How To Use A Compass And Map For Navigation

If you are a regular hiker, or just someone who enjoys spending time outdoors, there may come a time when you will have to use a map and a compass to determine where you are and where you need to go. However, in order to accomplish this task, it is crucial that you have the “right” map and compass for the job.

In the following article we will discuss how to choose the best compass and map for navigation, followed by a section in which we will explain step-by-step how to take and follow a bearing using this very crucial pair of navigational tools.

Choosing the Best Map for Navigation

When navigating—or attempting to navigate—the best tool in your toolbox is definitely a map, even more important than a compass. However, unless you have the right kind of map, your “navigational tool” becomes nothing but a worthless piece of paper that is not going to help you in the least.

Here we will focus on the different kinds of maps available to you—their pros and cons—and the features in a map that are most important.


If you are anywhere in the United States a USGS (United States Geographical Survey) map will be an extremely helpful tool. USGS maps are the standard maps for wilderness navigation in America. And Nat Geo even offers free downloads of USGS topographic maps.

topo map

They feature a scale of 1:24,000, which essentially means that 1 inch is equal to 24,000 inches when reading this type of map. They also have line intervals of 50 feet that make them fairly detailed.

USGS maps use the standard WGS84 latitude and longitude coordinates and the UTM coordinate systems, both of which can help you identify your position in relation to certain features on the map.

On the downside, USGS maps tend to be very large and not very easy to handle. You will need to find a large flat space on which to lay out the map if you are going to get the best benefit from it.

Another disadvantage is that many of these USGS maps have not been updated for quite some time. In fact, a few of them have not been updated at all since the 1950s, which could make it difficult to identify your position in relation to things that were not even built until after that decade.

Custom Correct Maps

Custom correct maps can also be a helpful tool should you find yourself lost in a wilderness environment. These maps offer 15-minute coverage and have a larger scale ratio than the USGS maps, a scale ratio of 1 inch to 62,500 inches, which makes them considerably smaller and less unwieldy than the USGS maps.

custom correct maps

Although custom correct maps were originally derived from those of the USGS, these maps are arranged in such a way that they show popular loop hikes and trails, a feature that can come in very handy if you are a regular hiker. All of the custom correct maps have been updated more recently than the USGS maps, most of them in the early 1990s; and like the USGS maps they use both latitude/longitude and UTM coordinates.

On the “con” side of the spectrum, custom correct maps are less detailed than the USGS maps, despite having been updated more recently. Also, custom correct maps are very location specific, covering only certain states—such as Washington state.

Finally, instead of using interval lines of 50 feet, these maps have 100-foot contour lines and are thus not as detail-rich.

Green Trail Maps

Last but not least we have the Green Trail Maps. These maps can be a great asset in a survival situation—but only if you are on the West Coast.

That’s because Green Trail Maps are only available for states like Washington, Oregon, California, Arizona and Nevada. They are also less-detailed, with 100-foot contour lines like the custom correct maps.

green trails map

There are many positives of note if you can get your hands on a Green Trail Map for your state. Developed specifically for hikers and regularly used by search and rescue teams, Green Trail Maps have a 15-minute coverage, are originally based on the USGS maps, but are updated much more frequently than those from that organization.

Green Trail Maps are very compact in size, they use latitude/longitude, UTM and UMS coordinates, and have a scale of 1 inch to 69,500 inches.

If you live on the West Coast of the United States, and you are looking for a more compact and recently updated map, you really can’t go wrong with either the Green Trail Maps or the custom correct maps. Although both are derived from USGS maps, their larger scale makes them easier to carry with you and they facilitate easy reading.

USGS maps are usually the standard for most hikers, as they are readily available and fairly affordable.

Some of our best pieces of advice when choosing a map are as follows:

  • Covers the entire hike. When selecting any map to take along with you on a hike, you will need to make sure the map doesn’t cut off in areas where you will be trekking.
  • Easy to follow scale and datum. Any map you choose should have a map scale and/or datum system with which you are entirely proficient and comfortable.
  • Feature rich. The best map to bring along when hiking is one that is feature rich, including things like roads, boundaries and streams. This will help you navigate more comfortably should you become lost.

Most of these hiking maps can be purchased over the Internet or in outdoor retail outlets for a small fee. However, if you are really strapped for cash you can always go online and download a PDF version of a map that covers your hike.

The only disadvantage to that strategy is that the map you download may be difficult to read when it is compressed into an 8.5 by 11-inch document.

Choosing the Best Compass for Navigation

After your map, the compass is the most important tool in your navigation toolbox. However, this is only true with the right kind of compass for the job, and for that you may have to pay a little more.

When selecting a compass for navigation it’s extremely important that you look for several specific features on that compass. These include:

  • A clear base plate. This will help you see underneath the compass.
  • Sighting mirror. A sighting mirror will allow you to see objects at eye-level
  • Rotating bezel. Your rotating bezel should be marked with 360 degrees in 2-degree increments.
  • Meridian lines. Meridian lines are needed to pair your compass with your map.
  • Declination adjustment knob and arrow. These two features are necessary for correcting the difference between magnetic and true north.

A compass with all of these features, along with a high-quality map, will help you take and follow a bearing, either on a map or a real object.

Active Weekender Pick – Best Compass For Hiking & Backpacking (2019)

Suunto MC-2G Navigator Compass

This full-featured compass lets you take accurate bearings with a sighting notch and mirror, plus its patented Global needle works anywhere on earth.

Top features:

  • Baseplate features magnifying lens, straight edge and inch markings for accurate map reading
  • Declination scale is adjustable to account for the difference between magnetic and true North; adjustment key is included on lanyard
  • Easy-grip bezel reads in 2-degree increments and features luminous outer ring for low-light reading

This is our #1 recommendation for hikers and backpackers looking for a great compass that will work anywhere in the world.

How to Use Your Compass and Map for Navigation

The first step in navigating with your map and compass is to take a bearing on a map. This step is not very difficult when done correctly.

When doing your map work at this time, you will want to ignore your compass needle and declination arrow for now. Those features are only necessary when you are using your compass in relation to the world around you. For now, the compass will act more as a protractor.

To give you an example of how you can use your map and compass to take a bearing, simply imagine that you are standing at the top of a mountain, looking across the valley to another mountain. So, in what heading is that second mountain? Here’s how you can take a bearing:

  1. Open up your compass and lay it flat on your map
  2. Rotate the compass so that the base is on point A (where you are) and the mirror is laid alongside point B (where you are going—the other mountain).
  3. Rotate the bezel of the compass until North matches the map’s north, and the meridian lines align with a north/south line (use your latitude/longitude and UTM grids).
  4. Now, read the bearing at the top of the compass to determine the bearing—the heading toward point B.

Now that you have taken a bearing on your map using your compass, it’s time to learn how to follow a bearing on your map to determine how you should proceed. For that, let’s assume you have to go and rescue a princess whose position is 308NW of your position as determined by your compass.

What do you do next? Here is how to proceed and accomplish your mission:

  1. Open up your compass and adjust the bezel until it reads 308NW
  2. Align the now-open compass to a point in which the clear part is laid alongside your current position.
  3. Rotate the entire compass now, being sure to keep one edge along your position. Keep turning it until the compass matches the map’s north, and the meridian lines match the North/South lines on your map.
  4. You have now determined the direction you need to walk: Your destination is somewhere along the line created by the base of your compass.

As you can see, navigating with a map and compass is not very difficult whatsoever. As long as you have a map that covers your entire hike, one with many features and a scale that is easy to read; as well as a compass with all the features we mentioned above, you too can learn how to take and follow a bearing on any map.

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