Map & Compass: Beginners Guide – Part 2 of 3

Millets 2 min readAdvice & Guides

Welcome to our three part series where we introduce the basics of map and compass navigation. In Part 1 we discussed the equipment required for navigation, as well as some basic features of the map. In Part 2 we’ll be learning more about the map’s anatomy, as well as how to orientate the map using features on the ground.



Different navigational features and their importance


For the purpose of navigating on foot some features are more relevant than others. Firstly, consider how common features are. Churches, for example, are easy to identify on the map and on the ground, however there aren’t likely to be many on your route to help you navigate. Instead focus on learning the symbols for what you most commonly encounter on a walk. Things like roads, tracks, paths, water courses, and different types of slope are more abundant and are therefore better aids to navigation.


The second thing to consider is that some of these features can be more reliable than others. Take woodland for example. Although you will at times have to use it for navigation, it can be a misleading feature. Over the course of years new woodland can grow, and over the course of just a few weeks it can be felled. In the same way small streams and ponds can dry up, and rather annoyingly footpaths can become diverted or overgrown.


Unfortunately, you can’t avoid using some features just because they may be unreliable. That said, always bear in mind that changes do occur, and where possible try to rely on more permanent markers. More reliable features include roads, larger bodies of water, and most importantly aspect of slope (the direction the ground slopes) and gradient of slope (how steep it is). Slopes in the ground take thousands of years to change making them very reliable for navigation. The key to unlocking this navigational treasure are contour lines. These fine lines (orange on Ordinance Survey maps) indicate the presence of all types of slope including hills, valleys, and ridges, regardless of how minor they are. Understanding contour lines and practicing navigating by them should be a top priority.



Orientating the map using features on the ground    


This is a vital skill for navigation whereby you correctly rotate the map so it is pointing in the same direction as you are travelling. This may mean the writing on the map is now the wrong way up, however it does mean that features to the left or right in the real world will be on the same corresponding side on the map. A correctly orientated map makes navigation much easier.


There are two main ways of orientating a map. Firstly, and more frequently used, is orientation using features on the ground. Let’s for example assume we’re walking along the B6001 towards the village of Hathersage where this road terminates. On the map find the road then rotate the map until the village is nearest its top edge with the road running back towards you. Now the position of features in the landscape will correspond to those on the map. Although this is a simplified example once you understand the concept, and combine it with the markings on your map, you can apply it in most situations.  



Join us for Part 3 of this series where we’ll be learning how to orientate the map using a compass, and how to navigate in ‘legs’.

Millets Author

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