Lost Art: Navigation Without GPS

Lost Art: Navigation Without GPS

There’s no doubt that modern technology, such as the Global Positioning System (GPS) and other mapping apps, have made travel more convenient. But that also comes at a price; they’ve caused humans to become reliant on tech. Not too many people can accurately read a map anymore, let alone navigate with one. Despite the greatness of GPS, the system has still caused many people to die, a condition dubbed “death by GPS” by rescue workers. In some situations, knowing how to properly read and navigate using a map could be the deciding factor on whether you live or die.

Knowing Your Map

In order for a person to successfully navigate a map, they first need to understand what they’re looking at. Maps come in various different formats and some of them include but are not limited to:

  1. Topographic Map- These maps show certain characteristics of terrain such as elevation and other geographic features.
  2. Road Map- These maps are used to display roadways and transport links. These are usually lacking in geographic detail.
  3. Nautical Map- These maps sometimes called charts, show shorelines and the seafloor. They give you water depths, as well as indicating dangerous areas.

Knowing what kind of map you need is essential to your survival. Typically, if you’re going to be in the woods, it’s a good idea to have a topographic map. Obviously, if you’re on a lake or in the ocean, it would be in your best interest to have a nautical map.

Details on your map are key to understanding and navigating it. Key things to look for on a map that you may potentially buy are the title, orientation, legend, scale, contour lines, neatline, and even color. Each of these things holds a valuable spot on any map.

The Map Title

This tells you what kind of map it is, and what layout or format it uses. This helps when looking for a specific map. If you need one showing roads and highways for the state of Rhode Island, you would want a map with a title like “Road Map or Rhode Island”. A map titled “Geological Map of Tennessee” or something similar is going to show you the geological features of Tennessee and not just roads.

The Colors

Physical and general maps tend to have dark green areas indicating lower elevations, brown is used for hills, and grey or white is used for high elevations.

The Scale

The scale of a map makes a difference when navigating. The bigger an area on the map is the smaller the scale, and the smaller the area is the bigger the scale. Scales are usually depicted by ratios, giving you a way to measure distance. This could be something as simple as 1-inch is equal to 10 miles, meaning for every inch you measure on the map, it will equate to every ten miles in real life.

Contour Lines

These lines are used to show differences in elevation. This is an attempt to take a 3D terrain and make it 2D. The closer contour lines are together, the steeper a hill or mountain is. The further apart they are the more level an area is.


This is just the border of the map, but sometimes neatlines are used to magnify important areas of a map. This is especially true for road maps, where in a city, roads would otherwise be too closely packed to read accurately. Neatlines are used to keep things organized, which is possibly a reason for the name.

The Legend

Also known as a key, the legend features different shapes and symbols that are found on the map. The legend is used to determine what certain things on a map represent. Not all maps use the same symbolism, but often are somewhat similar.


None of the other stuff does you any good if the map doesn’t have a certain orientation. Typically the top of the page or map is aligned with North. Though many maps point to “True North” some may point to Magnetic North.

Tale of Two Norths

North is North right? Wrong, there are actually two different Norths; Magnetic North and True North. True North is the actual geographic north pole, the very top of the planet. Magnetic North is where the red arrow on a compass points, due to Earth’s magnetic field. Magnetic declination is the difference in degree between the two Norths. Even when only traveling a few miles, just a few degree difference can throw you way off course. We suggest going to the NOAA website to find your area’s declination.

Navigating With a Map

When using a map to navigate, there are three things you need to know.

  • Your location
  • How to orient your map with a compass
  • How to plot a course

If you’re lost, it’s pretty safe to say you don’t know your location on a map. Do your best to estimate your general location. Using landmarks is a good way to start. Your map should be orientated with True North; be sure to not move the map once you have it aligned with True North. Using landmarks in your area in correlation with your map, it’s important to make sure what you’re seeing is what is on the map.

Finding the bearing between you and a distinctive part of a landmark is the next step. Keeping the compass steady and the direction of travel arrow pointed at your chosen landmark. You need to rotate the bezel ring until the red arrow fits in the orienting lines or arrows, being as precise as possible. You’ll need to consult the stationary index line and the number above it. This number indicates the bearing from you to the landmark.

Go back to your map, put a corner of the straight edge near the front of the compass on your landmark. This will be a pivot point, now lift and rotate the entire compass until your red arrow is back where it was when you had it pointing at the landmark. Repeat this as many times as you want, typically three times is ideal. You’ll end up with a triangle on the map and that is your general location.

Matching your map with your point of view is the first step to orienting your map. Rotate the compass’s bezel ring to match the stationary index line with your True North bearing. Align the left edge of your compass with the westside of the map. Your direction of travel arrow should be pointing to the top of the map. Holding the compass and map together rotate the entire map until the red arrow lines up with the orienting arrow.

Plotting your course is easier than it sounds, and has a few key elements. Find the direction of travel, sometimes called a heading or bearing. This is to be between your starting point and your destination. Next, determine the distance between the two points, using the map’s scale. If you have a topographic map, you can evaluate the terrain and your path. Estimate the pace count, or every two steps. This helps you keep track of how far you’ve traveled. Your ETA, or estimated time of arrival, isn’t super important unless you’re in the military or have limited time. You need to know what you’re looking for when you reach your destination. You should evaluate the terrain and area around your destination to have an idea of when you’ve made it, or if you passed it.

This method is something that should be practiced extensively before relying on it to navigate. Using it too soon will likely cause you to become lost even worse than you originally were. Practice soon and often, because you may not have a choice in case of an emergency.

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