Map & Compass: Beginners Guide – Part 3 of 3

Millets 3 min readAdvice & Guides

Welcome to our three part series where we introduce the basics of map and compass navigation. In Part 1 and Part 2 we’ve covered equipment, key features of the map, and how to orientate the map using features on the ground. In this final part we’ll look at map orientation using a compass, and how to navigate in ‘legs’.



Map orientation using a compass


The second way of orientating the map is using a compass. This technique is especially useful if poor visibility prevents map orientation using features on the ground. To do this lay your compass on the map so that the north markings on the plate or body of the compass point north on the map and the south markings point south. Note: - North on a map is usually at the top i.e. if the text is the correct way up north is along the top edge. If you are ever in doubt the direction of north will be marked somewhere on the map. Next, holding the compass firmly in position, rotate the map until the north end of the needle (usually red) points to north on the compass body and therefore to north on the map. For the purposes of general navigation your map is now correctly orientated.



Navigating in Legs


Like any major task navigating a route needs to be broken down into manageable sections. We call these sections legs. Create a leg by choosing a small section of the route ahead on the map. The start point of a leg should ideally be a point where you know your exact position (e.g. where the footpath leaves a road). The middle section should consist of a list of features on the map that you can check off as you pass them on the ground (e.g. you pass a pond on your left, the ground then slopes steeply upwards, you then turn right in front of a wood). Your ability to remember a list of features is what usually determines the length of your leg.


Where possible the end of a leg should coincide with an easily identifiable point (e.g. where the path crosses a bridge, or where the path meets a track). It’s also worth ending a leg where your route changes direction, or just before a particularly difficult section of navigation. Finally, it’s good to choose an obvious feature that if reached indicates you have overshot the end of your leg. These are known as ‘collecting features’ and are also useful to help indicate if you have missed an important turning during a leg.


Once you have worked out your leg on the map you can start walking navigating from your memorised route. In reality many people need to refer back to the map during the leg, especially if they are new to navigation. A good tip is to keep your thumb on the map at your last known position pointing in the direction of travel. This keeps your map correctly orientated making re-referencing the route quick and easy. Once you have reached the end of your leg stop and plan your next leg using the map. If you overshoot a turning or the end of your leg, simply retrace your steps until you reach an obvious feature from your intended route. Always remember the key to navigation is knowing, to the best of your ability, where you are on the map at all times. If you are the navigator the map should be in your hand not in your rucksack.



This brings us to the end of our guide to basic map and compass navigation. It also brings us to the start of your journey to confident navigation. Now it’s over to you. Take what you’ve learnt to the hills and practice, practice, practice. Happy navigating.   

Millets Author

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