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How to Use a Map and Compass

Learn the foundations of wilderness navigation.

10 Min. Watch | Hiking

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Even with all the technology available today, using a map and compass is still the tried-and-true standard for wilderness navigation. Maps don’t have batteries that can run out. And compasses never lose their signal. But as long as you bring along a good compass, a recent map of the area you’ll be exploring, and a little navigational know-how, you’ll almost always be able to find your way.

We’ll get started with a quick tour of a compass and map. After laying out some important lingo, we'll show you step-by-step how to take a bearing between two landmarks on a map, and how to use a compass in the field to reach your destination safely. Ready? Let's go!

Know Your Compass

Without a proper understanding of the tools you’ll be using, you might end up feeling, well, a bit lost. Before we go anywhere, let’s learn our way around a compass.

1. Baseplate: The command center of your compass, with all the tools you need to take measurements on a map.

2. Straight Edge with Ruler: Helps you line up your location and your intended destination. Use the ruler to calculate distances using your map’s scale.

3. Direction-of-Travel Arrow: When holding the compass flat in front of you, this triangle should point the way you want to go.

4. Rotating Bezel: Marked with degrees from zero to 360. Later, these numbers will help you set a bearing toward your destination.

5. Index Line: Found on the bezel or just above it (depending on your compass), this fixed line is an extension of the direction-of-travel arrow and is used to mark a bearing.

6. Needle: Always points to Magnetic North, not True North. We’ll get into the difference when we talk about declination.

7. Orienting Arrow (The Shed): When the needle rests in The Shed, you can be confident you’re headed in the right direction.

8. Orienting Lines: Run parallel to – and rotate with – the orienting arrow. They’ll help you line up your compass with True North on a map.

Navigating Your Map

Not all maps are created equal, but all good maps will feature everything you need to identify major landmarks, roads, and trails – plus navigational guides that will help you take the most accurate readings with your compass.

1. Legend: Look here to learn what all the colors and symbols on your map mean.

2. Scale: Calculate the distance between two points by using your ruler to convert inches to miles.

3. Latitude and Longitude Lines: Line these up with the orienting lines on your compass when taking a bearing.

4. Topography Lines: The closer they are together, the steeper the incline, so you’ll know exactly what kind of hike you’re in for.

5. Declination Diagram: Shows true north, magnetic north, and declination for the area. We’ll explain what that means in the next section!

What is Declination?

When it comes to maps and compasses, there are a few basic truths you need to remember:

1. Maps use True North. True North is almost always “up” on your map.

2. A Compass Uses Magnetic North. Magnetic North is where the needle of your compass points.

3. Declination is the Angle Difference Between the Two. You’ll need to account for declination to make sure your compass is guiding you exactly where you want to go.

Fortunately, modern map makers have made it easy to find the direction and degrees of declination right in the legend. On this particular map, the diagram says that this region has a declination of 18 degrees west. You’re going to want to remember that number because we’ll need it later.

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Quick tip:

Declination doesn’t just change with your location. It also changes slowly over time as the earth’s magnetic field shifts. Always use a recent map to make sure the declination listed is accurate.

Taking a Bearing from a Map

You know how people will say they need to “get their bearings?” It’s a pretty common way to say, “I’m feeling a bit lost – let me take a second to get myself oriented.” That’s exactly what we’re doing with our map and compass. A bearing is simply the direction – in degrees – in which a destination lies. As long as you know where you are on a map, you can use your compass to find your way to any other landmark. Here’s how:

1. Place your compass on the map with the straight edge along the planned line of travel – your start and finish. Check that the direction-of-travel arrow on the compass is pointing in the direction of your destination.

2. Rotate the bezel until the “N” points to north on the map. You’ll know you hit the sweet spot when the orienting lines on the compass are parallel with the grid lines on the map. You can also use the edge of the map if you don’t see any lines.

3. In this example, the number that’s now lined up with the index line on the compass is 141. That’s your true bearing! Because remember, when you’re on a map, you will always use true north as the context for your bearing.

Using Your Compass in the Field

Now that you’ve taken your bearing on the map, you’re ready to start using it in the field! But before you do, you’ll need to convert that bearing to a unit your compass understands: magnetic. And you’ll do that using, wait for it, declination.

1.To calculate magnetic bearing, ADD the declination (18 degrees west) to the true bearing you took on the map.

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Quick Tip:

If you’re in a part of the world that uses east declination, you would SUBTRACT instead. An easy way to remember this?

EAST IS LEAST (Subtract It)

2.Turn the compass bezel until your magnetic bearing of 159 lines up with the index line.

3.Holding the compass flat in front of you, turn your entire body until the needle nests inside the orienting arrow – or shed. This is what we call putting “RED FRED IN THE SHED.”

4.The direction-of-travel arrow should now be pointing precisely to your destination. Look up, select a landmark in front of you, and get moving! If Red Fred ever leaves his shed, stop immediately, and turn your body along with the compass until he’s back home. Keep following the direction-of-travel arrow until you’ve reached your destination. Great job, you made it!

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Quick Tip:

Walking towards a landmark instead of focusing on your compass will let you keep your eyes up and on the lookout for any obstacles in your path.

We know that using a compass and map can be a little intimidating at first, but we promise it gets easier with practice. To help you on your journey, print out our downloadable Compass Skills Cheat Sheet and take it with you on your next trek.

And if you want to learn even more, or practice in the field with experts who really know their way around a map and compass, consider attending a Map-and-Compass Skills course, offered by L.L.Bean Outdoor Discovery Programs in select locations. You can search for classes and sign up at

We hope you’ll find your way to the trail soon! In the meantime, check out Explore L.L.Bean for more outdoor tips and inspiration!

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