Most people don’t know how to use a compass to navigate and while it’s a very useful skill to have, you can get by without it if you have a good map and hike on well marked trails.
Even then, you do want to develop your map reading skills, particularly those where you figure out your location on a topographic map, by identifying landmarks and geographic features in the world around you and matching them to those shown on your map. Called terrain-to-map association, this is an excellent skill to master and one that hikers use most of the time because it’s faster than using a compass (even when you hike off-trail).
A Few Examples
The top picture in this post show two kettle shaped mountains, the Doubleheads, which are connected by a shallow ridge, while the picture above shows what they look like when depicted by contour lines on a topographic map. This is what I mean by terrain-to-map association. In this map example, the contour lines on the map get close together, which indicates a steep incline when accompanied by increasing elevation labels.
The Doubleheads are a very distinctive land form, so if you can see them you can work out where you are on a topographic map, based on other land forms you can and cannot see in front of you.
Here’s another example, the view of a deep valley and mountain pass seen from Mt Willard, and what the view looks like when depicted on a topographic map. The dense contour lines shown on the map on both sides of the Saco River indicate a steep-sided valley or mountain pass, which has a road going through it as well as a railroad line.
If for some reason, you ended up on Mt Willard but didn’t know where you were, you could look at the valley in front of you and figure out where you were standing on your topographic map, based on the view before you.
View From a Summit
If you hike in mountainous country, it’s fun to identify the surrounding peaks that you can see from a mountain top. If you know where you are and you can recognize one of the peaks in the distance by its shape, in this case the Doubletops, you can name all of the other visible peaks on your topographic map: Rainbow Ridge (on the Rainbow Trail), Black Mountain, and Keararge North in the far distance.
You can click on this topographic map, which is hosted on Caltopo, and drill down into it for more detail.
Limitations of Terrain-to-Map Association
While being able to associate what you see in front of you with a topographic map and vice versa is a very powerful skill for knowing where you are and staying found, it falters when you can’t see anything, like in fog or a whiteout or when you’re hiking in featureless landscape like a desert or open plains. That’s when knowing how to use a compass to navigate is important. But if you hike in mountainous country on a good trail system, you can do an awful lot of navigation with just a topographic map.