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Navigation for Beginners - How To Use a Map and Compass

If you’re a fan of hiking, it’s important to know the basics of map reading and using a compass. After all, even if you have directions saved on your phone, you never know when you might run out of battery or lose signal. Not to mention that the ability to read a map is one of those skills that harks back to a simpler time, one that you’ll be proud to show off to friends. Bear Grylls who?

In today’s blog post, we’ll go over the basics of map reading and using a compass. There’s a lot that could be said about these subjects but we’ll only cover the bare necessities for today. For more detailed information on navigation, check out the Ramblers website for some great resources.


Understanding map symbols and the grid reference


The number of different symbols on a paper map can be a little overwhelming, but a lot of these are pretty self-explanatory. And even if they’re not, you’ll usually see a key on your map with an explanation for each symbol’s meaning. Do make sure you know what’s what before heading out on your trail just in case. 

See something on the map you can’t spot in your surroundings? Don’t worry about it too much - it might just be that the landscape has changed, especially if your map is a few years old. 

And those red-brown, curved lines? Those are known as contour lines, denoting where the earth rises. Depending on your map, the contour lines will each mark a height difference of either five or ten metres - your map should say which height difference it uses. 

Because of this, the further away from each other the contour lines of a hill are, the shallower it is, and vice versa. The lines will also be accompanied by a number that tells you how many metres above sea level that point is.

The grid reference is what will help you determine the exact spot you’re in on a map. To find the grid reference of a specific spot on your map, you start by reading the lines running horizontally on your map, east to west, finding the number corresponding with the spot you want along the bottom of the map. 

Then, you do the same with the numbers running vertically on the side of the map. This way, you’ll get a four-digit grid reference that corresponds with a one square kilometre area on your map.



Using a compass with your map


A compass, used together with your map, makes sure you know which way you’re travelling and helps you understand your surroundings. For hiking, an ordinance compass is your best bet. These have a square base with markers to help you determine distances on your map.

The needle of your compass always points to the magnetic north. This is slightly different from the grid north on your map and changes over time and depending on where in the world you are. For shorter distances, the difference should be minimal enough not to affect your navigation but for longer stretches, you may need to compensate for this difference in order to navigate accurately.

Using a compass, you can figure out which way north is by aligning the magnetic needle with the static arrow on your compass. Another great use for your compass is to set your map so that it aligns with your surroundings. To do this, lay your map flat and place your compass on it. Then, you turn the map until the magnetic needle on your compass points towards the top of your map.


Navigating using nature


Being able to find your way in a forest simply by reading the signs of nature is a skill you’ll hopefully - or most likely - never actually need but still, it’s a very cool ability to have, and one that’ll make you feel at one with nature. 

By looking at the sun, it’s simple to determine where south is if you know what time it is. And based on this, you’ll naturally figure out which way north, west and east are as well. If you have an analogue watch or a digital one with a traditional clock face, you can do this by pointing the hour hand at the sun. The midway point between the hour hand and 12 o’clock will be south. During British Summer Time between April and October, you’ll have to look at 1 o’clock rather than 12.

You can also get a hint of which way to go by looking at plants and mosses. It’s commonly said that moss grows more on the northern side of rocks and trees, but this isn’t necessarily the case as they grow better in shady spots in general. That being said, the prevailing wind in the UK comes from the southwest. Trees and bushes tend to lean slightly away from this wind on exposed hillsides, with more branches on the side facing away from the southwest. 


Where to find hiking routes


Now that you know the basics of navigation, it’s time to put your new skills to good use with a hike out in nature. While you could plan your own route, the more beginner-friendly option is opting for an established hiking trail. To find the perfect hike near you or to take on during your glamping holiday, check out some of the trails we’ve covered on our blog in the past.

For more hiking routes in the UK, have a look through Walking Britain or, for longer journeys, the National Trails website. For hikes in Scotland, we’ve found Walkhighlands to be an excellent resource for trails in every part of the country. If you’d like to explore a new area, check out our glamping sites across the UK with great trails around them by clicking the link below.