Imagine this scenario for a second: you’re out up in the mountains in the middle of nowhere and want to make sure you’re following the right trail. You take your phone, try to unlock it only to realise the battery is dead. Brilliant. Then you look around for some signs…of course, there is not a single one in sight. Then you think, “Ah, I can charge my mobile with my power bank!”, but alas, it’s not in your pack where it should be. What to do, what to do…
To prevent you from finding yourself in a similar situation, it’s probably a good idea to think about adding a classic tag team to your kit: the good ol’ map and compass. Some may consider it ‘old-fashioned’, but a map and compass have a lot going for them. They’re not only extremely small and lightweight, allowing you to stuff them in any backpack, but they even work without power! Imagine that.
For these simple reasons, they’re still the perfect alternative or addition to a smartphone or GPS device. In the following, we’re going to give you a brief overview on how to navigate using a map and compass along with some other useful tools.
Navigating with a map & compass – Determining your location
Using a map and compass, you can determine your location and thus the direction you need to go in. Before you can get this far, though, you need to clearly identify two to three features of the landscape. This can be a mountain, lake or church spire you can see in the distance.
Look for this feature on the map. Once you’ve located it on the map, take your compass and put it on the map so that the edge of the compass points toward that feature. Now turn the rotating bezel (i.e. the outer circle which sets the angle) until the orienting arrow and the magnetic needle are on top of each other. The “N” on the housing should now be aligned with the red side of the compass needle. Now you have the correct angle between the tip of the needle and the true north line.
Navigating with a map & compass – Determining the direction
With the correct angle, you can now place the compass on the map and turn it around until the “N” on the bezel points to grid north (the top of the map). If you trace the edge of the base plate with a pencil, you’ll see the line you are on. Then repeat the process for your second and third features that are within view. Where these lines meet is where you are! If the lines you’ve drawn don’t meet, you should repeat the process to determine your precise location.
After you’ve determined your precise location, you can now go about finding your direction of travel. To do this, take your compass, hold it in your hand and turn yourself around until the red end of the needle lines up with the orienting arrow. Now you’ve found the right direction of travel! Let the adventure begin!
Navigating with a map & compass – Following a bearing
After finding the right direction of travel, it’s important to follow it without drifting. Otherwise, you’ll end up arriving somewhere else entirely despite having determined your precise location and direction of travel. And we don’t want that!
Here’s a little trick on how to follow a bearing: once you’ve found the right location and direction of travel, find a special feature in that direction that you can head for when walking. Once you’ve reached this goal, you can find another one you can use as your next goal. Then repeat this process until you’ve reached your final destination.
But in so doing, make sure you haven’t turned the compass housing!
Alternatives to a map & compass
If you haven’t got a map and compass, there’s no need to despair. Look on the bright side: there are so many more options out there (some even free of charge) you can use to determine your location or direction of travel.
During the day, the sun can be a very useful tool to get a rough idea of where you are, since you know that the sun rises in the east, sets in the west, and is due south at noon. Using an analogue watch or an app with an analogue display (with hands), you can find South in the wintertime at the bisector of the angle between the hour hand and the 12 o’clock mark. In the summertime, South is between the hour hand and the 1 o’clock mark.
If you need to navigate at night, all you need to do is find Polaris or the North Star, which is located close to the north celestial pole. This makes it the northern pole star. The North Star can be located by using the Big Dipper. The two outermost stars in the bowl of the Big Dipper point to the North Star, which happens to mark the tip of the handle of the Big Dipper’s smaller buddy, the Little Dipper. Here’s something else worth noting: Polaris is not visible in the Southern Hemisphere due to the curvature of the earth.
If you happen to be in the Southern Hemisphere and can’t find the North Star, you can use other stars to find your way. As a general rule, a star in the North moves to the left, a star in the South moves to the right. A star in the East moves up, while a star in the West moves down. In order to find cardinal directions, you would need to observe the movement of the stars. For example, if a star moves up to the left, it is in the Northeast.
In addition to the sun and stars, you can also use plants to find your way. Unfortunately, though, this is not always 100% accurate. There are always deviations, and the clues we get from plant life are not always completely clear. Nevertheless, you can use trees, shrubs and other plants as an additional source of information to navigate.
Freestanding trees and shrubs, for example, usually lean away from the main direction of the wind, i.e. mostly to the east. But, there are exceptions to this rule, as on slopes or in valleys. Moss growth is another indication of direction. Moss usually grows on the northwest side of trees, rocks, etc. This is due to the simple fact that it grows in damp areas (rain usually comes from the west) and where it is shady the longest. Since the sun never shines from the north, we think you can put the rest of this scout wisdom together yourself.
You can also use snow as an aid to find your way. The snow on the northwest side of trees stays visible for the longest period of time. Why? This goes back to the same “north-south” principle that applies to moss: because it usually snows from the west and the snow melts the fastest on the south side of trees, it remains on the opposite side the longest.
If you’re planning your next adventure or have already packed, we definitely recommend you think about taking a map and compass in addition to your GPS device. Also, don’t forget you can always use the other options Mother Nature has given us for free! That said, have fun and get home safely from your next outdoor adventure!