How to Orientate a Map

Orientating your map is a key skill that many hikers rely on. It allows you to line up what is on your map, using north and visual topographical features, to the ground around you and the landscape in which you are travelling. Doing it correctly will allow you to navigate effectively over the course of your hike.

Note that orientating your map will not tell you where you are, it will allow you to make sense of the terrain around you, noting key features and potential hazards in advance. If you are lost, you will need to start with orientating your map then applying other tactics and skills to ascertain your position on the map.

Orientate Your Map Using A Compass

To orientate your map using your compass, first lay out your map on a relatively flat and dry surface. You don’t need to unfold your map entirely, just make sure there is enough of the map showing that you can see some of the features around you on the map.

The take out your compass, and lay it on the map. I use a Silva compass when out in the hills, which I find to be excellent. They are clear to read and easy to use. You can pick up a similar one here, they aren’t too expensive.

Compass placed on a map
Silva Compass on Map

Next, turn the rotating bezel on your compass so that the North South gridlines (or orienting lines) line up with the gridlines on your map. If you are using a similar compass to mine, you can look through the compass to the map so that you can easily line up the two sets of lines. You can also use the base plate of the compass to achieve this by laying the edge of your compass along a North-South gridline.

Take your time doing this as any inaccuracy will affect your readings, bearings and overall navigation until you reorient your map again. It is very easy to line up everything 180 degrees out with the compass pointing to the bottom of the map. Make sure that the top of the bezel (shown by a 0 or an N) is now pointing towards the top of the map.

The easy way to make sure that you do not make this easy mistake without unfolding the entire map to see the top, is to check that the writing on the map section that you are using is up the correct way.

The next step is to now hold your map and compass in place and rotate yourself until the magnetic needle sits pointing towards north on the compass. Again, take care with this step, if your compass moves in relation to your map, this will make your orientation inaccurate.

After this step, you, your compass needle, your orientating lines and the map gridlines will all be pointing in the same direction – magnetic north. You are now orientated to the ground and facing the right way!

You can use your compass for many other things, like triangulation and taking bearings. Check out my post on How To Use Your Compass.

Orientate Your Map Using The Ground

A slightly easier method to orientate your map than the previous section in my opinion, but one that requires good sight lines to easily identifiable features and good visibility. Without those two things, I would not use this method, I would stick to using the compass.

First things first, identify your approximate location on the map. Unless you are completely lost, you should have a general idea of where about on your map you are. The best way to do this is during your preparation, and take note of your start point and any tricky navigational spots that might require you to reorient your map. You can then rely on this knowledge on the ground to give you an approximate location.

Then, you will look to identify at least 3 key identifiable features that you would recognise on the map. Things like church spires, odd topographical features, stream or road junctions would be good examples of features you use. I would not use things like the edges of wood lines, fences or flocks of sheep for this method as those things tend to move!

Once you have your three features or landmarks, you can then try and find them on the map near your approximate location. Once you have your suspected map features, it is then a case or turning your map so that it lines up with the landmarks in front of you.

You are now orientated to the ground you are on. A way to check this is to now get our your compass and make sure that the grid lines on the map run in the same direction as the magnetic needle on your compass.

Boom – you’re good to go.

Key Points

  • Remember to take note of your approximate planned location during your planning phase.
  • When orientating your map with a compass, be sure to line up the base plate or orienting lines with a North-South gridline.
  • You can identify grid North (North on the map) by making sure the top of the map is actually at the top or by checking that the text on the map is the right way up.
  • Be sure to turn the map and compass together when orientating using a compass.
  • Pick immovable features when orientating using ground features.
  • It is good practice to use obvious features too, trying to pick out the correct feature when there are many possible options can be difficult.

Using either of these methods will get you and your map orientated to the world around you. It may sound complicated but after a few practices, it will become second nature. A well orientated map will help you make sense of the ground you are travelling through, a poorly orientated one will confuse you leading to navigational errors and possibly leaving your preferred route.

Orientate your map as often as you can, you’ll find, with practice, it will only take a second.

Happy hiking!

This page contains affiliate links to products. I may receive a commission for purchases made through these links, at no additional cost to you. However, I have not been paid to promote any product above any other, so opinions are my own and un-biased.

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