Connecting People with Nature


Finding your way with a map and compass

While in northeast Ohio we are very unlikely to get seriously lost because of the prolificity with which we build roads and developments, it is still useful to be able to find your way in the woods with a map and compass. Properly used, a compass and map are indispensible tools. You can find you way, plan a hike, locate precise positions to return to later, or compete with others in orienteering events.

It used to be that for hiking on nature trails, topographical maps available from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) were the best maps to use. However, nowadays many parks have trail maps available either at visitor centers, a trailhead kiosk, or online. These maps may or may not be better than a USGS topo, depending on the wuality of the maps and the natural and man made features represented on the map. For navigation in the field, several features are needed in a good map.

First, the map should show all roads and trails in the vicinity. This will give you a sense of where you sit in relation to the ubiquitous roads in northeast Ohio. Understanding where the trails are in comparison to the roads will alos give you a clue of which direction to walk in the vent you leave the trail and cannot relocate it.

Second, the map should show natural features such as topography (the lay of the land) and water features such as lakes, rivers and streams. Topography is usually indicated by either shading or contour lines. Contour lines show the change in elevation, with the typical elevation change being 10 feet per contour line. The closer together the lines are, the steeper the terrain. Water on a map will help to orient you to your direction of travel. Notice on the map whether your trail parallels a watercourse or crosses it. Does the trail run along the lake shore on the north or south side of the lake? Natural features such as topography and water features are very helpful for planning your route to avoid (or purposely include in your route if you are so inclined) extreme features such as rivers, large streams, deep ravines or cliffs. You will also find topography useful for determining your location. Once you learn how to recognize small variations in the contour lines as ridges, valleys, hogbacks, humps, mounds, or other landscape features, you can use the shape of these features to locate yourself fairly easily.

Third, the map should have a north arrow, a clear legend telling you what the various symbols mean, and a useful scale. These features will allow you to use the map to estimate the time it will take to hike, how far you will be going, and what you may see along the way.

The first step in using a map in the field is to orient it. Do this by rotating the map until the features of the landacape are in alignment with the representation of them on the map. For example, if you are looking toward the river, with a small tribuatary entering the river on the other side, your map should be oriented so that the small stream and the river are located at the top of the page. Turn the map until all of the features line up and you are able to locate your position relative to the landscape.

Next, orient your compass to the map. To do this, lie the compass on the map with the edge parralell with the the direction you want to travel. Next, turn the dial on the outside ring of the compass housinmg until the north symbol on the map lines up with north on your map (remember that the map's north and magnetic north will vary by about 4 degrees in Northeast Ohio). Now, the bearing that is indicated on your direction of travel arrow is the direction you need to travel.

Hold the compass level, and away from any metal objects you may be carrying. Line the north arrow (usually the red end of the needle) up with the north mark on your compass housing by turning your body. Remember not to turn the housing of the compass, or you will have to re-orient with your map. Now, look in your direction of travel. Find an object, such as a tree, fence post, or other feature that lies exactly on the bearing you want to travel. Walk to it, then find another object in the distance which is also on your bearing. By following a series of straight lines, you will stay on bearing.

How do you know how long it will take to get to your destination? First, you will need to know how long your pace is. Lay a long tape measure out in a natural setting and walk the length of the tape, counting your paces. Divide the number of feet you walked by the number of paces you took to cover that distance. This will give you your average distance per pace. You should remember this number and check it every so often to refine your ability to estimate distances. In order to estimate time, walk this same tape several times, keeping track of the time it takes to cover the distance. Calculate the paces per minute that you walk. This will help you to estimate time, as long as you keep in mind that if the terrain you are hiking in is different than that you are practicing in, you will have to add or subtract some time from your estimates.

Now, look at the scale of the map. Place your thumb across the scale and get an idea of how many feet or meters your thumb's width represents on the map. Now, simply measure the distance you intend to hike with your thumb and multiply by the value of one thumb's width. Divide this by the length of your paces and you will know how many paces it will take you to hike your route. Knowing about how many paces per minute you walk, you now can calculate how long the hike will take. Time yourself, and count paces as you hike. Over time, your ability to estimate time and distances will greatly improve.'s feed chicklet's email chicklet's e-newsletter chicklet
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