How to Navigate with Only a Map

Everything you need to know to get yourself deep into an outdoor adventure the old fashioned way… and back out again
July 14, 2018Words by Zachary ShenalPhotos by Zachary Shenal

We get it—with a smartphone in everyone’s hand it can easily become second nature to rely on Google maps for everything from a backwoods hike to a grocery store run.

Don’t get us wrong, technology brings us new, amazing tools everyday that we definitely wouldn’t want to live without it. But we also think there’s something to be said for learning the old-school way to get from point A to point B—with an actual, physical map.

Whether you’re heading somewhere off the beaten path without cell service and still need to find your way around, or just want a refresher on how these archaic things called maps actually work, read on for a crash course in old-school land navigation.

Trust us—when you’re out on an adventure and all your friends’ phones are dead, you’ll be the one who can step up and navigate your crew out of the woods.

Parts of a Map

Scale: Somewhere along the bottom of your map will be a scale showing you the size of your map. Pay attention to which scale you get, because you want to make sure your protractor has the same scale. Most protractors and map compasses have multiple scale rulers on them.

Key: Your map may have a key that lists terrain features such as swampland and heavy forests. Pay careful attention to these, as you don’t want to find yourself knee-deep in mud.

North Marker: At the bottom of a good map, you’ll typically see a set of angles with different letters above them. This is to indicate the difference between True North (actual North), Magnetic North (what your compass points to), and Grid North (North on your map). In between these, you’ll see small numbers that indicate how many degrees separate these numbers. That’s important, because if you’re using a compass and a map, you’ll need to adjust your magnetic measurement to compensate.

Elevation Lines: These are the lines that make up your map, showing you how flat or hilly your area is. On a good map, they will be labeled at regular intervals. By paying attention to how close to one another they are, you can visualize your route. Closer lines indicate a steeper terrain feature, while farther apart means more gradual sloping.

Grid Lines: These will be dependent on the map you get, so pay attention to what you choose. Both Lat/Long and MGRS are simple and reliable, so pick whichever you prefer.

Setting Up Your Map

The first thing we suggest is laying your map out on your kitchen table or on the ground outside to make sure it features the area you’ll be in. Then, if there are places you want to mark on it before you head out (like a cool photography spot or secret campsite), go ahead and pencil those in using a protractor to make sure the coordinates are correct. Then fold the map until the part you plan on using is the visible section, so when you pull it out it’s ready to go.

Protecting Your Map

This really depends on the conditions you’ll be in, but a zip-lock bag goes a long way, even if the map is waterproof. Most outdoor stores also sell different map cases that you can use, if you need a more durable solution (the map case we’re using is called a Battleboard Expedition).

Understanding Your Compass

There are a several different types of compasses for map reading and navigation, but the main two are lensatic and baseplate compasses. If this is your first time navigating, or you don’t want to haul around a bulky, expensive compass, your best bet is a baseplate compass. Don’t feel like you have to spend a lot, either. We use a Brunton Truarc 3, which is around $15.

Every baseplate compass has some common features that you should be aware of:

Baseplate: This is the plastic base the compass sits on. It features the Direction of Travel Arrow, which we’ll be using later.

Rotating Housing: The needle of your compass is set inside a round housing. When you twist it, the whole thing should rotate. The bezel of the housing features the degree markings you’ll use to get an accurate reading, and under the needle you’ll see a hollow red arrow called the Orienting Arrow.

Magnetic Needle: This is the spinning needle in the center of the housing, it’s the “compass” part of the compass.

Finding Your Direction on Your Map

The first thing you need to do before you start navigating is to set the declination on your compass. Not all baseplate compasses can set declination, and if yours can’t, you might want to pick up a model that can (it’ll save you from doing math every time you use it). Look at the bottom of your map at that north arrow we talked about before, and see what the declination between grid north and magnetic north is. Since the map we’re using is for the East Coast of the US, my declination will be towards the West. If you’re on the West Coast, it’ll be towards the East. For the Dolly Sods, we need to set our compass to account for 10 degrees of western declination. Now when we align the magnetic needle to the Orienting Arrow, we will have an accurate reading.

Finding Your Location Through Triangulation

One of the most important land navigation skills you can have is the ability to find your current location. The easiest way to do this with a map and a compass is to use triangulation. This will have variable success, depending on your terrain (it doesn’t work deep in a forest or on a featureless landscape), but if you can do it, you can find your position with a high degree of accuracy.

To find your position, we’re going to shoot two azimuths, each one directed at a land feature we can recognize on our map (an azimuth is a straight line along one of the degrees of a compass). Using your compass, make sure the magnetic north needle is aligned inside the Orienting Arrow. We call this “red in the shed.” Keeping red in the shed, rotate the baseplate so that the DoT arrow is pointing at the point you wish to identify.

For our first point, we’ll be using the south end of Breathed Mountain, where we can see a large rocky outcrop both on the map and with our eyes. By my measurement, from where we are now, that outcrop sits 276 degrees West. Now we take our protractor (or the baseplate of your compass) and, once we orient it to the map, draw a line at 276 degrees through the outcrop and extending out both ends of the point.

Next we’ll need to decide on our second point. There are no other noticeable outcrops in our field of vision, so we’ve decided to use Red Creek, which is going through the valley below. Doing the same as with the outcrop, we shoot our second azimuth, this time getting a measurement of 236 degrees. Tracing out our line, we see that there’s a point where this line intersects the first line. Assuming the azimuths were measured correctly, that is our current position.


Choosing a Route on a Map

Besides being able to figure out where you’re going, you can also use your new knowledge of maps to help predict what conditions will be like.

Looking at our route, we can see that we’ll be entering the Sods through the Wildlife Trail. The terrain lines are far apart and have smaller values the further we go, indicating that this first leg will be a gentle downhill. As we get closer to the creek below, the lines get much closer together, indicating a steep downhill section. Looking ahead, we can see that we’ll have to ford Red Creek and then immediately begin a switchback route up Breathed Mountain as we hike towards camp.

Since we know all this in advance, we can prepare ourselves for going across a lot of vertical terrain. We can also see that we’ll be crossing a water source before we make camp, which would be a good time to refill our bottles and make sure we have enough to prepare dinner.

When planning a route, you should also look at the weather forecast. If it’s going to rain, you don’t want to camp in valleys that could flood, and you have to be mindful that some rivers and streams can become uncrossable after only a few inches of rainfall.

There you have it — the basics of land navigation that should serve as a great starting point for getting out there. Give them a try, and tell us about your adventure! As always, we’ll see you out there.


Zachary Shenal is a US Marine, landscape/expedition photographer, outdoor enthusiast, and avid hiker. Follow him on Instagram @zachventure_photos

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