Map & Compass: Beginners Guide – Part 1 of 3

Millets 2 min readAdvice & Guides

The ability to navigate confidently should be the goal of anyone regularly heading for the outdoors. With this in mind we’ve put together a series of guides introducing the basics of map and compass navigation. In this series we’ll cover the equipment required to navigate, an introduction to map anatomy, how to correctly set the map, and how to navigate in legs.     



What equipment do I need?


Unlike many activities getting properly equipped to navigate is very inexpensive. Firstly you’ll need a map. Although other maps are available most opt for those produced by the Ordnance Survey. Ordnance Survey maps are available in two different versions. There’s the Landranger series (with a pink covers) and the Explorer series (with orange covers). The primary difference between the two is their scale. In simple terms Explorer maps (1:25000 scale) give a more enlarged view of the world providing more detail than Landranger maps (1:50000 scale). Generally speaking Explorer maps are better for navigation, however they only cover an area roughly a quarter the size of Landrangers. This means you’ll ultimately need to buy more maps, and possibly carry more, to cover your intended route. As a rule if you take less strenuous walks, in less serious terrain and weather, Landranger maps are adequate. They are also of more use for car navigation when travelling to and from your start point.


Most maps will require some kind of extra protection from the elements. Ordnance Survey offer a range of ‘Active’ maps which come with a high grade laminated finish. These are far more durable and weather proof, but are a little bulkier and more expensive. The other option is to invest in a map case  which can be transferred to any paper map.


The third and final navigation essential is the compass. For the basic navigation covered here anything that points reliably to magnetic north will suffice. That said if you are keen to progress with your walking the Silva Field Compass, or Eurohike Orienteer Compass are both worth a look.  


Getting to know your map


If you’ve just purchased your first map by a particular publisher be sure to sit down and familiarise yourself with it. First make sure you get to grips with the scale. On an Ordnance Survey map this is printed along the bottom edge. If you misunderstand your map’s scale when planning a walk you could end up covering half, or worse still twice the intended distance by mistake! Again if you are using Ordnance Survey maps it’s worth knowing that each square in the faint blue grid pattern is always 1km x 1km regardless of how big it is printed.


In addition there is a huge amount of information represented on a good map so make a real effort to study the key and understand what the different symbols mean. The vast majority of navigation is based on relating the markings and symbols on the map to their corresponding features on the ground. Master this and you are well on your way to confident navigation.



Join us for Part 2 of this series where we’ll be learning more about the maps anatomy, as well as how to orientate the map using features on the ground...

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