Learn the lost art of using a map and compass

Photo by Conor Mihell

There’s a reason why many people have renditions of old-fashioned compasses tattooed on their shoulder or forearm: A compass is a powerful symbol of staying found; and body art metaphors aside, it’s still the best battery-free tool for getting around in the outdoors, especially compared to the finicky and sometimes less than accurate compass apps that can be downloaded to a smartphone. With a little practice, a map and compass duo is also very easy to use. Here’s a primer.



The value for your location can be determined with an online calculator or from the legend on the right-hand margin of Canadian topographic maps.

Orienting the Map to North

Besides enabling you to travel in a straight line through a dense forest or across a foggy bay, a compass can also be used to make sense of your surroundings. This is called orienting your map to the north.

Photo by Conor Mihell

Start by rotating the dial of the compass so 0 degrees (or N) is aligned with the index mark at the top of the dial. Set the compass flat on your map, align the orienting grid lines in the compass dial with the grid lines on the map (so that the map is north-side up), and rotate the map and compass together so that the magnetized needle is aligned with the orienting arrow. At this point the map is oriented with your surroundings, allowing you to visually identify prominent landmarks in your surroundings.  

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