How to Effectively Read a Map And Compass

History Map and Compass

How to Effectively Read a Map And Compass

In a world captivated by GPS units, interpreting maps and harnessing compasses remains a beacon of unbridled adventure. These tools harbor timeless wisdom and practicality. Think of maps as portals to understand the land’s lay, unfolding stories of terrain, rivers, and mountains. Envision compasses as loyal guides, pointing true North even when technology falters. By mastering these skills, you join a lineage of explorers who navigated deserts, crossed oceans, and conquered peaks. Amid GPS screens, mastering map and compass signify a profound connection with the Earth. It’s an invitation to decipher landscapes, forge intrepid paths, and embrace the thrill of developing your way. As we delve into the heart of navigation’s essence, we unearth routes and a profound appreciation for our planet’s intricate design. So, step beyond the touchscreen maps and smartphone pings. Grab your backpack, tent, hiking boots, mess kits, and let map and compass unveil the world’s secrets and embark on adventures where the journey becomes the ultimate reward.

What is the importance of knowing how to read a map and compass?

Man Reading Map

When learning the mastery of maps, compasses, and GPS fuels boundless adventures, you know how not to feel lost in the middle of nowhere when you are without technology’s hum. These tools unravel nature’s enigmas, steering explorers across rugged landscapes, dense woods, and lofty summits. With GPS precision enhancing the journey, modern adventurers embrace a symphony of ancient wisdom and digital innovation. Guided by map and compass, yet fortified by satellite signals, they script tales of audacious exploits, etching their mark in the annals of genuine discovery.

Step-by-step instructions on how to read a map and compass.

I will take you through how to read a map and compass first, starting with how to read a map and what types of maps there are. Next, I will explain how to read and understand what a compass is saying and how to read it. In the last part, I will explain how both of them go together and how you will be able to read them together. After that, it is up to you to get out there and practice what is being explained.

Understanding Maps

Types of Maps

When you want to learn how to read a map and compass, you must first start understanding maps! We will go through each map and what. There are five different types of maps to choose from, General Reference, Topographical, Thematic, Navigation Charts, and Cadastral Maps and Plains.

World Map

General Reference Maps

General Reference Maps are your typical easy-to-read maps; they show austere locations that are man-made and natural. They will have your roadways, main cities, and some forest information. These types are maps are great for knowing how to get to certain towns you want to get to.

Topographical Maps

Topo Map

The topographical maps are more updated and have everything a general reference map has; the difference is that it also has more detail about the land. The way they usually show these details are by using contour lines. Topographical Maps are traditionally the go-to for when you are going to go backpacking and hiking; they are easier to use and understand.

Thematic Maps

Thermal Map

These maps log different statistics and group them using different strategies. These are usually the maps that have the coloring in certain areas. These areas are high in the statistics used to measure, so they burn more brightly on this map. For example, some people measured how many people knew how to choose the correct hiking boots; they would talk to different people and then use this type of map and heat map other parts of the map that show that those people highly don’t know how to choose correct hiking boots. These types of maps are mainly used with statistics.

Navigation Charts

Nautical Map

Nautical Charts are a combination between General Reference maps, Topographical maps, and Thematic maps. You usually need a specialist to read these types of maps because there is a lot of different information. Typically, these maps are used with ships, boats, and aircraft because of how much information is on these maps, including where the shipping lanes are, what the ground type is like etc.

Cadastral Maps and Plans

Cadastral maps are made up of different Cadastral plans; these plans are made up of property lines. They help when you need to know where your property ends. Usually, your government agency has this information, and you can ask them to see your property lines.

Parts of a Topographical Map

The main map we will concentrate on is the Topographical map because it is used mainly for backpacking, hiking, or hunting. Topographical maps or topo maps usually have a legend and a North Arrow to orientate the map correctly. There is also a graphical scale that allows you to measure how far everything is; there is also the map’s location, which tells what area the map is mapping. There is also a UTM grid that allows you to pinpoint your location when using a GPS. Topo maps will also have forests, trees, roads, and towns. They will also have hiking trails on them as well as mountain tops. They will also have game units and where private property is at.

Contour Lines

Topo maps are great for giving lots of information; with each contour line, you can read where the elevation is and be able to tell what the terrain is like. The closer the contour lines, the steeper the area; for example, if you see a bunch of contour lines on top of each other, that is a cliff in that spot. If you see contour lines that are spread far from each other, that usually means the terrain in that area will be flat.

North Arrow

North Arrow

With the North arrow on maps, there are usually three different norths and the angles between them. There is True North. True North is where all the longitude line meet and become a point. This is marked by a star, usually around the outside of the north arrow. Then there is Magnetic North, where the compass will point to when the map is published. Magnetic North does move, so older maps may not work because the North would need to be corrected between the compass and the map. Lastly, there is Grid North, which marks the way North would be for the grid system that would put the Earth on a plane instead of a globe for the UTM.

Graphical Scale

With the graphical scale, the first place you want to start is how they scale the graphical scale; well, to know that you have to look just above the scale. Most topo maps are scaled at 1:24000; the meaning of this is that 1 inch on the map is equivalent to 24000 inches or 2000 feet when you are walking. You can use a graphical scale to plan your trip, take a piece of string or a lanyard and trace out a path you will follow played from point A to point B. Once you have it done, take the line that has been a part of being laid down and put it against the scale. You will be able to see how far you are planning on going.


UTM stands for Universal Transverse Mercator; this is a way to pinpoint the location yourself. It is usually easiest to do with a GPS unit, but you can do it without one. Each grid box on a map equals 1000 meters; you can look for that on your map. It should say something equivalent to 1000 meter grid and then followed by what zone the map is in. On the side and corners of the map, there are numbers; those are UTM ticks; you use these to start narrowing your location. For example, you will use the map to find your landmarks to give you an idea of where you are, then look at the map and find those landmarks on your map, and you will know what part of the grid you are in. You can tell someone whereby giving them the entire number sequence, for example, 13S (zone) 466(the east grid line) 000(location inside the grid) meters East and 4351 (the north grid line) 000(location inside the grid) meters North. (Full location) [13S 466000 meters East 4351000 meters North]. The more complicated part of UTM is getting the numbers inside the grid; you could use a millimeter side of a ruler and measure the grid. Each millimeter counts as a hundred up to 999; remember, each grid is 1000 meters, so 100 mm equals 100 meters.


The legend of a map is a beautiful tool! It will tell you what all the coloring on the map is; it will tell you what every line is and what each line means. If you need help or are trying to figure out what a symbol means, go to the legend, usually located at the bottom of your map, and find the character and learn what it means.

Reading a Topo Map

Now that we know the parts of a Topo map, we can learn how to read a map. Reading a map is relatively simple: looking at your map, looking around, and finding land points that match the map; if you know if there are any roads nearby, there is a mountain with two peaks by you. Look at your map, find the road near you, and look for the mountain with the two peaks (indicated by the contour lines by circles; sometimes, the map will also say that it is a peak by putting an x on top). That is close to your location. You use a compass to make it easier to find where you are! Hence why learning how to read a map and compass is so important.



Types of Compasses

Now there are many types of compasses, all for the same purpose of finding north! We will focus on just a few of them that are good for camping, orienteering, and backpacking. We have a couple of different compasses to choose from: the thumb compass, lensatic compass, wrist compass, and map compasses.

The Thumb Compass

The thumb compass is precisely how it sounds; it is a smaller compass that attaches to your thumb. It is usually associated with people who go orienteering; the compass is designed to connect to your left thumb and have the map in your right hand so you can always keep your position on the map. You keep the compass on the map with your thumb as the baseplate, pointing to where you want to travel, Then you orientate the map by rotating to where the needle is pointing north, and then you should have your direction. These compasses are meant for speed and not quite accuracy; they are meant for a quick look at the map to ensure you are headed in the right direction and keep moving.

Wrist Compass

Wrist compasses are a quick and easy way to know which way your direction is. These types of compasses you strap to your wrist like a watch, and when you need to know which way is north, look at your wrist. The only downside with these compasses is that they could be better for setting your navigation. They work better for the whole you are hiking and need to do a double check on exactly where you are going. Reading a map and compass to me is about actually putting the compass on the map so for me I would have to take the compass off a lot when I’m reading my map and compass.

Lensatic Compass

Lensatic Compass

The lensatic compass is good for finding your barrings when you are backpacking; smaller, lightweight, and easy to have in your pack or pocket. They also fold up nicely while they aren’t in use. A lensatic compass is simple enough to use; you will first unfold it, bring the cap with a wire in it at 90o degrees, and bring the magnifying glass up. You then bring the longer line on the dial to match the wire and the compass up to your nose. You then look through the wire and check it to the object you are getting the barrings of. Once you have the object in sight with the wire, you will look through the magnifying glass at the longer line set up to the wire and see the numbers on the outer dial. You will also see North, East, South, and West markers; reading the numbers and stating which direction it is in will give you the barring of that item. For example, if you were looking for a specific mountain top, once you find it and line it all, you would say it is 138 degrees southeast. You could also use the Lensatic Compass as a regular compass to see which direction you are facing. These compasses will work when you want you use your map and compass together, they are just more efficient in making sure it is the correct landmark your are looking at.

Map Compass

Map Compass

A map compass is a handy tool when finding your location on a map; it is usually flat and transparent, and you will be able to see the map underneath; they have a lanyard on them, and it also has different measuring grids on each side of it. How you use a map compass is quite simple: you will set the compass on the map’s compass and orientate the compass to match the map north by turning the dial. Once this is done, you will get yourself orientated with the map and find different land points to find your location. You can then use the compass to learn how far you will be going on the map by looking at the map, using the lanyard to trace where you are thinking of going, and then measuring the lanyard against the map’s graphical scale. These compasses are my personal go-to; they are easy to use and easy to store. They are easy to look at and oriente everything to North. These compasses are great to strat learning how to read a map and compass.

Bringing It Together

Map and Compass

We have gone through different types of maps and compasses. Now it is the time to bring it all together and learn how to read a map and compass together. Depending on what you are doing, you will want to choose the correct type of map and compass, but in most cases, all you will need is a topographical map and a map compass. Bringing it together is quite simple: you will lay out your map, then orient your compass to your maps north by moving the dial on the compass. Once you set, you have the map and compass orientated together, and you will turn the map with the compass on it so that they are both pointing north by the compass’s needle. Once you have completed this, you will begin looking for big land points on the map that match your surroundings. After narrowing down the significant landmarks, start looking for more minor land points on the map that fit closer to your surroundings. When you have these all done, you should get a very close idea of your location. Then you can go through and plot a course of the route you plan on taking.

My Experiences With the Map and Compass

I have gone through a couple of different types of adventures using a map and compass. I have gone hiking, backpacking, hunting, and planning out trips. One of my favorite memories is when I went on a two-week backpacking trip for a class, and one of the lessons was how to read a map and compass. Using the technique I explained earlier, I could point out our location in just a few minutes; my teachers were impressed that I could get to our site quickly. I have spent many years going through and learning how to read a map and compass better; my dad taught me how to read a map and compass when I was about twelve, and from then on, I kept learning how to be more efficient when navigating. If you want to get better, keep practicing, get outside learn where how to track where you are going and where you are going you will get good at reading a map and compass. As always, if you have any questions or comments, reach out to us and let us know! Have a great adventure.


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