How to Use a Compass & Topo Map to Navigate the Wilderness

In a survival scenario, there are lots of different ways to navigate your way to safety.

You can use GPS, use the sun, use the stars, use landmarks, or follow linear bodies of water.  However, the most reliable method for land navigation is using a map and compass.

These tools will never run out of battery power, will rarely break, and can give you an incredibly accurate path to safety if you use them properly.

Quick Navigation

Using a Map and Compass Together?
Using Only a Map
Using Only a Compass
Making Your Own Compass
How to Read Topographic Maps


It’s so easy to pull out your smart phone and use a map app or GPS app to navigate to your chosen destination.

What if GPS ceases to function, or if you want to avoid being tracked by your cell phone carrier? Using a map and compass is a fool proof system to find your way.

However, using these tools is becoming a lost art.  I recently came upon an orienteering class for kids while out hiking.

Every single one of them was using a GPS device to find the checkpoints.  Not a single person was using a map and compass.

Roughly a decade ago I worked for a company that required us to route out 30 stops for the day in a given town.  Most of the other drivers would spend the first hour of the day plugging them into their GPS.

I would get out a paper map and compass and plot my course.  You should have seen them panic when the batteries ran out on their GPS while I kept on working.  Technology is great…when it works properly.

Navigate with a Map and Compass Together

Items you’ll need:

Pick A Destination

I picked 2 random cities on a page of a Delorme Atlas for our example.

Today we’re going from point A (Red Circle) to point B (Blue Circle). Red Circle is the spot you need to bug out from, and Blue Circle is your safe haven.

Using a map and compass for navigation

Plot Your Course

First, find a flat patch of ground or rock and layout the map flat. Use a straight edge to determine the desired line of travel.  If you don’t have a straight edge, you can eyeball it or draw a line with a pencil.

Using a map and compass for navigation

Place the long edge of your compass along the straight edge, following the path of the straight edge.


sportsmans warehouse

Set Your Compass Properly

Place your compass on your map next to the indicator for cardinal directions.  Let the needle on the compass settle and note which way is North.

Using a map and compass for navigation

Next, hold the compass still and rotate the map underneath until North on the compass lines up with North on the map.  (In other words, rotate the direction dial housing on your compass so that it’s N (North) points to magnetic north on the map).

Now your “Direction of Travel” arrow points to the heading for your desired line of travel. Your map is now oriented.  Study the map and determine your shortest route to safety. You can now head out to find rescue.

Using a map and compass for navigation

It’s much easier to see how to orient a map than explain it in words, so this is a good video showing how to orient a map with a declination line using a compass:

Navigating to Your Destination

Try to find a landmark along that line in the distance and head towards it. After you reach that landmark use your compass to locate another landmark along the same path and repeat this process until you arrive at your desired destination.

The map will show you landmarks in your area including roads, bodies of water, mountains, canyons, trails, and populated areas.  The compass will help you orient the map properly.

Using a map and compass for navigation

When you have a map and compass with you and you think you might be lost, the first thing you should do is stop in your tracks.

Most people will tend to second guess themselves and keep walking in the same direction or turn around and try to backtrack.

This typically gets you further from your desired path.  When in doubt, stop and check your map and compass.

You should note the exact direction in which you are traveling and use your compass to keep you moving in that specific direction.

If at any point you feel like you might have wandered off of your desired path, get out the map and compass and check your location again.

Take your time and be sure you are going the right way.  It is much more efficient to slowly travel in the correct direction versus quickly traveling in the wrong direction.

In an Emergency the roads may not be the safest route to travel, forcing you to bushwhack through the country side. If you have Maps and a Compass, you can still get to your goal. Sometimes the old way is the right way. Make sure you are familiar with using a map and compass so you know how to navigate if modern technology fails or if you need to avoid using roads.

Using Only a Map


A map can still be useful even if you do not have a compass with you.  In order for this to work, you need to have distinct landmarks in your area that can be seen from your location and are identified on the map.

Get to a high area from which you can see for miles in every direction.  This could be a mountain peak, a hilltop, or you can even climb a tall tree if needed.

Note any major landmarks you see that might appear on your map including mountains, bodies of water, canyons, roads, cities, or trails.  You will need at least two landmarks to properly orient your map, but the more you have the better.

Rotate your map until you have lined up the landmarks with their given location in the area.  Your map should now be roughly oriented so you can determine a direction of travel.

Two years ago, I completed a survival challenge in the high desert of Southwest Colorado.  For this challenge, I was supposed to drop into Yellowjacket Canyon and hike for several days to find rescue.  Unfortunately, the park ranger did not give me accurate information about the canyon.

There was no way to drop in without climbing gear.  It was just too steep.  I needed to find an adjacent canyon that was not as steep.

I checked the map and found one just to the north of Yellowjacket.  I used landmarks and the canyon itself to orient the map.  I was then able to hike to the next canyon and drop in safely.

Using Only a Compass


You can also use a compass by itself if you do not have a map. For this to work, you will need to be observant as you start your journey.  Preparation for this type of navigation starts well before you find yourself lost.

When you start hiking through the wilderness, you need to note the direction in which you are traveling.  It is also best to start near a linear landmark such as a road, trail, river, creek, or shoreline.

For example, you travel West on a road that runs East/West and pull off to park at a roadside parking lot.

You travel due North from the lot.  If you find yourself lost and need to get back to your vehicle, you will need to travel due South.  Pull out your compass and check your cardinal directions.

Travel due south until you hit the road.  Now you have a 50% chance of traveling in the right direction.  Go along the road in whichever direction looks correct.  If you hike for a while and do not find your vehicle, you know you need to travel in the opposite direction.

Making your Own Compass

DIY Compass using Styrofoam

If you have neither a map nor a compass, you can make your own compass if needed.  By definition, compasses find your cardinal directions using the magnetic pull of the North and South poles.  You can accomplish this using random or found items.

Start with a container that will hold water.  This could be a cup, a bottle with the top cut off, or a cupped leaf.  Fill it with water and look for the other items you need.  You will want to find something that will float such as cork, a piece of Styrofoam, or a floating leaf.  Place it in the water.

You will then need a small thin piece of metal such as a sewing needle, a pin, a straightened paperclip, or a thin nail.  You will also need a larger piece of metal to magnetize the other piece.  You can rub the two pieces of metal together or you can strike the small one with the larger one.

This should magnetize the smaller piece.  Gently set it on the float you found and let it settle.  This should indicate your North/South line.  Your East/West line will be perpendicular to this.

Direction using sun and stick

You can find your cardinal directions using the sun instead of the magnetic poles.  The easiest way is to find a flat, bare piece of ground and drive a two-foot stick straight down into the earth.  Mark an ‘X’ at the end of the shadow.

Wait 20 minutes and mark an ‘X’ at the end of that shadow.  Draw a line between the two marks and you have your East/West line.  Draw a perpendicular line and you have your North/South line.

You can also use your analog watch to determine your directions, or you can even draw a watch face in the dirt.  This only works properly in the Northern Hemisphere.  Adjust your watch face so it is parallel with the ground.

Line up the hour hand with the sun.  This is easier in the morning or evening as the sun is closer to the horizon.  The half-way point between the hour hand and 12 o’clock is going to be South.  You can then use that to determine the other cardinal directions.

analog watch

If you do not have an analog watch, you can draw one.  Find a flat, bare piece of ground and draw a circle.  Draw a line from the center towards the sun.  Next, check your digital watch for the time or estimate the time using the four-finger method.

Now, draw out the full analog clock on your circle so it looks how it should for that time of day.  Draw a line half-way between 12 o’clock and your line to the sun and you have your line to the South.

As you can see, a map and compass can be used in several different ways to help you find your way to safety.  The most beneficial aspect of these tools is their reliability.  Man has been using maps and compasses for land navigation for hundreds of years.

Despite all of the new technology available, they still remain the most reliable tools for the job.  Don’t get me wrong… I have GPS on my phone as well as a compass app.  However, I never rely solely on technology.

map and compass

The key to survival in any scenario is being prepared.  In this case, that means having a map and compass with you any time you head into the wilderness.  In fact, I typically will have a hard copy of the map as well as a saved copy on my phone.

I have a stand-alone compass, but many of my other survival tools have compasses built-in as well.  You will never find me in the wilderness without these tools.  Be sure you have them with you, and you should always be able to make it home safely.

Reading topographic maps is essential to understand the geography of new areas and to better prepare for wilderness outings.

Reading Topographic Maps

The issue with traditional maps is that they are 2D, or flat, while the earth and it’s terrain is not. Topographic maps allow a two-dimensional map to represent a three-dimensional earth, thereby providing you with valuable recon to help you plan your navigation.

These maps represent elevation through a series of contour lines. Each contour line represents a specific elevation, and the line connects all the points, that are the same elevation, in this area.

These lines are indicated as brown on a topographic map, with index lines shown in heavier brown.

contour and index lines
Contour lines and Index Line (Darker Brown and labeled “900”)


Elevation values are labeled along the index line and indicate the feet above sea-level. The contour lines between index lines evenly divide the elevation change – for example, if there were five lines demonstrating a gain of 100 feet, each contour line would indicate a gain of 20 feet.

topographic map contour index 2
5 lines between 900ft elevation and 1000ft elevation, therefore each line is equal to a 20 foot increase in elevation.


How to Navigate using a Topo Map

To effectively use a topographic map, you need to understand what the lines mean, in relation to the area’s topography. The spacing of the contour lines indicates the slope or rise of the ground.

Lines that are closer together indicate steep terrain; there is a lot of elevation change (as in our example, where each line indicates 20 feet elevation change) over a small lateral distance. Lines that are farther apart indicate flatter ground with less elevation change.

Concentric circles indicate peaks of hills or mountains; they are the highest elevation point and descend on all sides. Concentric circles with hatch marks inside – a number of short, perpendicular lines – show a depression.

topographic depressions inidcated on map
You can see 2 depressions in this image, look for the short perpendicular hatch marks.

In valleys, the “V” shape formed always points uphill, with the stream channel passing through the point of the V. Streams are indicated on topographic maps with a blue line; if there isn’t a blue line, the V pattern will demonstrate which direction the water flows.

Therefore, in order to use a compass with a topo map, you use the same principles as explained above in this article, with a couple additional points.

  1. After you draw your line of travel line on the map that connects your begin and end points, study the map and lightly shade out the following areas along your line of travel.
        1. Steep terrain where elevation lines are close together.
        2. Deep valleys and high peaks.

These are the two types of terrain you will want to bypass since they will likely be too treacherous and/or time consuming to trek.

2. Plot a secondary line of travel closest to your primary (straight) line of travel that gently winds between the impassable terrain you shaded in grey.

Double and triple check your lines to make sure you won’t get trapped in a walled off valley.  Your secondary line should roughly remain on the same elevation level, without traversing too steep of gradients.

Knuckle Map

To teach this concept to children or others who are new to reading topographic maps, you can employ an easy exercise, called the Knuckle Map. The Knuckle Map demonstrates how topographic maps work .

Take a fine-tip marker in one hand, then ball the other hand into a fist.

knuckle map fist

Draw circles on each knuckle, starting at the very tip with a small circle and continuing out. Try to make each circle one millimeter lower than the previous one.

After drawing on each knuckle, extending as low on the hand as desired, flatten your hand and look at it as if it were a topographic map.


knuckle map open hand

Notice how the “steepest” part of your hand – the area immediately around your knuckle – has contour lines that are closest together.

Notice the upward-pointing “V” shape in the valley between each finger. This demonstration is especially useful in helping kids and students understand the concept between topographic maps.

It should also be noted that Google Maps now comes with Topographic Google Maps. Now you can print them out for your area, and roam around to get a feel for how these maps translate to the physical world.

Reading Topographic Maps is an important skill to establish your position and to determine the location of landmarks or trails. The ability to interpret these maps is a key preparedness and outdoors skill.



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