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The Essential Wilderness Navigator

Compass navigation

I have been reading a lot of books about compass navigation this year to improve my skills as an off-trail navigator and to figure out if there is a better way to teach compass navigation to hikers who want to learn it. The fact is, many people have a really hard time learning how to use a compass, a problem I am all to familiar with, because it plagued me for years too.

On hindsight, my problem is that I tried to learn how to use a compass by reading books about it, and then by trying to apply what I’d read about in the field. That proved very inefficient although I eventually taught myself how to do it out of stubborn perseverance and a little help from my friends.

If you are struggling like I did, I suggest you dump the books and take a  group class on compass and map navigation that combines classroom lectures, practice problems, and outdoor navigation exercises or trips. While some people may be able to learn how to use a compass easily by reading a book, I’m not one of them.

That said, of all the books I’ve read on compass navigation this year, the one I like best is The Essential Wilderness Navigator by David Seidman and Paul Cleveland. Available in both paperback and Kindle formats, it’s an invaluable reference that beginners can go back to to reinforce what they’ve learned in a compass navigation class.

In addition, it provides more advanced navigational instruction for compass and map users who want to go beyond the basics of plotting and following a bearing and learn how to navigate safely off trail and in open terrain. I find myself referring to this book often (I have the Kindle version) and picking out useful gems I’ve overlooked on previous read-thrus.

For Beginners

The Essential Wilderness Navigator is a good book for beginners because it presents map reading and compass basics in a systematic, incremental fashion with many graphic examples and exercises you can perform outdoors. If you have the patience to work through the chapters this way, you’ll be well on your way learning how to read topographic maps, perform terrain association, plot bearings, follow bearings and triangulate your position.

For example, the second chapter of the book on map reading basics has the following exercises:

  1. Matching contour lines to 3-D landform drawings
  2. How to draw a slope profile diagram for a route based on the distances between the contour lines it crosses
  3. How to compute a slope gradient
  4. How to determine direction of travel with a protractor
  5. How to orient a map through terrain association
  6. How to find your approximate location through triangulation
  7. How to fold a map to preserve the correlation between fold lines and cardinal directions

These exercises are very useful to help beginners and non-visual learners internalize the meaning of topographic maps by using them to solve navigation problems, even before the use of a compass is introduced.

For Experienced Navigators

The Essential Wilderness Navigator is also a useful reference for more experienced navigators who are already competent compass and map users. In addition to covering all the bases on compasses, declination, geographic and magnetic north and bearings, and going back and forth between the world and maps, the book provides practical instruction on how to follow a course, account for lateral drift using back bearings, how to follow a bearing in open country when there are no intermediate landmarks, and how to navigate around obstacles such as ponds or other obstructions.

More advanced navigation techniques and pitfalls are also discussed including the use of warning bearings to avoid dangerous terrain, potential issues in fix accuracy, and how to get a position fix with only one bearing. Poorly blazed or maintained trail navigation is also covered including more advanced techniques such as baselines, aiming off, bracketing, handrails and catch points. An advanced chapter on sun and star navigation is even included.

Closing Remarks

If you’re looking for a book that teaches the fundamentals of map compass navigation, The Essential Wilderness Navigator does a very fine job.

But what I find most appealing about this book is its practical content on using many different navigation techniques in the field. While this isn’t a book about advanced off-trail navigation or bushwhacking, it provides an excellent foundation for people to want to learn those skills first-hand from the wizened bushwhackers, bush pilots, and gold prospectors that haunt our wilderness areas today.



  1. Interesting piece – as someone who has never had any problems with map/compass navigation. We were taught at school and then through years of practice I find that I’d much rather use a compass than a GPS device. I agree with your comment on getting out there and practicing. Beginners could try orienteering (it might be called something else in the US) which is over shorter distances and often in very challenging terrain.
    One thing that I have found walking in many parts of the world is that the quality of maps make a massive difference to how accurately you can navigate. We are blessed with the Ordnance Survey and great maps in the UK, but on the other hand – as I think you know – we are not as good with our way-marking (so you have to be a good navigator).
    Finally, as someone who has made my own topographical maps (for my doctorate) and taught navigation and surveying – both exercises (making and teaching) also help one to become confident and comfortable. So if you have kids why not make your own maps or teach them to navigate.

  2. The town of Milford NH has a navigation course set up on conservation land. You can get information on the town website. I have not tried it but have heard it is a decent course to practice your compass skills. Looks like I’ll be adding this book to my must read list.

  3. Thank you for the recommendation. I’ve also been looking at navigation books over the last year, and have not been able to find anything good. I just placed an order for this one.

    What book would you recommend for advanced navigation techniques with a map and compass? All the ones I have been able to find so far with a similar title start their description with “this will save your life in a survival situation”, so I stop reading. :)

    • Ross – I don’t know of any other in the US, but I suspect the place to look will be for some of the trailing materials that the Brits use to attain a Mountain Leader certification. I hear the navigation part of the award is very difficult to master.

  4. You can find materials for the ML course here, and yes it is a thorough examination for anyone leading groups in the serious terrain.

    I remember a friend did it many years ago and many of the candidates failed to pass, in fact she failed first time although she is/was a very experienced hill walker.

  5. I was lucky in that I had help from a learning device called Navpac that we used with the Army Cadets that explained everything. Then we had a 3 day navigation field trip.

  6. Philip is correct – most people find it very difficult to learn compass skills from a book.
    Taking a class, or If one is not available, watching a good instructional series on YouTube, is definitely the way to go. (See below)

    If you have tried to learn compass skills from a book, and failed, don’t take it personally. You’re certainly smart enough to learn it, but learning it from a book is not how it should be done.

    Think of it this way.
    Imagine you are teaching a young child how to tie their shoes.
    You have two choices. Write down the directions and read them to the child, or show them.
    Which teaching method do you think would be more effective?
    Obviously, the visual one. Trying to learn something like tying a knot through a written description is a monumental exercise in frustration for most people.

    Compass use is the same way. It’s a “better show than a tell”, as my dad used to say.

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