The Lost Art Of Map Reading – Part 2

The Lost Art Of Map Reading - Part 2In part one, we discussed what is on, and just how a topographical map can really be useful (especially with EMP attacks and grid failures constantly threatening our extremely “advanced” world). In part two of The Lost Art of Map Reading, we will explore more into how the compass and map work together, and just what a survivor should do should they find themselves without a map or compass altogether.

Using a Compass

Of all the many different types of compass out there in the supermarket world, a simple orienteering compass is the best bet for hiking and general outdoor use. Any sort of compass will do, however, in a survival like situation (including handcrafted ones! later discussed).

Main Parts of a (Orienteering) Compass:


The hard, flat piece that houses all the parts of the compass. Typically has rulers along its straight edges (these edges are useful for putting lines down on a map).

Direction-of-Travel Indicator

Arrow-marked on the base plate that you use to point in the direction you intend to go.


Each edge is marked with rulers that correspond with various map scales.

Index Pointer

Bottom-end of the direction-of-travel indicator, used for taking degree readings.

Declination Marks

These are used to orient the compass in areas with known declination.

The Needle/Its Housing

A magnetized piece of metal, one end red indicating north, that rotates freely when the compass is held level. Its housing is a plastic cover with liquid that surrounds the needle.

The Air Bubble

The air bubble inside the housing is used to show whether or not you are holding the compass level.

Orienting Arrow

Used to orient a compass to a map. Shown on the bottom of the housing unit, and rotates when the dial is turned.

Orienting Lines

Series of lines marked around the housing unit.

How the Compass Works

In basic terms, there is a massive (though fairly weak) magnetic field that encompasses the earth. The magnetized needle inside the compass is aligned with said magnetic field. In essence, think of the center of the earth as a big bar magnet (upside down to what we call North and South). Being that the earth’s “bar magnets’” south end is at the North pole, the compasses needle is pulled toward the north.

Reading the Compass

To properly read your compass, follow these tactics:

  • Hold the compass flat and stead in your hand so that the direction-of-travel indicator is pointing away from you.
  • Look at the compass and see where the needle points.
  • Turn your body keeping the compass (you will notice that the needle will continue to point in the same direction as the compass rotates).
  • Keep turning until the needle points to the East quadrant, keeping the direction of travel indicator directly in front of you.
  • Here is where the reading may get tricky for beginner compass handlers: Now that the needle is pointing East (you are not facing East!!!), you must now turn the compass dial until the “orienting arrow” and the North mark are aligned with the north end of the needle. Now you can read the heading that is marked by the index pointer.

Always remember to try to keep the compass away from any metal that may be in your pack, as this will risk you a false reading on the compass.

Magnetic Variation/Declination

If you are using a compass, at any time, it is extremely important to understand what exactly “declination” means.

In case you are not familiar, there is not (exactly) one “north”; in fact, there are 3.

True North

The fixed geographical location of the North Pole. Under most normal conditions, this north has little to do with the subject of navigation.

Magnetic North

The strong attraction to which your compass points. However, and this is important, this magnetic force is not constant.

Grid North

Grid North would be the vertical lines found on a grid-style map.

The magnetic north is never constant, meaning that the compass needle will be subject to its variations. The only way to make up for the difference between Grid North and Magnetic North is to calculate the annual change (this is why it is very important to keep up-to-date maps).

An updated map will show the direction of magnetic variation that is occurring then. This variation, though typically very small, is then added to or subtracted from the Grid North, and will provide a more precise bearing.

Following a Line of Travel with a Compass

This simply means stopping periodically during a hike to perform a quick reading. Once you have gotten a bearing on your direction (to the degree), plainly stop every once in a while to check your heading and be sure that you are still heading on the right degree.

Why you should always carry a sewing needle and a magnet in your survival kit: 

  1. Because they are both small, and take up very little room.
  2. Because if you rip your pants while lost in the woods, you can patch them right up! (just kidding…). Seriously, the reason is, that with both a needle and a magnet, you can create your own “homemade” (or better yet, wood-made) compass. In fact, to make an improvised compass you can use any suitable metal object so long as it can be magnetized.

If you are smart and prepared, a needle and a small magnet will do just fine (though, a nail, pin, razor blade or any other small metal piece that can act as a compass needle will work).

To magnetize:

Stroke the makeshift pointer with one pole of the magnet (be sure to use the same end of the magnet each time). Also, this technique will require re-magnetization every once in a while.

To make the compass:

Using a string, suspend the pointer from it and (providing that the thread is not stiff or twisted) you will have yourself a pointer that shows magnetic north. You can also take the pointer, stab through a couple small pieces of cork or some matchsticks, then float it in a container of still water (salt water will not work).

If you go with a float-style compass improvisation, be sure to not to use a metal container as this will completely throw off the magnetization.

Compass and Map Together

Now that we know what makes up a map and the components of the compass let’s dive into how we can use them together. Separate, they are both handy, but a bit restricted. Together, they can get you literally anywhere in the world (that is if you can work with them!).

Here we go! Getting from point A to point B using your map and compass. To begin, of course, and to do it correctly, you will have to know that you are really at point A. In part one, we discussed how to locate your position.

The first step is to lay the compass flat on the map. Place one edge of the compass at point A. Use the edge that is parallel to the direction of travel arrow. Now line it up with point B.

It is important to be careful here. The edge of the compass and the direction of travel arrow must be pointing from point A to point B. If you make a simple mistake here, you will find yourself wandering off in the complete opposite direction from where you wanted to go. Always take a second look and be sure that you are right on track.

Be sure that the compass is flat and steady on the map. Next, you will align the orienting line and the orienting arrow with the meridian lines that are printed on your map. These are the lines that go from north to south on the map. While the compass is edged steadily from point A to point B, turn the compass housing until the orienting arrow and lines align with the meridian lines. Don’t pay a lot of attention to the actual compass needle yet.

Related article: 10 Survival Tips And Tricks To Save Your Life In The Outdoor

Be sure to watch out during this step: Be positively certain that you know where North is on the map, and that you have turned the orienting arrow the right way (not South!). Be sure to also keep an eye on the edge of the compass, making sure that is edged from A to B, if you fail to do this, it will most assuredly take you off course.

Once you are certain that the compass housing position is right, you can take the compass from the map. Now you can read the azimuth directly from the housing, where the housing meets the direction of travel arrow. Do not turn the housing before you reach point B.

Hold the compass as flat as you can in your hand so that the compass needle can rotate freely. While making sure that the housing does not turn, turn yourself, your hand and the entire compass until the needle is aligned with the lines inside the compass housing.

As you begin to walk towards your destination, continue to hold the compass in your hand with the needle lined up with orienting arrow. Next, aim yourself, as accurately as you can, in the direction that the direction-of-travel arrow is pointing. Find a special land feature or structure in the terrain as far as you can see. Head there. As you go along, again, be damn sure that the compass housing does not turn. Depending upon the terrain that you are traversing, you may need to stop and re-aim several times.


You are not always going to hit point B with no trouble. In fact, you must expect before even starting to get a little off course simply by the nature of things.

How far off course you can become can be factored by many, many things on the trail and terrain that surrounds you. Is the forest extremely dense? Is there a heavy fog rolling about the mountain? In navigating, visibility is a highly important term.

The main element in making your destination is you yourself. Your accuracy is key in this sort of situation. You must be extremely mindful when you are taking a heading; and remember that is important to aim as far ahead as you can see.

In Conclusion:

Learning to use a map and compass together will take a decent amount of time and practice. However, it is a crucial skill set to have this day in age. The greatest way to learn is to get out on the field and really practice. One day it could all be worth the time it took!

Happy hiking out there guys!

This article has been written by Jonathan Blaylock for Prepper’s Will.

Useful resources to check out:

Survival Lessons from the 1880s Everyone Should Know

Find Out What’s the Closest Nuclear Bunker to Your Home

Knowledge to survive any medical crisis situation

A Green Beret’s guide to combat and shooting

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