Finding Your Way With a Compass and Map

In Blog

What would you do if you find yourself alone and lost in the wilderness and realize that there is no GPS signal at all? If this is your first time having to use a topographical map and compass in the field, the lack of GPS reception may lead you to experience a sense of panic. However, you shouldn’t feel that all is lost because you already have everything you need to figure out where you are and where to go.

In some ways, you are in a similar situation faced by competitors in the sport of orienteering. According to OrienteeringUSA, “Orienteering is a competitive international sport that combines racing with navigation. It is a timed race in which individual participants use a specially created, highly detailed map to select routes and navigate through diverse and often unfamiliar terrain and visit control points in sequence.” In 2015, 137 competitors attended the Gold Rush 2015 A-Meet near beautiful Boise, Idaho.

If you’re not an experienced orienteer, that’s ok, but you’ll still need to understand some basic principles in order to get back to a safe location. To escape dangerous situations, it is often useful to use an easy-to-remember acronym. As they say, the first thing you need to do if you find yourself in a hole is to quit digging. Similarly, the first thing to do when lost is to STOP.

S = Stop

First, you need stop where you are in order to get your bearings. As soon as you realize you are lost, you need to admit that to yourself and quit moving in random directions. Every action must be purposeful and no energy should be wasted. This step is very important to avoid panic and desperation moves. Traveling in a state of panic hoping to somehow randomly find your way out can be deadly. It could easily lead you deeper into unfamiliar territory and you will be less likely to remember the way out.

T = Think

Think about your situation and try to re-trace your steps as to how you got here. Try to remember any landmarks you saw earlier on your hike and long ago you saw them. Analyze the area surrounding you, both close to you and far in the distance. Once again, you are looking for landmarks that could help you determine where you in relationship to your map.
As you assess your resources keep these general time principles in mind before you move to the next step:
You can survive for:
3 minutes without air
3 hours without adequate shelter and/or clothing
3 days without water
3 weeks without food
Finding your way home is all about returning safely to the adequate shelter of your campsite or home. Keep in mind that hypothermia kills around 1300 people in the US every year! Thinking soberly is one of the most important steps you can take in a survival situation.

O = Observe

Determine how much time you have before nightfall, observe the weather, and how much water or food you have. Gauge your situation, the terrain, and consider your physical state (energy level, any injuries, etc.). Inventory the tools and equipment you have to help you survive. If the weather looks like it is turning for the worse, then finding shelter becomes a much greater priority. There will be times that stopping immediately to build a shelter for the night is a better plan than attempting to press on toward home.

P = Plan

Plan your next steps based on your thoughts and observations. Assuming for the purposes of this article that finding your way to your campsite or home will involve more than simply retracing your steps along a well-travelled path, the next step will be to prepare to use your topographical map and compass to do some orienteering.
The first step will be to identify at least two landmarks so you can use your compass and map to get an idea of your present location. You will need to carefully read your topographical map to identify smaller peaks and ridge lines. Do not rush the process of accurately identifying your current location. It may be a good idea to look for a third landmark to make sure you have your exact location locked-in. On your map, consider the scale, the compass directions (where is north?), and the declination marking so you can adjust your compass to match your location.

Adjusting for Declination

Newbies will be tempted to skip this step. I’d caution you not to ignore declination when orienteering because it will cost you accuracy. By ignoring this simple but critical adjustment, you could easily end up many yards or even miles away from your final destination and not be able to figure out why.

Keep in mind that north on the map (also called grid north) will not always be the same as magnetic north (where the floating compass needle will point). Look on your topographical map for a declination marking. Some maps include a reference to true north, which can be confusing. The difference between grid north and true north is that grid north is the way your map is oriented and true north is the direction of the North Pole. In other words, the grid north on the map you’re holding was created from a flat map of the world while true north is in line our spherical planet’s true orientation.

What you’re really looking for is the difference between the grid north and magnetic north – this will give you the number of degrees to adjust the compass. Place your compass on the map so that the plate arrows align with north on the map. Turn the map with the compass on it until the arrow points to the degree matching the declination marking. You’re now ready to get a fix on your current position.

Example 1: Colorado
Grid declination 2 degrees east of true north.
Magnetic declination 14 degrees east of true north.
Adjustment on your compass: 12 degrees east of the magnetic needle = north on your map.

Example 2: Idaho
Grid declination 2 degrees west of true north.
Magnetic declination 19 degrees east of true north.
Adjustment on your compass: 21 degrees east of the magnetic needle = north on your map.

Example 3: Virginia
Grid declination 2 degrees west of true north.
Magnetic declination 12 degrees west of true north.
Adjustment on your compass: 10 degrees west of the magnetic needle = north on your map.

Finding your Location Using Resection

Resection - Orienteering by CompassOne method to find your location is called Resection. A minimum of two landmarks are needed as reference points. Point the compass directly toward the landmark you’re using as a reference point and note the number of degrees on the dial. Place your compass baseplate with one corner on the landmark identified on the map and adjust until the reading on the dial matches. Draw a line using the pencil and baseplate edge. Repeat this for the other landmark(s). Your location is where the lines intersect.

Determining Distance and Planning Your Trek

Once you figure out your location, then you can create a plan to get to where you need to be. The map scale will give you an idea of how much distance you have to cover. For example, if there is a 1:5000 scale ratio, then one centimeter on the map equals 50 meters. Another example would be a map showing 1 inch as equal to 10 miles.

Find your intended destination on your map. From where you are, estimate the distance using the scale. Place your compass on the map and mark a line you intend to follow to navigate to a safe location. Note the degree marking on the dial as you do this. You will need to keep the compass needle pointed at this mark in order to follow the path you set.

Repeat this process frequently at first to ensure you’re on the right path and periodically as you go. Any mistakes you make in the process will be revealed as you chart your locations. Since it may not be an exaggeration to say that your life may depend on your accuracy, it’s much better to check often than to check only once or not check at all.

Don’t exhaust yourself and try to conserve your energy. Take breaks if you feel excessive fatigue setting in. While taking a break, it’s a great time to get new bearings on the landmarks you’ve recorded on your map and record new ones.

A Few Alternative Methods for Finding Direction

If a working compass is not available, there are other ways to get your bearings and provide a general direction of travel. The following are beyond the scope of this article, so I’ll just give a quick overview.

Solar Navigation: Since the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, you can use the sun to get a rough estimate of your direction and even what time of the day it is. This method requires patience as you have to stop long enough to chart the sun’s movement across the sky.

Non-Digital Watch Trick: As long as you are in the Northern Hemisphere. Point the hour hand at the sun. Then, at the midway point between the hour hand and the 12 on the clock, draw a line through it and you have rough north-south line.

Using the North Star: If night is approaching and you’re a long way from safety, it may be best to create a shelter. The cold of the night is often deadly to the unprepared. Remember: you need to stay alive long enough to either navigate out or get rescued. Before you crawl into your makeshift survival shelter for the night, you can use the North Star to locate true north and mark it in the ground with a stick. The North Star is the last star on the handle of the Little Dipper. A secondary option is to find the Big Dipper, then the two outermost stars on the cup form a straight line to the North Star.

Other considerations

If for some reason you do not have a compass and map and you truly don’t have an idea where you are, then you may be better off if you attract the attention of rescuers. An emergency whistle, air horn, signal mirror, and smoke signal fire are among many possible ways you can attract attention. Be creative and patient. You should focus your energy on creating a shelter and not hiking in random directions. Rescue parties could end up missing you if you move around from one place to another.

Of course, it’s far better to be prepared when you go out on a hike. Since technology can fail at any time for any number of reasons, it’s wise to bring a compass and topographical map as a common-sense backup. It should go without saying that it will be far less stressful if you have practiced using your compass beforehand! Don’t forget to tell someone where you are going and how long you plan to stay so they will know something’s wrong if you don’t return by the designated time. Taking a few friends with you can add an additional margin of safety and make your hiking trip much more memorable as well.

Again: Above all, don’t panic or try to wander around hoping to get lucky. Keeping calm, having a clear head, practicing your orienteering skills, and following a plan of action are critical when it comes to survival.

Research links:
Hypothermia Stats
Adjusting for Declination
Finding North

Recent Posts