Map scale

How to Use a Map and Compass: Ultimate Guide

There’s something about the allure of the great outdoors that seeps into your bones. You start slow, maybe for a walk in the woods near your home. But soon, this call of the wild forces you to gear up and get off the beaten path for Yosemite’s backcountry hikes, walking where no human has ever set foot before.

This isolation, while alluring and great for Instagram snaps, is dangerous, especially when you stray so far off the trail that you never return to your vehicle and the safety it represents. This is where the understanding of reading a map and a compass comes into play. For your average starter, this is a simple task taught in basics, but for new enthusiasts and civilians, it’s not an easily taught skill.

To improve everyone’s survivability, as well as to secure the task and purpose’s readers stay safe, the editors have put together a guide on how to use a map and compass to get yourself off the sticks and back to civilization. *checks the compass* This way!

Getting it right with a map and compass

Time you will need: One hour to a lifetime

Difficulty: Beginner to veteran field guide

What is a card?

A map is a detailed topographical layout of a specific section of land. Forests, lakes, rivers, mountains, hills and other geographical features are all marked in their exact location. Each map has a scale ratio which can be used to measure the distance between two points.

What is a compass?

According to our detailed discussion on How to Use a Compass, “In the most basic forms, a compass consists of a floating dial marked with an arrow that is drawn toward Earth’s magnetic north. With this information alone, you can get a rough approximation of your bearing.Any compass worth carrying around will include degree graduations for accuracy.

How are you supposed to use a map and a compass together?

The idea of ​​using a compass and a map together is quite simple. The compass dictates your direction or heading, and a map tells you where you are on that heading by giving you reference points. You use the two together to determine where you are, where you’ve been, and where you’re going.

Mutually assured trekking safety

You can’t earn a Purple Heart outdoors, at least not if you’re doing it for fun, so there’s no need to put yourself in danger. Make sure you get out the other side by following the instructions, taking your time, and understanding that what we’re doing here can be extremely dangerous if you head out into the wilderness unprepared. Stay alert and you won’t need stitches—maybe.

If you’re going hiking in the woods, here are some things you’ll need to stay safe.

  • Depending on where you are hiking it is best to wear layers. You can always get naked, but you can’t put more on if you’re watching a long, cold night in the woods.
  • Always carry a knife. It’s the handiest of tools when you’re in the desert.
  • Don’t forget to bring snacks and water, or at the very least, take something that can be used to filter contaminants from the stream or lake water.

What you will need to use a map and compass

Everyone has different equipment in their kit. Make sure you have the best tools of the trade on hand for that specific task. Don’t worry, we’ve made a list.



Before heading out to the field, it’s best to organize your bag in advance. Cleanliness is next to godliness, or so the saying goes, and we are big believers in this mantra. Set it all up and keep going, you’ll save yourself a headache fumbling around for your tools or having to walk all the way back out of the woods just because you forgot your knife.

map and compass card

Get ready, here’s how to use a map and compass.

Configure your compass

You’re going to have to adjust the declination of your compass because, and we’re sorry to be the bearers of bad news, it doesn’t really show you the same North as on your map. A compass points you to magnetic north, somewhere in the middle of Canada. It’s not true north, which is the North Pole and how you normally think of directions.

You will need to do a bit of math and adjustment to make up the difference between the two. First, determine the declination of your target area of ​​operation. You can find it on your map or on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website.

You will then need to adjust the individual declination of your compass according to the manufacturer’s instructions – these vary from manufacturer to manufacturer.

Orient the map

Find a reference point in the real world, something like a mountain, river, lake, etc., that is visible to you from where you are standing. Once you find your geographic feature, use it to find the same feature on the map.

Orient yourself with the compass

Now that you have a reference point in the real world and know where true north is relative to magnetic north, orient yourself in the direction you want to travel.

Get your bearing and bug out

Set a starting point and an ending point on your map as precisely as possible. This will give you two points which you can then use to determine your location if you get lost again. Set your compass bezel ring arrow to the correct destination heading based on your endpoint, this will help you stay on track.

There is only one thing left to do: go! Stick to your course as much as possible. Try to choose straight lines that are easy to achieve, without sticky topographical features such as slot canyons, thick woods or river deltas. Try crossing a small park near your home before tackling Zion.

Expert advice from a specialist to avoid getting lost

We’ve all been to a national park, local park, or just out in the field and thought, “Where the hell am I and how do I get back?” It’s happened to us more times than we care to count. But we’ve always found our way back to civilization at the end of the day, and it’s thanks to a few key strategies that we’re sharing with you, dear readers. It was nothing!

  • You probably already know that the sun moves from east to west every day from 5th grade science. But it’s an invaluable tool in the desert. As long as you can tell which direction it is moving, you can determine north, south, east, and west with no problem and find your bearings.
  • If you are traveling along a river, try to keep it along one side of you. Don’t cross it because you can use it to find out where you came from.
  • If you don’t bring a physical map with you, take screenshots of your destination ahead of time and save them on your phone. Be sure to orient them correctly before taking the screenshots, as this may skew your headers.
  • Be sure to consider the topography of the location. A map is 2D, the world is not. Don’t plan a hike that you start at sea level only to find yourself almost at dusk at the top of Mt Timpanogos, unable to descend it.

FAQ from a POG on using a map and compass

More questions? Tasks and objectives has an extra brief for that.

Q. What does a compass do on a map?

This may seem like an obvious answer, but it’s an answer worth mentioning for the record. For beginners, the compass on a map is designed to help you orient yourself in the field.

Q. What is the easiest way to find a course?

Do you remember this trick to find out in which direction the sun is pointing? Yes, this is the easiest way to find your bearings.

Q. How do I read a compass without a map?

Have a compass but no map? No problem. Before leaving, determine which way you are about to enter. Once you are on the ground, you can then point in that direction to return.

Q. Does your phone work as a compass?

Most do! The Apple iPhone has a specific compass app that can be used to orient yourself in the woods. As long as you have the power…

We are here to be expert operators in all procedural matters. Use us, compliment us, tell us we’ve stocked up on FUBAR. Comment below and let’s talk! You can also shout at us on Twitter or Instagram.


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