Map Navigation: An Introduction

Every outdoorsy person should be handy with a map and compass. With a good map, and the knowledge of how to use it, you’ll be able to visualise the other side of a mountain, or what lies in a nearby valley. Most importantly, when you understand the fundamentals of map navigation, you’ll be able to tell where you are in relation to your destination.

Knowledge of map reading and the use of the compass is an indispensable skill in the bush. Without this skill, a walker is simply a passenger or follower on a trip. Becoming a good navigator takes experience, and lots of it! But just as with walking, you can start easy and work your way up. Eventually, you will develop a feel for terrain that becomes second nature.



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What is Navigation?


Navigation is about getting from one place to another. It is no more difficult than using the following few basic skills:


  • Observation of your surroundings.
  • Keeping a mental note of features you pass, like hills and creek junctions (rough notes can sometimes help).
  • Estimating how far you have travelled.
  • Recognising important features when they are reached.

We navigate using these skills in everyday life, often without even realising it. For example, to figure out if we’re heading in the right direction to get to work or return home, we use identifiable objects like roads, buildings, prominent landmarks (mountains, rivers), and unique objects (the Sydney Harbour Bridge, Parliament House).

The difference between everyday navigation and wilderness navigation is that instead of using objects like buildings, intersections and streets to get from place to place, bushwalkers and hikers tend to use natural features and landmarks.

These observations are then related to the map, and only occasionally is the compass used as a check. The compass is simply a reference, which points in a given direction. Although here we will concentrate on bearings and other technicalities of the compass, it is better when starting to learn about navigation to concentrate on becoming familiar with interpreting maps. This can only be done effectively by spending time in the bush, with a map in hand.

The technical aspects of using a compass (and other navigation devices) can be hard to learn from a book. It’s always better if you can get an expert to show you how it all works, preferably in the wilderness. But do keep in mind that the majority of navigation is map reading. That is, relating features shown symbolically on a piece of paper, to what you see around you. 

You are seeking to answer three fundamental questions: where am I, what direction do I take, and how far do I go?



Essential Hiking Navigation Devices


There are two key map navigation devices that you’ll need on most adventures. They are a map (or maps) and a compass.



A map is an essential tool for navigation. It provides you with a bird's-eye view of the prominent features in a given area, from small to broad. Knowing how these features relate spatially to one another can help you:

Figure out where you are on your map simply by looking at the world around you.
Figure out where your final destination is in relation to you, even if you can't see it (assuming you know your location on your map).



A compass will help you navigate more precisely from point to point. This can be extremely important in the wilderness, where even small mistakes can result in you walking right by your destination without seeing it.



Common Types of Maps


There are a few different types of navigational maps that can be used when you are out on a hike or a long day walk.


Topographic Maps


These maps are generally made by government agencies, and are the most commonly used type of navigational map since they give the best picture of the country. They are drawn from data obtained by aerial photography, which is very accurate, providing the cartographer makes the correct interpretation. Unfortunately, errors are sometimes made. Contour lines are used to indicate the shape and steepness/depth of hills and valleys. Many topographic maps also include information about prominent man-made features like tracks, roads and bridges.


Sketch Maps


Sketch maps are usually produced by outdoors people for specific uses and are only available for a limited number of popular areas. Hills are often indicated pictorially, so accuracy is sometimes low. However, special details of tracks, passes, campsites and water availability are invaluable, as they are based on personal experience.

Over time, sketch maps can become outdated, due to changes that may occur in roads and tracks since the map was first drawn, but the walking tips are often still relevant. Using sketch maps with topographic maps is the best way to get an accurate picture of the surrounding area during hiking navigation.


Orthopto Maps


This type of map is similar to the topographic map but is printed with an aerial photograph of the ground as a background to the other data. This gives the user a fair idea of the pattern of vegetation, but other details are sometimes lacking.


Other Maps


There are other types of maps, including cadastral maps, that show property boundaries. They are usually not ideal for bush navigation. Some tourist maps and similar materials can be useful for planning trips or getting to the start of your walk. But for the most reliable information, quality navigational maps are essential.



The Different Parts of a Map


A map is a symbolic representation of the terrain in a certain area. Reading a map accurately requires knowledge of the symbols on the page and how they are used. This is an essential section of any navigation guide.




The scale is the relation between a length on a map and the corresponding distance on the ground. This is given by a representative fraction. The most useful scales are 1:25 000, 1:50 000 and 1: 100 000. Naturally, there is less room for detail on a 1: 100 000 map than there is in a 1:50 000 map, whilst the 1:25 000 scale can show very fine detail. The 1:50 000 scale is a good compromise for most bush navigation, though you don't always have much choice. Large areas of remote Australia are covered by the 100 000 series only, which are not renowned for their accuracy on features like roads and tracks (although the topography is usually adequate).




Hills and valleys are shown by contour lines, which join points of the same height. The vertical distance represented by two adjacent lines is called the contour interval. Thus, if you climb (or descend) a hill from one line on the map to the next, you will have moved vertically a distance equal to the contour interval. 10, 20 and 40 metres are the typical values, depending on the map scale and steepness of the terrain.

Using the numeric information from the contours and the interval information from the bottom of the map, you can figure out:


  • How high your current position is (assuming you know where you are on your map)
  • How high a another specific point on the map is
  • How steep the terrain is between where you are and where you want to go. The steepness of a given area on a topographic map is determined by how close together the contour lines are in that area. The closer the lines are together, the steeper the terrain will be.




The Australian map grid is a system of lines drawn over maps of the whole of Australia and is related to latitude and longitude. The lines are 1000 metres apart to scale. The grid is used to identify points on a map, somewhat like a city road map. Details of how to use these references are given on most maps that have the grid. You should be able to use grid references, as they are the main way of transferring route information from one person to another, as in route guides.


North Pointers


There are three norths: true, magnetic and grid. For the area covered by a given map, the relationship between true, magnetic and grid north is usually shown by a diagram.


  1. True north is the direction of the north geographic pole. The borders of most maps are true north and south, with north usually being at the top. Always make sure that you check this to be sure - particularly for sketch maps.
  2. Magnetic north, to which compasses react, coincides with true north in Australia along only one line. The difference between true north and magnetic north is called the magnetic declination.
  3. Grid north is the direction of grid lines: almost true north and south. The difference is usually small enough to be ignored for our purposes.

NB: To understand the relationships fully, we recommend that you read a book with a good outline, such as How to Navigate, or take a short course. Paddy Pallin runs in-store navigation education events periodically - keep an eye on our events page to stay in the loop.


Conventional Symbols


These symbols are fairly standard, but there are often variations and the legend should always be checked to ensure your interpretation is accurate. The non-topographic information that a map provides can be as crucial to navigation as the topographic information, especially for beginner bushwalkers. 

This additional information includes things like:


  • The paths of access roads in the area
  • The location of tracks and campsites
  • Wilderness area boundaries
  • The proximity of nearby towns and villages

Different maps provide different levels of information, so be sure to look over your map before setting out. After all, you may require more detailed information to reach your destination.


Date and Maker

The shape of hills does not vary appreciably over decades, but map-making methods do. Unnatural features like roads and buildings can alter overnight. It’s important to check the date and maker in order to assess the reliability of a map.



The Compass


The humble compass has been used for hundreds of years, and is relied upon by hikers and walkers all over the world.

A compass will not show you where to go, but it does point in a constant direction - magnetic north - providing there is nothing nearby to mislead it. Being magnetic, it must not be used too close to electric currents or magnetic and steel objects like knives, spectacle frames, fences and cars. While half a metre might be a safe distance to be away from a pocket knife, 10 or 20 metres is better for something stationary like a shed, which may have its own induced magnetism.

There are a few locations where natural deposits of iron-rich rock play havoc with compasses (such as Tabletop Mountain in the Snowy Mountains). Beware of imagining phantoms to explain away navigational puzzles though - the fault nearly always lies with the navigator!


There are a number of important principles to understand when it comes to interpreting and using a compass.



Compasses are designed to show you where north is in the real world. Knowing where north is allows you to identify all of the other directions in the "compass rose" - i.e. south, east, and west. Many compasses take this one step further, by allowing you to assign a specific numerical direction, called a ‘bearing’, to any direction in the full 360° circle around you. This means you can head toward a very specific spot, rather than simply heading on a more general heading, such as south west.

To convert general compass directions into bearings, a compass has a special rotating bezel mounted around the outside edge of the compass needle. This bezel, which is divided into 360° usually in 2° to 5° increments°, measures the direction towards a given object in terms of an angle; specifically, the clockwise angle between a straight line pointing due north and a straight line pointing toward the object. This bezel allows you to express any specific direction as a number between 0 and 360.


Back Bearings


When following a compass bearing from some feature, you may want to check back to that feature to see if you are on course, or you may wish to retrace your steps. The bearing in the reverse direction is called a back bearing and is simply 180° different from the forward bearing. 

The best method of obtaining a back bearing is leaving the compass set at the forward bearing and held in front of you - simply turn around. There is no need to add or subtract 180°: the south end of the compass needle now points to the north mark on the compass dial, and the travel arrow on the compass base points on the back bearing.


The Importance of Bearings


Following a bearing that is just one degree off can translate into a 25-metre variance over a kilometre. This means that after a 10km walk, you may miss your target by over 200 metres. In the bush, a few metres can mean the difference between spotting a track or creek and missing it completely.

Being able to measure directions in terms of specific compass bearings can also help in a number of critical situations.

Knowing the bearing of your target destination (river, house, campsite etc.), allows you to travel even if the weather closes in or night falls.
Knowing the bearing allows you to stay on track even if you have to detour around an object in your path (your compass will allow you to turn from your original course, get around the obstacle safely, then turn back and find your exact course again).
Knowing how to take bearings can help you pinpoint your location on your map even if you are completely lost, using a technique called triangulation (discussed below).


Understanding how to use a map and compass is very important for all bushwalkers and hikers. If you do get lost, or you have to cross an area of land without tracks, your map and compass may be the only tools that can get you back home safely.



Lost? Utilise Triangulation


Triangulation is one of the most common and useful navigation techniques that uses both a map and a compass. It is a simple procedure that, when done correctly, can pinpoint your exact position on your map even if you have no idea where you are.

Looking around you try to identify two unmistakable landmarks, say two peaks. If you take 2 accurate bearings on the two peaks and draw a line on your map from each landmark along the bearings taken, your location will be where the two lines intersect. 

Triangulation is based on the principle that once you've taken a bearing on a visible landmark (i.e. established in what direction that landmark lies from your present position), you can logically assume that your position lies somewhere along a line drawn to that landmark along that bearing. The second bearing then allows you to define the point, and thus determine your approximate location.



Magnetic Declination — a Little More Advanced


Map and compass navigation works on the principle that you know one thing at all times - that is where north is. To find north, you simply look at where the red end of your compass needle is pointing. The problem is that map navigation is based on knowing where "true north" is, i.e. the North Pole. And unfortunately, that's not where compass needles really point. Compass needles actually point toward "magnetic north," a point that is close to true north, but not right on it. 

This is where "declination" comes in.

Declination is the angular difference between ‘true’ and ‘magnetic’ north. The tricky thing about declination is that this angle is different depending on where you are standing in the world. Declination is usually indicated diagrammatically with a series of arrows drawn on a map. These diagrams are often not to scale so always use the values, not the drawing to set your compass.

People navigate successfully with maps and compasses all the time, even though magnetic north and true north don't always line up. How? They simply figure out what the angle of declination is in their general area, and then make sure that they take that angle into account when they make their navigation calculations (basically, by adding or subtracting the angle of declination from the compass bearing numbers that they read off their compasses). 

Some compasses can be set so that they remain adjusted for an entire trip.



Prepare for an Adventure with Hiking Navigational Devices

If you’re a keen bushwalker or hiker, or even a complete newbie, equipping yourself with navigational tools and learning how to use them properly will help keep you on track when out on the trail.

Check out our range of maps and compasses online.



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