Map Compass
Map Compass

How to Read a Map and Compass When Out Walking in the Countryside!

How to Read a Map & Compass

Don’t get lost! Read a Map!

Navigating using a map

Whether you’re a recreational walker, rambler, scrambler or hiker who enjoys the challenge of climbing a mountain or two before breakfast, learning to read a map is vital to navigating in the countryside when there might not necessarily be signs saying ‘Pub 200 yards’. Instead, it is important to learn from the characteristics of the land around you and see how that is reflected on the map in front of you to help get you home. Learning to use a map might even save your life.

Getting to know your map

It sounds like an obvious tip, but really have a good look at what information is provided on this bit of paper before you – you’ll be surprised as to how much information there actually is! Here’s a starting point:

Key / Symbols / Legend – learn to recognise between the difference landmarks represented on your map and, specifically, the route your taking.

Map Scale – Know the scale so that at a glance you can see how far roughly you will be walking for, so that you can plan your breaks, etc.

Grid References – understand your maps grid reference system and mark on key points, and might be a good starting point to provide distances at a glance.

Height / Relief – Know the altitude, and learn to spot using the contours of the map when the relief of the land descends or ascends too quickly for you to comfortably follow a particular route. Contours can also be used as navigational landmarks and can help make a 2 dimensional map 3 dimensional in your mind.

Compass – make sure your compass is working before you leave, and that you know how to use it! Advice is provided below.

Map Scale

Imagine a map as a birds eye-view of the earth, but a scaled-down version. They are scaled-down in a way that captures a significant enough area to plan your route but to a level of detail that helps you spot landmarks. Walkers often use a map with a scale of 1:25,000 which means that 1cm on the map represents 250m. Other maps might be 1:40,000, 1:50,000, or much smaller, but 1:25,000 is most popular.

Distance

When first planning your route, it is important to know the comfortable distance that you can walk, at varying gradients of hills.

Walk and Ramble suggest that a good way to measure the distance of your walk, is by following your route with a piece of string, carefully lying it along the map. This piece of string can then be placed next to the map’s scale in the margin to calculate the distance. Maps will often have a grid laid over the map whereby each square represents a set-distance (a 1:25,000 OS map is 1km).

How to use a compass

Depending on where you are walking, will depend on whether it is necessary for you to use a compass. For instance, if you plan to follow a particularly distinguishable river until you get to a bridge after about 2 miles then you might not need a compass, but if you are walking in a network of rivers and streams then Walk and Ramble would advise that you would use one. This idea could be transferred to a whole host of other scenarios where walking with a map and compass would be best advised.

Even sticking to a well-marked path might sound easy, but snowfall or rain might have damaged the path and made it less clear to walk along. Using a map and compass together will help follow your route more carefully and offers an alternative if you loose your way from a well-marked path.

Walk and Ramble suggest that before embarking on your walk, always ensure you are confident with the use of a compass and map, maybe by practicing in an area of countryside that you know well.

1. Align the map in the direction you are facing so that the features on the map match those on the ground – check with a friend to see that they agree.

2. Checking the direction of the path, using landmarks or a culmination of surrounding characteristics unique to that area.

3. Travel on a compass bearing requires the walker to walk at a particular angle to that of North, by rotating the housing around the compass needle until the orienting arrow (under the needle) points North on your map. Use the North-South grid lines on the map to help, but remember that trails sometimes bend in different directions, so do remember to revise this bearing whenever necessary.

4. Using your maps guidelines, adjust the compass housing bearing to accommodate differences from grid North and magnetic North – see each map for details.

5. Remove the compass from the map, make sure that the needle points in the same direction as the orienting arrow, and walk in this direction. Easy!

6. Walk and Ramble recommend that you use common sense checks to make sure you are walking in the right direction and double check your bearings every time you take a turning.

Remember to measure the bearing from grid north on your map to your destination. It might also be worth adjusting this bearing to account for changes from grid north to magnetic north on your compass.

Be careful

Be aware of what is beyond your map; where nearby roads and phone boxes are in case of an emergency. Look at the surrounding land on your route to see whether access to your route will be easy following heavy rainfall, snowfall or general blustery conditions. It might be that a river has flooded, there has been a major snow drift that hasn’t melted, or rocks have fallen. Don’t take short cuts. Stick to paths. Respect the local plants, wildlife and agriculture. And most of all – have a great time!!!

Last minute checks

And like the scouts motto says – be prepared! It’s far easier to get lost whilst out walking than you think. People don’t plan to get lost, but it happens far too often, everyday!

Remember to take a waterproof jacket and a fleece or insulated jacket packed in your rucksack – even if it’s not raining or cold. 

Maps and compassesare vital bit of outdoor equipment and knowing how to use them, along with the rest of your walking clothes and equipment.

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