How to Navigate Without GPS Using a Map and Compass

July 12, 2018 Published by

Over the last decade or two, consumer use of GPS technology for navigation and tracking has exploded. We’re so reliant on GPS and map apps that use GPS to help us find our way around, most of us find it difficult to imagine a time when people actually were pretty good at finding our way from point A to point C and points in between for thousands of years with little to no technology or gear.

These days most of us don’t know how to navigate without GPS. You might not know what to do if you can’t access your GPS system to find that hip new night spot or if you find yourself lost one day when you stray off the trail while on a hiking trip. The good news is that there’s no need to drive around until you give up and miss out on meeting up with your friends, or worse die while wandering aimlessly through the desert. You too can learn how to get around without any high-tech gadgets or your smartphone, just by using technology that’s been around for thousands of years – a map and a compass.

Before You Go on Your Trip
Whether you’re using GPS, a map, a compass, or all three, these 10 rules can help you keep from getting lost.
1. Plan your route. Before you go, ask yourself “Is this trip worth the risk of getting lost if there are problems with GPS, my map, or my compass?” Don’t take unnecessary risks.
2. Make sure you have the 10 essentials when you are going off-road: Navigation tools (GPS, compass, map), flashlight and/or headlamp, sun protection, water, first aid kit, knife, way to start a fire, shelter (lightweight emergency bivvy), extra water, extra food, extra clothes. Everyone traveling together should have all 10 of these items.
3. Always tell someone where you are going and when you will be back. Often, if you do this and you get lost, someone will come looking for you.
4. Change your plans? Go back and repeat step #3.
5. Stay together. Don’t separate from your party unless everyone traveling together repeats step #1.
6. Halt when you feel HHALT, hungry, hurt, angry, lonely, tired, or thirsty.
7. Stay alert. Look around you. Listen to your surroundings. Notice smells and temperature changes.
8. Look behind you from time to time, so you will recognize the way back.
9. Lead, don’t follow, at least in your own mind. Be capable of finding your own way, but cooperative with other people. Speak up when you think others are wrong, but politely.
10. When you think you’re lost, stop! That is, unless you are exposed to the elements, you are in danger from animals, or you are near a loud river where a search and rescue team couldn’t hear your cries for help.

How to Use a Map
Believe it or not but there are already people who grew up without ever learning how to read a map, let alone use one. It’s true, there are kids and young adults who have only used map and GPS apps on their smartphones and other devices to get around. Furthermore, some people who used to rely on maps have stopped and as a result, may have forgotten how to use a paper map to get around.

It’s actually really useful to know how to read a map, even if it’s just a map of the city or town you live in. You’re probably used to just typing in the address or even the name of the business or location you want to get to in a GPS app like Google Maps or Waze. The app then just shows you where the place is and will even guide you there. Because it’s so easy, when you first look at a regular map, you might feel confused and overwhelmed.

In reality, maps are actually easy to read when you understand how they’re structured and how to use the structure to find where you need to go and to plan a route to get there.

  • All maps use a grid system and an index.
  • One edge of the map will have letters and another edge will have numbers.
  • The index will have an alphabetic list of streets, or towns, as well as major landmarks and locations with their corresponding map coordinates.
  • To find a location, you simply look up the coordinates in the map’s index. For example, say you’re looking for that new bar on Main St. Main St’s coordinates are F8. You go to the map and find where F&8 intersect.
  • If you need to find how to get from your current location to the bar we talked about Main St, you repeat the process and then plot out the route with the map.
  • In many ways, you have more control over the route you decide to ultimately take with a paper map because you can see all possible routes and the entire area between your location and where you’re going is visible. With map apps, you might get shown only 2 to 3 alternate routes and the routes may or may not actually be the best or most efficient ways to get somewhere.

Five Tips for Reading Maps
1. Choose the right map. There are lots of types of maps. They have different scales, so it can be hard to choose the right one. A 50,000:1 map (1 foot on the map corresponds to 50,000 feet in the 3D world) gives you a good overview of an area. A 25,000:1 or 10,000:1 map gives you a lot more detail.
2. Learn to recognize topographical features on maps. Get to know the symbols for roads, bridges, streams, hills, buildings, and natural markers. Notice the concentric circles that get smaller and smaller as you climb a steep path up a mountainside or a hill.
3. Learn to trust the map. When you get lost, go back to the last feature you recognized on the map. Then use the map to navigate from there.
4. Get used to using a compass when you use your map. That’s what those compass points on your map are for. 
5. Practice, practice, practice. The more often you use maps to find your way, the better you will get at using them.

How to Use a Compass
Now that you have a basic idea of how to use a paper map, what about another method of navigation, the compass? The compass has been around for about 2,000 years and uses the Earth’s own magnetic field. It’s a deceptively simple piece of technology that won’t go down because you’re out of batteries or can’t connect to a network.
While a compass can be used with or without a map, using a compass requires a bit more than just reading a paper map does. Plus, if you don’t know the difference between true north and magnetic north as well as how to align your compass, you could end up just as lost or more lost while trying to use a compass to find your way as if you didn’t have anything to help you when you’re lost in the wilderness. Even being off by 1 degree, will get you 100 ft off route for every mile you travel. If you’re only going a mile, that’s not so bad, but what if you need to travel 10 or 20 or 30 miles?

To learn how to use your compass, there are several great step by step how-to guides and videos you can check out like this one from wikiHow or this video from REI. There’s not enough time to provide a highly detailed how-to here but the basics are as follows:

  • Get familiar with your compass and its parts and practice with it a lot until you’re confident you can use it correctly.
  • Learn how to hold your compass correctly and always point the direction of travel arrow away from you.
  • Learn how to properly align/calibrate your compass so you know how to find True North – remember your compass points to Magnetic North. The term for the difference between True North and Magnetic North is “declination.” You can find the correct declination for where you are online or on a map that’s recent.
  • To use your compass without a map, first, figure out which direction you’re headed and use it to help you face the correct direction of where you need to go.
  • You can also use a compass to find where you are on a map or to plot out a route on a map. Obviously, for a roadmap, you usually won’t need to use a compass with your map. But if you’re trying to find your way on a wilderness or trail map, or are hiking off trail, then combining a compass and a paper map can help you find your way and keep you from getting lost.

Just remember, for using a compass correctly, you need to make sure you know where True North is!

Don’t Forget When You’re Using a Compass
The Earth’s geographic poles aren’t at exactly the same locations as the Earth’s magnetic poles. For your compass to find True North, you will have to adjust your compass for declination, so it points north, south, east, and west to correspond with your map. You can get the declination you need for your area from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) magnetic declination.

Don’t get us wrong. We love GPS. GPS tracking is our business after all. However, just relying on GPS to navigate everywhere can backfire. There will be times when your phone’s battery runs out or when you can’t get on the network, or you don’t have a cellular or Wi-Fi signal. What happens if you’re lost and don’t know how to use simple tools to find your way back home or to your destination?

By ensuring you know and understand how to use old technologies like a map and a compass, as well as how to use them together, you’ll never have to worry about what might happen if you can’t access your GPS. For millennia, people knew how to navigate without GPS, and you can too.
What do you think? Do people rely too much on GPS for navigation? Let us know in the comments below.

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This post was written by Malcolm Rosenfeld

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