How to use a compass and map

Learn basic orienteering skills for use in the backcountry or on long trail runs.
February 4, 2014
While GPS and two tracking technology might seem to be a failsafe way to find your route, using a compass and map is still an effective tool

I'd like to say I've honed and refined my skills of backcountry navigation through months and months poring over maps of the Arctic and Antarctic. But in reality, navigation in the polar regions is relatively straightforward. You take a blank sheet of paper, put an 'x' at the bottom, another at the top, and there's your map. In Antarctica, follow your compass bearing south to get to the South Pole. On the Arctic Ocean, you follow your compass bearing North. Simple, right? Well maybe not that simple. Traveling in a 'straight line' in a variety of conditions for nearly two months requires skill, patience and strict adherence to basic map and compass skills.

While GPS and two tracking technology might seem to be a failsafe way to find your route, using a compass and map is still an effective tool. In fact on most of my expeditions, we rely on a compass for navigating throughout the day, only using the GPS in the tent at night to get our coordinates, mark a way point, and confirm the next day's bearing.

Still, navigating your way through any wilderness, frozen or otherwise, poses a series of challenges that can be overwhelming to even the most experienced back country traveler. So, here are a few simple tips that can help you stay on the trail…

Sometimes you only have one reference point

Sometimes you only have one reference point

1. Reference Points

Use clues. At its most basic level, a compass simply serves as a reference point - something to keep yourself oriented (hence the term orienteering). Way before compasses, people were able to keep themselves heading in a specific direction by using the relative position of the stars, sun, wind direction and animal migration patterns. Even the old 'moss on the north side of the tree' can work at times. The key is to use additional reference points to back up the information you are receiving from your map and compass.


2. Using a Compass

In compass we trust. I can't tell you how many times I've looked at my compass, looked at the map and looked back at my compass only to think that there is something wrong with my compass and the needle is not pointing in the right direction. A compass works because the earth is basically a huge magnet. The red 'NORTH' end of the needle on every compass points North because it is being attracted to the magnetic North Pole... ALL THE TIME! (unless you have another magnet in your pocket).

3. Compass Bearings

Put RED in the SHED and FOLLOW FRED. It's a simple mnemonic that may seem kind of silly, but I repeat it to myself every time I 'plug' a bearing into my compass. Once you set your compass bearing, turn your body until the red end of the compass needle aligns with the orienting lines. Finally, scan forward along the path of the direction of travel line and pick out a reference point to travel toward.


4. Magnetic North

When north is not north. The top on a map or the top of the world is called 'true north'. The location where your compass needle points to is a very different location on the earth called 'magnetic north.' The difference between these two places is called declination, and depending where you are traveling, your declination can be as much as 15-20 degrees (or more). Your map should clearly display the declination of your location to help you appropriately find your compass bearing.

5. Living Legend

The legend continues. Maps are flat representations of the earth's surface and use shapes, lines and colors to describe what you would see in real life. Each map has a legend or 'key' that lets you know what is what.

6. Topographic Maps

Getting Topographic. While there are many types of maps, most backcountry travelers use topographic maps to navigate. One of the primary features of topographic maps are contour lines which show the relative elevation of the terrain. To help translate what you are seeing on the map versus real life, remember that contour lines connect points on a map that are at the same height or elevation. Therefore contour lines that are close together delineate steep terrain and contour lines that are widely spaced denote flatter terrain. Contour lines never cross and are separated at a specific interval.

7. Orienteering, Hiking & Trail Running

Using a compass to orient yourself to a specific bearing and referencing a map is the cornerstone of route finding in the wilderness. Like anything else learning how to use a compass and map is a skill that requires practice and patience, but it's not rocket science either and by using these tips you can take your first steps to navigating your way confidently through your next adventure!

Think Snow!


  • Red_Geologist

    Juvenile level BS. Peddle it to the cub scouts.

    • Jon Verstraete

      welcome – you fit right in with all of the other negative people on the internet.

      • BillinDetroit

        Just because you don’t want him doesn’t mean you can fob him off on us!

        It might BE juvenile level … but that’s where us newbies live (or die).

      • elector

        Red was unable to earn the basic “Bob Cat” badge in Cub Scouts and certainly would not want him leading my Pack.

    • paul_vincent_zecchino

      If you have greater knowledge of the subject, why not share it? Many of us would love to learn more and be grateful to you for whatever information you’d care to pass along. Thanks.

    • elector

      I predict Red will become hopelessly lost in his own arrogance. I erred, he has already become hopelessly lost in his own arrogance. He is the type of individual I would never trust.

  • Hip Anony Pus

    It’s like this place is a blog for basic introductions…

  • Prestaeus

    This was quite helpful to me, I’ve never navigated with a map and compass before, so, while basic, I’ve learned something.

  • BillinDetroit

    I wish you would have opened up the RED DEAD SHED discussion a bit more … you presumed we know how & why to set a compass bearing. Whole hog or die … don’t address us newbies and then skip steps, okay?

    I don’t want to get into the negative here, but this chatty little post has just enough information to get somebody in deep doo-doo. Glad you’ve been to the arctic regions … I just want to find my way back to my campsite.

    I gained fresh appreciation for the Donner party when I lost my way in the middle of a field after only a couple hundred yards while in the Sierra Nevadas. In just that distance the shape of the landmarks I had selected changed enough to mess me up. Distant landmarks were blocked, even the sound of running water nearby had changed tone enough to disguise its direction. (I was no longer hearing it directly, but after the sound had bounced off rocks running perpendicular to the flow.) Fortunately one line of trees, relatively close by, had registered sufficiently in my mind that I was able to use them, not to back track, but to chart a fresh course. This was in the Upper Truckee River flood plain and less than a mile from occupied housing. After about an hours wandering I came off that flood plain about 1/4 mile away from where I intended to but on a road I recognized.


Eric Larsen

Polar adventurer, expedition guide, dog musher and educator
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