How to Use a Compass and Map

How to Use a Compass and MapMaps are key equipment in any expedition. Providing spatial representation of an area from a bird's-eye view, a map often makes the difference between being lost and getting home. Knowing how to read a map and take a bearing are vital skills for anyone heading into the wilderness.


Difficulty: Moderately Easy

How to:

Things You’ll Need:
  • Map
  • Compass with bezel
Step 1
Use the compass to determine magnetic north.
Step 2
Orient the map so that it is pointing north. Most maps place north at the top. Match the compass lines with the lines of longitude (meridians). Meridians run north-south across the map, and measure east-west position. Lines of latitude (parallels) run east-west across the map and measure north-south position.
Step 3
Check the variance between true north and magnetic north.
Step 4
Adjust the map so that it is pointing true north by adding or subtracting the difference. If the variance is 11 degrees and magnetic north is positioned to the right of true north in the map's legend, then your compass needle should be pointing to 11 degrees. You now have true north. Alternatively you can just add or subtract the difference after gaining a bearing (see Tips).
Step 5
Determine your destination on the map.
Step 6
Swivel the compass so that the leading arrow (not the magnetic needle) is pointing toward the destination on the map.
Step 7
Note the degrees from the compass bevel. This is the bearing you need to heed.
Step 8
Mindful of the terrain, maintain the bearing until you reach your destination. If you have to take an indirect path, the bearing will always point you in the right direction as long as you keep the compass needle pointing north.

Tips & Warnings

You can align the map and then simply subtract the variance of magnetic north and true north to give yourself a bearing. Check the map legend. If magnetic north is shown to the left of true north, add the difference. If it is shown to the right, subtract the difference.
Use visible land forms to help keep the map aligned while hiking.
Always keep "red in the shed," the compass needle in its north position on the bezel. Subtract or add the variance from your bearing to get a true bearing while walking.
Take bearings from your position to two landforms to ascertain your exact position.
Measure the distance on the map using the compass ruler. Use a pace count to determine distance traveled on the ground.
Compass readings can be affected by iron and steel objects. Make sure when laying out your route that you are not near these metals. Additionally, some mountains and landforms may actually be magnetic, such as the famed Magnetic Island in Australia, which threw off Captain Cook's navigator and almost wrecked the ship. So pay attention and make sure the reading makes sense.

Article Written By Benjamin Williams

Ben Williams is an award-winning reporter and freelance writer based out of Colorado. He has written for conglomerates of newspapers and magazines, supplying news, features, editorial and opinion. While running an Energy Services and consulting firm, he also writes for multiple websites.

Don't Miss a Thing!

All our latest outdoor content delivered to your inbox once a week.



We promise to keep your email address safe and secure.