Never Get Lost

September 1, 2003
Filed under Feature Stories

Facebook Twitter Email Pinterest

Not too many people know this, but I have been lost — once. That is once that I’ll admit. It was eons ago in a galaxy far, far away. Actually, it was nearly 30 years ago while camping with my parents and two younger brothers near a place called Dinkey Creek in California’s

Sierra Nevada

After hiking alone (first mistake) for about an hour, I began to feel chilled because a T-shirt and shorts were all I had on (second mistake). I can’t really blame my parents — they told me to stay in the campground and put on a jacket, then went to visit some friends who were camping down the road. I hadn’t really been paying attention to where I was headed (third mistake), either.

Suddenly, the sensation of disorientation set in and I nearly panicked (almost my fourth mistake). Luckily, some common sense and years of scouting finally kicked in. Realizing that the creek was nearby, that it also ran directly adjacent to the campground, and remembering that I had been hiking in the opposite direction of its flow (guess I was paying attention to something as I walked), I followed the creek downstream until camp came into view.

That night I determined never to be lost again. Aside from not using good old fashioned common sense (never hike alone; pay attention to where you’re going and where you’ve been), I had broken one of the cardinal rules of my scouting education (never leave camp without a map of the area and a compass).

First Skill

Basic map and compass skills are the first lessons you should learn (and teach your kids) before you venture into the outdoors. Even if you camp in well-trafficked, established campgrounds, a stroll of just a mile into the woods can turn you around and leave you without any sense of direction, especially if you’re deep in the forest with no sight of landmarks from which to navigate.

A good compass is inexpensive and maps are even cheaper, so you can’t claim poverty in this case. You can’t use time as an excuse, either. Basic navigation skills can be practiced in your neighborhood park, and won’t take more than an afternoon to master. So, before you take that last weekend outing of the prime camping season, become handy with the most basic of camping hand tools — a compass.

Topographic Maps

Before we dive into compass skills, let’s talk about the other half of the equation — a topographic map. A topographic map is a graphic representation of the landform. Usually printed on thin, but reasonably durable paper, such as those published by the United States Geologic Survey (USGS), topographic maps can be found in almost any outdoor equipment specialty store. Some private-sector map publishing companies offer topographic maps printed on more durable plastic-based paper stock.

On USGS topographic maps, brown contour lines delineate hills, valleys and mountains. Green and white zones indicate forests and clearings, respectively. Black lines and symbols denote manmade structures, such as trails, roads, bridges and buildings. Blue means water, whether it be a river, stream, pond, well, lake or marsh. Each map has a legend that will detail these symbols, and help you identify points of interest to explore or areas to avoid.

All Together Now

Putting the map and compass together to find your course of travel to an object or feature is actually very easy once you get the hang of it.

First, place the compass on top of the map with one side of the compass’ base-plate edge lined up with your start point and your destination.

Second, while holding the compass baseplate still, set the compass heading by turning the rotating dial of the compass until the “N” on the dial is aligned with magnetic north “MN” on the map.

Third, hold the map and compass level in front of you with the direction-of-travel arrow on the compass baseplate pointing straight ahead. Turn your body, map and compass with it, until the red end of the compass needle is directly aligned with the orienting arrow of the rotating dial, pointing to the “N” on the dial. The direction-of-travel arrow will now point toward your destination.

You can then look up and sight on a landmark that is in your direction of travel (the bearing or degree number on the dial) and walk to it. This simple procedure can be repeated as many times as necessary until you reach your final destination.

Homeward Bound

Learning how to find your way back to your starting point is easy, too.

First, simply backtrack by pointing the direction of travel arrow on the compass toward your body, and aligning the red end of the compass needle with the “N” on the rotating dial.

Then while holding the compass level in front of you (keep the direction-of-travel arrow pointed at your body), sight a landmark and walk toward it. When you have reached that landmark, realign the needle with the “N” on the dial and select the next landmark. Again, this procedure can be repeated as many times as needed until you are back at your starting point.

To locate your position, a system known as compass triangulation can be employed.

Choose two landmarks and find them on the map. Point the compass’ direction-of-travel arrow at one landmark, then rotate the compass dial until the red end of the needle points to the “N” on the dial housing. Read the bearing (degree number) at the index line (bottom end of direction-of-travel arrow).

Place the compass on your map with one of the baseplate’s side edges touching the landmark, then pivot the entire compass (keeping a point on the compass side edge touching the landmark) until the orienting arrow is lined up with the map’s magnetic north lines.

Draw a line from the landmark along the side of the baseplate across the map. Repeat this entire process for the second landmark. The point at which the two lines you have drawn on your map intersect is your current location.

Find A Heading

When you want to find a heading without a map, you can follow these simple steps.

First, select a landmark in line with the route you want to hike. Holding the compass level in front of you, point the direction-of-travel arrow at the landmark.

Then find your heading to the landmark by rotating the compass dial until the “N” lines up with the red end of the compass needle. Read your heading (bearing or degree number) at the index line.

With the compass needle aligned with the “N” mark, sight on your landmark and walk toward it. Repeat this process as many times as needed to reach your destination.

Headed That-A-Way

If you already know your heading (direction in degrees on the compass), you can rotate the compass-dial housing so that the heading is aligned with the index line. Then hold the compass level in front of you, and point the direction- of-travel arrow straight ahead.

Turn your body and the compass until the red end of the needle is lined up with the “N” mark on the compass-dial housing. Now you are pointed toward your
direction of travel.

Choose a landmark that’s in line with your heading and walk toward the landmark. Again, you can repeat this as many times as needed to reach your destination.

Can’t See For The Trees

What if you’re in a location where trees, fog or darkness block your sight of navigational landmarks? The traditional map and compass orienteering doesn’t apply. This is where that common sense I was talking about pays off.

First of all, tell somebody responsible (not your bum brother-in-law) where you’re headed and when you expect to be back. Always pay attention to where you’re going. Look around every few minutes and make a mental snapshot of your surroundings. Turn around and look back in the direction from which you came. Think in terms of what the route coming back will look like and pick out a group of boulders, crisscrossed trees or something that you can recognize when you return that way.

In addition, keep that map and compass with you at all times in a daypack when you hike. Always carry a pencil and note pad, too. Take a bearing from your start point toward the general direction of your hike, and make a note of it. Any time you make a change in hiking direction, note your approximate time of travel (i.e.: you have been walking for approximately one hour) and your new general direction of travel. That way, your notes can act like the proverbial bread crumbs for you to follow home. It’s not rocket science, but it’s better than nothing.

Now You’re Ready

One night alone in the woods may not seem all that bad, but the truth of the matter is that one night of exposue is all it may take to send you into hypothermia.

These basic map and compass skills are easy to learn, and can make the difference between spending the night in your tent or trailer and spending a night sheltered by whatever you can scrounge up in the wilderness. With a little practice, and at a cost lower than a pair of sneakers, you can become proficient at one of the most basic, and possibly lifesaving, outdoor skills.

Magnetic North

Geographic north and magnetic north are not the same thing. The top of the world (true North Pole) is approximately 800 miles north of the magnetic North (MN) Pole that attracts compass needles. Because of this difference, you must account for “magnetic declination” when using a map and compass for navigation. The amount of declination depends on your location on the globe. Declination (in degrees) will be indicated on a good map. There are three ways to adjust for declination:

* Mentally add or subtract the declination from or to the compass bearing.

* Top-quality compasses can be preset for declination adjustment.

* Extend the magnetic north line of the declination diagram that’s in the margin of the map. Draw thin lines parallel to the magnetic north extension line approximately 2 inches apart, across the face of the map. Aligning a compass not adjusted for declination with these lines will orient it and the map toward magnetic north.

Origin of the Compass

It is widely accepted that sometime around 2500 B.C. the Chinese discovered that when lodestone (high iron composition) was placed on a piece of wood floating on water, it always turned to the same direction. Through this observation, the first crude compass was invented. The Greeks are also believed to have known of the lodestone’s peculiar characteristics. And by 1000 A.D., Arab and Norse sailors were using primitive compass devices to navigate the seas. Widespread knowledge of the compass throughout Europe came about sometime after 1400 A.D. These early devices led to the invention of the compass needle, a strip of magnetized steel balanced on a pivot, free to rotate and orient itself with the magnetic North Pole.

Glossary of Terms

Baseplate — The clear base that holds the compass housing.

Bearing — The angle, usually stated in degrees, between two geographic locations.

Compass Dial — The dial on top of the compass housing marked in degrees (0-360).

Compass Housing — The liquid-filled case containing the magnetized needle. On most orienteering compasses, the housing rotates on the baseplate.

Declination — The difference in degrees between magnetic north and true, or geographic, north.

Declination Angle — An illustration on topo maps indicating true north and magnetic north for a given map area.

Declination Correction Scale — A scale provided in degrees on the bottom of some orienteering compass housings to allow users to quickly compensate for declination (sometimes used in place of magnetic north lines on a map).

Directional Needle — The magnetized needle (sometimes a circular disc) inside a compass housing. The “north” end of the needle aligns itself parallel to Earth’s magnetic field, indicating magnetic north.

Direction-of-Travel Arrow — An arrow extending from the index line along the center of the baseplate. Provides a quick, visible reference for following or taking a bearing.

Index Line — A line beneath the rotating compass dial that is fixed in relation to the Direction-of-Travel Arrow. The index line allows for precise reading of the dial.

Latitude — The north-south coordinates of Earth, with the north pole being 0 degrees latitude and the equator being 90 degrees latitude. Lines of latitude circle Earth east to west.

Longitude — The east-west coordinates of Earth. The lines of longitude circle the earth, intersecting at the north and south poles. The prime meridian (0/360 degrees) is located in Greenwich, England. Degrees increase as one moves west of the prime meridian.

Magnetic North — The confluence of Earth’s magnetic field in the northern hemisphere. This is where magnetic compass needles point.

Orienting Arrow — A red arrow indexed to “N,” or 0/360 degrees on a compass dial. On orienteering compasses this arrow is drawn onto the base of the compass housing.

Orienting Lines — Lines at the base of an orienteering compass housing that are parallel to the orienting arrow. These lines are used to align the compass housing with the map’s magnetic north lines when triangulating a position or establishing a bearing.

Topographic Map — Detailed two-dimensional maps that show ground characteristics via contour lines.

True North — The geographic north of Earth (North Pole).

Scale — Refers to the ratio of a map to the ground depicted on the map. For example, a 1:62,500 scale map means that one inch on the map equals about one mile on the ground.

Index Contour Lines — The thick lines on a topo map. These are given specific values in feet relative to change in elevation. On most 1:24,000 scale topos, for example, each index contour line represents a 200-foot change in elevation.

Interval Contour Lines — The thin lines on a topo map situated between the index contour lines. These are given a smaller value than the index contour lines. On 1:24,000 scale maps, each interval contour line represents a 40-foot change in elevation.

Map Sources


Map Link

National Geographic Maps

USGS Geography Information

Related Content

Last 5 stories in Feature Stories

Other stories that might interest you...


Feel free to leave a comment...
and oh, if you want a pic to show with your comment, go get a gravatar!