for planning routes through hilly or mountainous terrain. Other types of maps include road maps, city maps, and satellite maps.

To use a compass and map together, you’ll first need to orient the map. This means aligning the map with the direction you’re facing so that the features on the map match the features in the landscape. To do this, you’ll need to find a landmark in the landscape that is also shown on the map. Then, you can align the compass needle with the north-south lines on the map. Once the map is oriented, you can use the compass to find your location and plan your route.

Tips for Using a Compass and Map in the Great Outdoors

When you’re using a compass and map in the great outdoors, there are several things you should keep in mind to ensure a safe and successful journey. Here are some tips to help you get started:

  • Make sure you’re using the right map for the area you’ll be exploring. A topographical map is a good choice for most wilderness areas, but you may need a different type of map for a city or suburban area.
  • Always carry a backup compass and map. It’s also a good idea to carry a GPS device or a personal locator beacon (PLB) in case of emergency.
  • Be aware of your surroundings. Keep an eye out for landmarks, and try to match them to the features shown on your map.
  • Take note of the time and weather conditions. Make sure you have enough time to complete your journey before dark, and be prepared for changes in the weather.
  • Always carry enough food, water, and emergency supplies.
  • Be prepared for the unexpected. Even if you plan your route carefully, you may encounter unexpected obstacles or hazards. Be prepared to change your plans if necessary.
How to Use a Compass
How to Use a Compass

One real-life example of someone being rescued by a compass is the story of Aron Ralston. In 2003, Ralston, an experienced hiker and climber, was canyoneering alone in Blue John Canyon, Utah when a boulder fell and trapped his right arm. He had no means of communication and only had a small amount of food and water. After five days of being trapped, Ralston realized that his only chance of survival was to amputate his own arm. He used his multitool, which had a dull knife, to cut through the bones of his arm and was able to free himself. He then hiked out of the canyon using his compass to navigate and was eventually rescued by a family who found him. His harrowing story was later adapted into a movie called “127 Hours” in 2010.

Advanced Navigation Techniques

Once you’ve mastered the basics of compass and map reading, you can start to explore more advanced techniques for using them together. Here are a few examples:

  • Triangulation: This technique involves using two or more landmarks to determine your location. For example, you might use a mountain peak and a lake to triangulate your position on the map.
  • Resection: This technique involves using a compass to determine your location based on the direction of known landmarks. For example, you might use a compass to determine that you’re facing due east, and then you can
  • use this information to pinpoint your location on the map.
  • pace counting: This technique involves counting your steps to estimate distance traveled. It can be useful for navigating in areas where visibility is limited, such as dense forest or heavy fog.
  • night navigation: This technique involves using a compass and map to navigate in the dark. It can be challenging, but with the right equipment and preparation, it’s possible to navigate safely and confidently even in low light conditions.

Using a compass and map in different environments

Different environments present different challenges for navigation. Here are a few examples of how to use a compass and map in specific environments:

  • Mountainous terrain: When navigating in mountainous terrain, a topographical map is essential. You’ll need to pay close attention to elevation changes and contour lines to plan your route. You may also need to use advanced navigation techniques such as triangulation and resection to determine your location.
  • Deserts and beaches: These environments can be vast and featureless, making it easy to get lost. A compass and map can be very helpful for staying on course and finding your way back to civilization.
  • Dense forest: In dense forest, visibility can be limited, and it can be easy to lose your sense of direction. A compass and map can help you navigate and stay on course, but you may also need to use other techniques such as pace counting.

A fun fact about compasses is that the first compasses were not used for navigation but rather as a tool for divination in ancient China. The Chinese used compasses made of lodestone, a naturally magnetic mineral, to create the “south-pointing spoon,” which was used in fortune telling and geomancy. It wasn’t until the 11th century that the Chinese began using compasses for navigation. In fact, the word “compass” comes from the Latin word “compassus,” which means “to go around.”


A compass and map are essential tools for anyone who wants to explore the great outdoors safely and confidently. By understanding the basics of compass and map reading and using the tips and tricks provided in this blog post, you’ll be well on your way to navigating the wilderness like a pro. Remember to always be prepared for the unexpected and to carry a backup compass and map, GPS device or PLB, enough food and water, and emergency supplies. And most importantly, always enjoy the journey!

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