Adding classical orienteering techniques to your skillset might not be at the top of your to-do list—but it should be.

I’m a Grown Millennial, and I Just Learned How to Use a Map and Compass
Kasey Stewart

The first thing you need to know is that I’m the Queen of Google Maps. I drove my car from New Jersey to California and back (twice!) relying solely on GPS. I even discovered that if you put a destination in Google Maps while you’re in mobile service range but then lose your connection, the app will continue to show you the route. This came in handy when we were driving through the dark abyss of a city named Meeteetse, Wyoming, population 327, also known as “The Middle Of Nowhere.” But I’m also a trail jogger and an explorer, which means I’m frequently off the cellular grid or out of juice (blame Instagram). And for whatever reason, in my 25 years on Earth, I’d never really learned how to navigate the old-school way, with a map and compass. (Blame the internet?)

I recently decided to take a crack at the analog navigation technique with Native Quest founder, Mike Clyde Ryder, who leads outdoor retreats throughout the West that promote healthy habits for the mind, body, and soul. Mike set up his demonstration over an arrangement of Mexican blankets in the Camp Sunset lounge at the Outpost Trade event in Los Angeles, where attendees enjoyed live music, discovered new outdoor products, and listened to panel discussions on all manner of topics, such as the importance of adventure. From Mike’s teachings, I picked up some essential outdoor survival skills. Here are my fundamental takeaways from the map-and-compass 101:

Choose Your Compass

First things first: You need to choose your compass. While there are dozens of types available, choosing the correct one can be intimidating, especially if you’re not sure what all the features are. The most important attributes include:

  1. The base plate, which is the mounting of the compass with a scale to measure distance.
  2. The bexel, also known as the compass housing, which contains the magnetic needle, orienting lines, and a rotating circle determining degrees. You’ll also want to make sure the needle floats freely inside fluid and orients itself towards Magnetic North (more on that later.)
  3. Orienting lines, which are used to align with grid lines on your map.
  4. An orienting arrow, which is fixed to the compass housing and points North.
  5. A direction of travel arrow, which is fixed to the base plate and used to determine your direction of travel.
  6. An index line, which is a marker on the rotating bezel to determine degrees.
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Mike points out that, “When purchasing a compass, it is important to avoid one that has air bubbles in it,” he says. “This will disrupt the orientation of the needle.” He recommends two brands: the highly accurate Silva and Suunto compasses.

Know Your Norths

Knowing the difference between Magnetic North and True North is essential to the practice. You probably learned this in elementary school: The Earth spins on an imaginary axis at two points, which are True North and True South. It gets a bit more complex from there. Magnetic North is the balanced magnetic needle that will align itself with Earth’s magnetic field and North Pole. The compass points to Magnetic North dependent on where you’re located geographically. The difference of degree determines your declination (degree of difference from True North to Magnetic North.) Because True North and Magnetic North are not aligned (they’re roughly 1,000 km apart), it is extremely important to know the declination specific to your area for the most accurate compass reading. Otherwise, you may find yourself off-target.

Orient Your Map and Compass Together

Mike used a topographical map of the San Jacinto Mountains region of Riverside County, California for his demonstration. A topographical map gives a detailed reading of the landmarks, terrain, and elevation of the land. The first thing to do when looking at your topographical map is to find your starting point and end point, and then line both of those up with the edge of the compass base plate. Next, rotate the bezel until the orienting arrow and orienting lines point to True North on the map. Adjust the angle of degree to account for the Magnetic North declination. Lastly, rotate the map and compass together until the red end of the compass needle is aligned with the orienting arrow and pointing towards Magnetic North.

And you’ve got it! Your map and compass are now accurately aligned and you can begin following the direction of travel arrow. Be mindful to keep the needle aligned with the orienting arrow. Happy adventuring!

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