Wednesday, August 13, 2008

How To Use A Map And Compass Part I

I am going to break this into two days so people can digest it. This is usually a source of a lot of confusion. In this first part I will describe a compass and it's parts with some basic information on how to use it. Tomorrow I will show you how to take a bearing and plot a course between two points. This is easier than folks think and may save your life one day...BUT keep in mind this is strictly the basics and you should read a good book on the subject. I recommend Be Expert with Map and Compass: The Complete Orienteering Handbook hands down as the best book I have read on the subject.

First a picture of my compass that I marked up:

The compass is a Silva and it is an orienteering compass. This is a base plate or protractor compass and in my humble opinion is the best compass for use with a map. It makes it very easy to take a bearing and plot a course between two points.

You have the compass base plate which contains a straight edge and possibly one of the most important parts of the compass other than the needle...the direction of travel arrow. Once you take a bearing and plot a course that is the arrow you will follow. The key to the direction of travel is to keep north oriented in the dial exactly as you had it when you plotted the course on the map. In the picture above my direction of travel would be east. As long as I kept north oriented in the dial the same way my direction of travel will remain east.

You read your bearing from the dial around the compass which spins so you can always orient the compass North. In the picture above if you look at where the direction of travel arrow is right around 90 degrees.

This is obviously a fairly easy scenario with me traveling due east and the compass pointed due north...but the scenario is no different should you be traveling in any other direction...the process is the same.

It is fairly hard to describe this process in wrting and I think it will all come together for you with tomorrows post which will include a map. Visual instructions are always better than written ones anyway.

To really use a compass effectively with a map you really do need some kind of idea where you are on the map...otherwise the compass is really only useful for keeping you going in one direction and avoiding circles (which can kill you by the way). The way to use a compass without a map would be to have an idea that say something like a river or road was west of you. Utilizing the compass you can ensure you travel west and that you will hopefully run right into the river or road at some point.

Topographic maps can help you find where you are on a map even if you don't have the slightest clue. They show landmarks (rivers, swamps, mountains,etc) as well as the gradation of the area. Using this you can surmise where you are by looking at the landscape around you and reading its features. The best source of topo maps I have come across including custom ones is Offroute.

Reading a map and compass really is a worthwhile skill to learn. Stay tuned and the second part of this topic will make it very clear for you I hope.

...that is all.

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  1. In this day of GPS people forget map and compass. I was a land surveyor in the Great North Woods for much of my life - map and compass remains the gold standard of navigation. GPS should be used as a supplement to these tools. Alas, many people rely totally upon GPS and some discover the error the hard way.

  2. Great idea for a post.
    It has been, at least, thirty five years since I was in the Boy Scouts and learned Compass and orientation.
    It will be a great brush up tool for me, I am sure!

  3. LOL!
    SurvivalTopics is right!
    I heard about a convoy that drove off a freaking cliff recently using GPS!

  4. People need to learn the basics common electronics due fail batteries do die! Nothing beats a map an compass for reliabiliy stand point..Great post Flea the Basic skills are where it at! I recommend water proof map material or waterproof maps period! I seem to always manage to um spill something or map overboard...................