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Navigating Without a Compass

North and South Doublehead Mountains
North and South Doublehead Mountains

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).

Topographic Map of North and South Doublehead
Topographic Map of North and South Doublehead

A Few Examples

Mountains

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.

Valley

Crawford Notch in Winter, seen from Mt Willard
Crawford Notch in Winter, seen from Mt Willard

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.

Crawford Notch - a deep valley and mountain pass
Crawford Notch – a deep valley and mountain pass

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.

View from Carter Dome (right) of Rainbow Ridge, Black Mountain, the Double Heads, and Keararge North
View from Carter Dome (right) of Rainbow Ridge, Black Mountain, the Double Heads, and Keararge North
View from Carter Dome
View from Carter Dome

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.

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16 comments

  1. First you need to identify where North is to be able to use or orientate the Topo Map if you do not have a Compass.. How do you know which Mountain is which or if the Map is turned upside down or sideways to the terrain in front of you without first Orientating the Map to North? You can find North without a Compass during the Day time with the use of one tall stick pushed into the Ground as well as Telling the Time of day at the same time if you are in North America. Place a tall stick in the ground and mark where the tip of the Shadow falls, wait a few minutes and then mark where the tip of the shadow has fallen a second time, wait again for a third Shadow and mark it as well.. I use small stubby Sticks to mark the Tip of the Shadow…. Looking at the Shadows gauge where 12, 1, 2, 3, is or in the morning after you wake up 6, 7,, 8, 9, 10, as on a Sundial. North will be at the top of the Clock or at 12… Not very accurate but better than having no idea which way is which… Now at night you should be able to locate the North Star. You can use two sticks, one about two feet from the other pushed into the ground and then use the second stick to look over the first stick at the North Star and then place it in the ground. The Two sticks will then be aligned with North. Again not perfect but good enough for map orientation…Practice this in your Backyard at Home a few dozen times until you get pretty good at it.. Personally I now use entire trees as my Shadow Markers and usually am within 10 minutes or so of the real time.. I learned how to do that from my Father on Hunting and Fishing trips since we did not carry expensive Watches on our trips which could easily be damaged or lost… Ah, does not work on Water…sorry…lols

    • It’s not like they’re landing on the moon with no idea where they start. The technique I describe works well if you have an idea of what trails you came in on. Why make it so difficult. It’s simply not.

  2. You got me riled up Eddie – all this BS about using sticks to find north – all this does is brainwash people into thinking navigation is difficult and some arcane art only practiced by survivalists and boy scouts.

    Reading a topo map is easy. Repeat after me…Let’s get them reading topo maps before we teach them star navigation.

    • Agree….and really this is kind of the whole point of the exercise, is it not? If you can identify a land feature and find that feature on your map, it doesn’t really make a lick of difference if you know how to find north.

    • No it is not difficult, I learned this method in Cub Scouts when I was 7 or 8 years old and my Mother taught us, she was the Den Mother…,,,So I do not know what to tell you…But most people get lost and are lost because they have no trained sense of direction. I had three like that in the NF a couple of weeks ago…On marked Gravel Roads with Topo’s who had no clue as to whether they were driving north south or east..I actually gave them my Spare NF Map, Used a High Liter and showed them their route out and the others to the Campground they had been looking for, for over an hour they said…..Heck people are now getting lost using the GPS in their Cellphones….

  3. I am amazed by how many people I know who can’t read a regular road map, let alone understand a topographic map. I actually spent a good part of last night looking at a topographic map of Katahdin just so I could decide which trails I might take based on ascent alone.

  4. Eddie,
    Your comments got me riled up too. Navigation is not that hard :)

    For example: I run orienteering races – and I know that most competitors orient their maps without a compass.
    This is because it’s much faster and easier — and can be done at a glance while running :)

    To do that, you just look at the terrain, and then turn the map so it matches what you see.
    You only need to be able to identify 2 big things (like a mountain top and river), and one of those 2 things can be your approximate location (including which approximate section of the trail you are on).

    The compass is useful for plotting a course between 2 points that are not connected by a trail.
    But even navigating off trail, you use the map much more than the compass.
    This is because following a compass reading over multiple legs of a route tends to cause “drift” which is corrected by looking at the terrain features on the map and matching them up with what you see on the ground.

  5. My father was a navigator on a B-24 in WWII and then did oil exploration. I grew up around topo maps and to me, reading one of them is like sitting down with a good book. I’ve taken many a virtual journey with only a map. Visualizing terrain from a map is a nice skill to have.

    As far as finding directions without a compass is concerned, I use a watch if I can see the sun. If you point the small hand toward the sun, halfway between it and 12 o’clock will be South. If you have a digital watch, you can still visualize the position of the hands on the dial. This is way less complicated than driving sticks. There may be some local variation because of Daylight Savings Time and where in the time zone you happen to be but it won’t be enough to affect knowing the general direction of South.

  6. I use this navigation technique more than any other, and I almost never have to dig out a compass to orient the map. If you can see the sun, and have a general idea of the time of day, you can get the map turned around the right way.
    The only time this ever failed me was my first day in New Zealand, where everything was backwards from what I was used to.

  7. I used to know my directions instinctively (years of experience starting at age 6), but as I age I find that this ability is going away. No way would I ever go out without a compass as well as a map these days!

  8. Of course out here in western Oregon, going compassless is more difficult. The sky is often cloudy and moss grows on all sides of the trees!

  9. The other skill/practice that I find very powerful and often absolutely necessary is “staying found” so you know which non-descript ridge, hill, creek, or change in trail direction you are seeing and thus keep acurately readjusting your known position instead of trying to figure out which of the many ridges, hills, creeks or curves in the trail you are using to try and find yourself.

  10. While I always have a compass with me, in the mountainous country where I do most of my hiking, I very rarely use it. As Phillip notes, terrain to map association is almost always adequate to find your way around. Even in poor visibility, if you know where you started and pay attention to the slopes you are on relative to the contours on your map, and can roughly estimate distance traveled, you should usually have a pretty fair idea of your location. Generally you only need to use a compass in relatively flat, featureless terrain.

    My advice would be to hone your map reading skills first. Then learn to use a compass for those situations where you really need it. Other (non compass) ways of finding direction such as the “shadow tip method” or the “watch and sun” are fun to play with but rarely if ever required.

  11. I did a lot of expeditioning in the Alaska Range back in the 1980’s, and travelled on skis for hundreds of miles skiing into and out of the range. A lot of the terrain was on glaciers hemmed in by mountain ridges, so associating the map to the terrain was quite simple. The only time I remember having to pull out the compass in all those hundreds of miles was on a day we were skiing up the Kahiltna Glacier returning to our base camp from a climb about 25 miles down glacier.

    As the three of us skied up-glacier roped together on a 150 foot climbing rope the clouds lowered and we were suddenly whited out. We continued skiing, but after several minutes I noticed the the wind, which had been hitting me in the face, was now at the back of my head. We stopped and pulled out the compass to discover that we had just skied in a circle and were heading back down-glacier.

    We got a bearing of travel from the map, then skied by compass for twenty-five mile in a total white-out, until our altimeter told us it was time to make a hard right up the fork of the glacier where our base camp was located. After five more miles on our new compass heading we skied into camp. Visibility was maybe 150 feet all day.

    So, while almost all of the time you can navigate successfully without needing to use your compass, there WILL come a time when you need those skills. When I am out with my kids or others who are new to the outdoors, I pull out the map and compass at every break and teach/practice those skills. Eventually it will pay off big time.

  12. When out in the woods with newer hikers, I refer to being mislocated, relocated, and lost. Mislocated is missing a trail head or going East instead of North East for a little bushwacking. One isn’t where one thinks one is, but getting relocated is pretty easy/fast (usually takes 45 min to 2 hours). I explain that getting lost means we have no clue where we are and prepare to spend an unexpected night (I have only been lost once, we got relocated after about 6 hours and a very stressful day). For some reason, I have found that new hikers get very anxious when mislocated.

    On a side note: I have seen teens fail to orient a map after training. Like when teaching them to put the map trail we are on parallel to the trail, they turn the map perpendicular to the trail and tell the group to go in a very wrong direction. Anyone else have new hikers fail to understand how to orient a map to the terrain?

  13. Grandpa and Yaan G, I sometimes use the ‘watch’ method for a quick general direction check too. Worth pointing out though that If in the southern hemisphere (eg here in NZ where Yaan was initially confused ) the method is different – point the ’12’ on your watch dial at the sun and the distance halfway between the ’12’ and the hour hand will be North. (and for greater accuracy allow for daylight saving if it’s in force)
    The nearer the equator you are the less accurate this method will be.
    ‘Urban’ navigation too – some may not be aware that in the northen hemisphere TV sattellite dishes will point in a southerly direction while in the southern hemisphere they’ll point north!

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