This navigation tutorial will explain how to use a compass and topographic map .

Map and compass Navigation

On most short hikes, you can get by without too much navigating. Paths are often clearly marked or you can see the point you are hiking towards from the start of the trail. Longer hikes or wilderness hikes that do not follow a distinct path can be a bit trickier. 

GPS devices and phones with GPS functionality are hugely helpful (we use a handheld GPS ourselves), but technology fails eventually or runs out of power. This is why we always hike with a topographic map and compass. 

This article will first cover the basics of finding your way, and gradually dive deeper into more complicated techniques. Some might only be required in very specific circumstances, but its always better to have the techniques to call on in case of emergency.

Find out where you are, then plan a route to where you’re going.

Without a starting point, a set of directions are meaningless. We instinctively give a starting point when we give directions: ‘From the intersection, continue for 400 metres’. 

The first step is always to find your current position. This is why we’ve broken the tutorial up into three sections:

  1. THE TOOLS

  2. FIND YOUR POSITION

  3. NAVIGATE TO YOUR DESTINATION

You need to be familiar with all three to navigate safely.


SECTION 1 – THE TOOLS

Compasses

There are three main types of compasses.

Base Plate Compass:  It's robust, lightweight and has all the necessary features to navigate safely.
(Click to enlarge)

Mirror Compass: The mirror is angled up when sighting a landmark. That allows the user to see the bezel and the target at the same time. Mirror compasses are very accurate. (Click to enlarge)

Button Compass: These are small, very basic and usually incorporated into another tool, like a watch or thermometer.  They can be used for quick reference, but not really for navigation. (Click to enlarge)

A good compass needs to have all the features: 

These are the essential features of a baseplate compass. Look for these when purchasing a compass. Also consider purchasing a model with an adjustable declination scale.(Click to enlarge)

These are the essential features of a mirror compassLook for these when purchasing a compass. Also consider purchasing a model with an adjustable declination scale.(Click to enlarge)

Magnetic Declination

Magnetic Declination is the difference between Magnetic North and True North .

Magnetic North is not exactly at the north pole, it’s slightly off and this is where the red part of the magnetic needle points.

True North or Map North points to the the North Pole is, and is where maps, and the meridian lines on maps face.

 

You need to face your map True North for it to reflect your surroundings accurately. To go from Magnetic North, indicated by the magnetic needle, to True North (often called Map North), you have to make use of the declination scale on your compass as well as the magnetic declination indicated on your map. These are used to change the bearing you take from a landmark or the direction you walk in, from a Magnetic Bearing to a True Bearing (map bearing.)
 

This image shows a compass that has been adjusted for the magnetic declination of the map. Notice how the orienteering arrow is at an angle (18º) to the red meridian lines inside the compass housing. This means that when the red needle sits inside the orienteering arrow, the mirror will point True North. (Click to enlarge)

The magnetic variance (difference between Magnetic North and True North) changes with your position, and slowly changes over time. Maps have the magnetic declination and mean annual change indicated somewhere on the map. To learn how to add degrees, minutes and seconds, have a look at our 'How GPS works' post.

Get the magnetic declination for your area here.

You can read more about Magnetic Declination here.

Maps

All maps are not made equal. A good map needs to have scale, orientation (show North and have meridian lines), indicate topography.

Here are three examples:

  Topographic Hiking Map:  a KwaZulu Natal Drakensberg Series, printed specifically to be used as hiking maps.  (Click to enlarge)  

Topographic Hiking Map: a KwaZulu Natal Drakensberg Series, printed specifically to be used as hiking maps. (Click to enlarge) 

 Topographic Survey Map: Survey Maps of South Africa, not intended as a hiking map, but contains all the necessary information. (Click to enlarge)

Bad map: This map doesn’t have enough detail, scale or topographic lines. Maps like these are fine for reference, but not to navigate safely. (Click to enlarge)

At face value the all three maps seem fit for purpose. Notice that on the third it's impossible to tell distances, which way the map should be oriented or if a section of terrain is sloped uphill or downhill.


SECTION 2 – FIND YOUR POSITION

Before you plan a route, you need to calculate your current position. Here are the three most common methods, each suited to a different scenario. 

Method 1: Orient the map

Your possible positions are marked in red.

Scenario: You've been hiking for a while and you need to figure out where you are.

From your position you can see a landmark, in this example it’s a hill with a reservoir on. All that you know is that you’re somewhere next to it, but that could be anywhere in a 360 degree radius around that landmark. You could be above, below or next to it on the map.

To calculate your position, you will face the map true north and compare your surroundings with what you can see on the map.

 

Method 2: Resection with a linear terrain feature

Linear features are terrain features like ridges, rivers, hiking trails, roads, power lines or cliffs. These are often called ‘hand rails’ because they're easy to follow. In most instances, you would hike towards one of these 'hand rails' and follow it through the landscape, and to keep track of your position, you would note landmarks that you pass.

But what if there aren't any distinct landmarks next to the 'hand rail'? Then you will take a bearing from a distant landmark and where this bearing crosses the linear feature, that is your position. 

Your possible positions are marked in red.

Scenario: You’ve followed this river down the mountain, you’ve been hiked for a while so you could be anywhere next to this river.

To calculate your position you would take a bearing from the reservoir and plot it on the map. Where the bearing crosses the river, that's your position. 

hen using this method you don’t have to orient the map beforehand. It does help though, as it’ll point out some obvious mistakes, like aligning the compass facing 180 degrees in the wrong direction. Rather orient the map when you’re starting out and play it safe.

Method 3: Resection using cross bearings

Method three is resection using cross bearings. This is for when you’re not next to a river or road. You’re just in the middle of the veld. What you do here is similar to the previous method, except for that you don’t use one bearing, you take two. Where those lines cross, that’s your position.

Your possible positions are marked in red.

Scenario: You have been hiking for while and you need to figure out where you are. You're NOT on a path, river or any other linear feature. You could be anywhere on the map.

To calculate your position you will take a bearing from two landmarks and plot the bearings on the map. Where these two lines cross, that's your position.

 

You’ve narrowed your position down from a big area to a very specific spot. As with the previous example, the larger the angle between your two landmarks, the smaller the margin of error.

To make this even more accurate you can use a third bearing. And remember to check your measurements by visually verifying the landscape around you with what you think your position is. One can make some pretty large mistakes, especially when you’re tired and hungry after a long day’s hiking.


SECTION 3 – NAVIGATE TO YOUR DESTINATION.

Once you’ve found your position on the map, you can start planning a route to your destination.

Walking a bearing

Scenario: You know your current position on the map (using the methods above) and your desired destination.

’re at the edge of a river and you know your position on the map…

Check your distance

While walking a bearing, always check your distance. Use the scale ruler on your compass to see how far you need to walk and assign a time value based on your walking speed.
For example this 1,2 km should take less than 15 minutes. If I realise that I’m walking for longer than expected, I would stop, and resect my position.

Check your course

If you’re not sure if you’re on course, or if the landmark you’re walking towards disappears out of view, take a back bearing (back azimuth).

Sight your departure point by putting the white side of the needle in the orienteering arrow (shed).

Be mindful.

Navigation is mostly just basic awareness. Pick up your head and be mindful of where you are and where you’re going. Our minds wander when we do, we get lost in conversation or sometimes a path looks different going in the opposite direction. This means that, usually on the return trip, one can take wrong turn and only realise the mistake too late.

Try the following to improve your awareness:

  1. Lift up your head. We often look at where to place our feet, not where we are going.
  2. Look behind you. The path might look entirely different when walking it in the opposite direction.
  3. Make conscious mental notes of features: a turn, this fork in the road, that funny tree. Make other hikers in the group aware of it.
  4. Pay attention to hiking time and have a general idea of how far you plan on walking before you depart. If you’re only walking 5 kilometres and you’ve been walking for two hours, you may have taken a wrong turn.
  5. Watch out for “I thought you knew where we’re going.” Every member in the group should take equal responsibility.

Leave a comment below or make a suggestion for a tutorial you would like to see. We’re happy to answer questions if anything is unclear.