A Beginners Guide to Compasses, Maps, and GPS navigation for hiking


If you’re planning on hiking, it’s essential to have the right gear. You don’t want to get lost in the woods or be unprepared for any situation that might arise. That’s why we created this guide – so you can make sure your next hike is a safe and successful one. We’ll cover everything from compasses, maps, and GPS navigation devices, to how they work together and what features are most helpful when out in the wilderness. Whether you’re new to hiking or an experienced hiker looking for something new, this guide will help ensure your next adventure goes off without a hitch.

Why Navigation Skills are Important

You might be wondering why it’s so important to hone your navigation skills. After all, if you’re only going on a short hike, won’t you be able to find your way back without getting lost?

Well, the answer is kind of scary. The CDC reports that around 80 percent of hikers who take short hikes and get lost have no idea how to use a map or compass, let alone read them. As your hiking trip gets longer, this number goes up as hikers run out of food and water – not having any idea where to go.

So, why bother? Comprehending the importance of knowing how to use your map and compass is part of what will keep you safe in the wilderness. If you want to read a compass, you need to understand how they work.

Practice, Practice, Practice.

Don’t leave things to chance. It doesn’t matter if you use a map with compass, GPS, mobile phone App, or even a combination. Take the time to get used to each option and practice your craft somewhere safe that you are familiar with.

It’s good to understand the benefits and limitations of each option before you’re out somewhere new.

What is a compass, and what does it do

A compass is a navigational instrument that measures the Earth’s magnetic inclination to determine the cardinal points of the compass, or the four main directions/directions of North, South, East, and West. Every compass has two important components: a needle that will point in the magnetic north direction when it is freely suspended and a circular dial called an orienteering arrow. The dial enables you to read off what heading you are on either in degrees or by using the names of the four cardinal points.

Here’s a quick technical guide if you don’t know how compasses work. I will start by explaining that there are no magnetic fields in space. Magnetic fields only exist inside objects like planets and stars. An object becomes magnetic by having many electrons spinning in a common direction. The Earth is a giant magnet and therefore has a strong magnetic field. Another object near it – another planet or an iron item – will have some of its particles aligned with the Earth’s magnetic field.

What this means is that the needle always points to magnetic North.

Magnetic North versus True North

Before you even think about getting lost, it’s good to know the difference between Magnetic North and True North.

Magnetic North is where compass needles point toward the Earth’s magnetic field. This pole is not the same place as the north geographic pole, so compasses need adjustments in different parts of the world. Due to the Earth’s changing magnetic field, compasses can be affected by up to 20 degrees.

This is why your compass might not always point in the right direction – it’s because the Magnetic North Pole is constantly moving.

True North is where all longitude lines converge, and there are no magnetic deviations between these intersections. True North is the point that all maps are oriented to, and compasses will not be adjusted. This can be found by measuring your degree latitude, which will give you an idea of where the true north pole lies. For example, if you measure your latitude as 45 degrees north, the true north pole is located at 45 degrees latitude.

Basic Compass Functions

Before we get into more advanced compasses, let’s talk about the basics. A compass functions based on the Earth’s magnetic needle. The Earth does act as a giant magnet, and it has an invisible, liquid iron core that generates the magnetic field around the planet (don’t worry, this is normal).

The needle in your compass responds to this energy by pointing toward the north pole. If you’re not in the northern hemisphere, your south magnetic pole will be located where the north one would normally be.

This is why there’s a red arrow on most compasses – so you’ll know which way to face when using it in case you are in the southern hemisphere. Here’s an example of one so you can see what I’m talking about:

What to Look for in a Compass

Now that you know how compasses work, do you need one? Well, it depends on where you’re going. If your hike is five miles or less, use the sun and stars to guide yourself home. However, if your hike is longer than that and you’re not an experienced navigator, then I recommend bringing a compass with you.

When looking for a compass, there are a few things to keep in mind:

  • The size and weight of the compass
  • How easy it is to use
  • What type of terrain you’ll be hiking on
  • The climate

For example, if you’re hiking in a very cold climate, you’ll need a compass that won’t freeze up. You might also want to consider a compass with a sighting mirror and clinometer if you’ll be hiking in mountainous areas.

How to select the right compass for you

There are many different compasses to choose from, making it challenging to select the right one. Even if you carry a GPS device on your hike, it’s still a good idea to know how to navigate with your compass. Batteries die, and GPS satellites do stop working, although rarely.

Different features on a compass can help determine the best for you. Here are some things to think about before making your purchase:

The face size: A small face is more accurate than a larger one because it provides less room for error. A compass with a larger look can be easier to read in low light conditions or when hiking through densely wooded areas

Degrees or degrees/minutes/seconds: It can be challenging to read your exact location when navigating with minutes and seconds. The degree reading is a better option for most people

Degree increments: The degree increments will determine how much ground you can cover in just one turn of the compass. Most compasses have 2-degree increments, which allow for greater accuracy when navigating

Illumination: If you sometimes hike in low light conditions or at night, you should check to see if your compass offers illumination

Design: A few extra features can make a huge difference in the design. The most important of these is a lanyard strap for hanging your compass around your neck or wrist. This helps ensure it won’t get lost when you set it down

Degree scales: You can also find compasses with additional degree scales. For example, if your destination is a bearing of 45 degrees, you will need to reset the compass so that it indicates North on one side and degrees number on the other

Mounting options: Always consider how you intend to carry your compass before purchasing. It may come with a D-ring, lanyard strap, or carabiner hole for attaching it to yourself or your pack

Liquid-filled: While liquid-filled compasses are not as popular as they used to be, many experienced hikers still swear by them. They help steady the needle and increase accuracy. But, liquid-filled compasses are more likely to leak, so they should be kept upright at all times

Sun and star chart: This is a feature that only certain compasses have. It allows you to find your bearings from the sun or North Star

Finding and Buying a Map

If you plan to hike in the UK, map choice is straightforward. Ordnance Survey maps cover the whole country, and they have specialty maps for the most popular hiking areas.

Why GPS navigation isn’t always the best option

Now that we’ve discussed the benefits of hiking with a compass, it is important to mention that GPS may not be the most reliable option.

GPS navigation systems use data from satellites to determine an object’s location. There are a few factors that can make a difference in how accurate a GPS will be:

Satellite coverage: As with any electronic device, your units will only work as long as they have power. And though GPS units are designed to turn themselves on and off depending on where you are at points in time, there are some limitations. If the satellite is too high or too far away or if something is blocking it (such as trees), then your unit may not work properly

Electronic interference: If you use your GPS unit near many other electronic devices, such as cell phones and radios, it may interfere with the signal. Or, if there is a power line nearby, you might get incorrect readings because of the electronic current

Power failure: To save power on most GPS units, they shut down after a certain period. If you have one that is not set up to turn itself on and off automatically, it may take a few minutes for the device to get a signal after turning it back on

Electronic features: More expensive GPS units have more features than others. This means they will likely have a larger screen, more memory, etc. All of these things require more power, so the battery will not last as long

Receiver error: The receiver in your GPS unit can get confused if exposed to large amounts of interference or receives a weak signal. This can cause it to show false readings on your display

Map errors: While some maps are incredibly accurate, others are not. If the map you have is missing a road or trail, your GPS unit may lead you in the wrong direction

The importance of mapping, in addition to using a map and compass

Mapping is essential when using a map and compass. A compass will never accurately indicate your location on a map. Of course, the best option for this is to use GPS navigation systems. But, these can be unreliable and can fail. So it’s important to map out the area you will be traveling to before hiking. Consider addressing these issues:

– Where can you find water?

– Where are your safety hazards?

– Where is your destination located on the map?

– Are there any other landmarks that can help you?

– What should your climbing route look like?

– Are there any unmarked trails that could confuse you?

You should plan out the route you intend to take, but some factors can interfere with your plans along the way.

– How will changing terrain affect the map? For example, if you have a map covering a flat area and then suddenly hit a place of deep gorges or thick brush, the map might not be accurate.

– How will weather affect the map? It might get soaked and become useless if you hike during a downpour. Or, if you are hiking in snow, most likely, the trail will be covered. So what would happen if your trail is hidden by snow? You could wander in circles for hours with no idea of which direction you’re heading.

– How will time of day affect the map? If you hike in complete darkness, it is unlikely that you’ll be able to read your map. And if you set out so early in the morning, it is still dark; there may not be any landmarks visible to help guide you on your way.

Tips on how to use your tools effectively to stay safe when hiking

Below are some tips for hiking navigation:

– Hike with a partner or group- When you hike with someone else, it is easy to stay on the proper path and ensure you don’t get lost.

– Pack a compass and map- Pack a compass and map in your backpack for when weather changes or visibility decreases.

– Mark your path on the map- When you hike, it may be challenging to keep track of where you are. Try marking specific landmarks on your map that will guide you back on your way if need be.

– Leave a travel plan with someone at home- Let someone know when and where you plan to go hiking. If anything goes wrong, they will contact the proper authorities.

– Take a GPS device- Some hikers like to take small GPS devices. This can include a mobile phone. However, they do not always work in all situations (see above for more information).

– Learn how to use your tools effectively- The best way to know you’re using your tools correctly is to take a course (or seek out the information online) on navigation and learn how to use your tools properly.

– Use maps in conjunction with other methods- Using maps in conjunction with other forms of navigation, such as landmarks or triangulation, will increase your accuracy.

– Study the area you plan to hike before hiking it- If you are not familiar with the area you plan to hike in, study it beforehand. This will help ensure you know what to expect on your route and how it will affect the map.

When should you use a map, compass, or GPS navigation system when hiking

When should you use a map, compass, or GPS navigation system when hiking? All hikers will need to consult their maps from time to time. Devices such as the compass and GPS can be beneficial, but they can also fail. As a result, it is good practice to carry your map on you at all times, especially when on longer hikes. But what are some situations when one of these devices would be more effective than the others?

When visibility is low, either because of fog or darkness, you will want to go with an electronic device like the compass or GPS. These may not work in all circumstances (see above for more information), but in most cases, they will be able to indicate your location more accurately than a map can. Also, hiking in an area where it is difficult to see landmarks these devices will allow you to maintain your bearings more quickly.

So what about using a map instead? Maps are great for use in areas with clear visibility. If the sun is out and no clouds are blocking your view of the land around you, you will be able to read your map and keep track of where you are going. However, if you are hiking at night or in the rain, it may be challenging to read a paper map.

What about using a GPS device? These devices can be very effective and usually provide an exact location (within 10 meters or so) to the point where you are standing. However, they fail when their batteries die or there is no signal in the area (such as in a deep valley or dense forest).

10 Great tips to help you navigate and stay safe when out hiking

1. Keep track

To be a proficient navigator, you need to keep your eyes open and mind engaged. I would estimate that 70% of the success comes down from paying attention here at all times! Establishing this habit means regularly correlating what’s on top with where we’re going next – it could also save lives in emergencies like when there is no cell service or GPS signal available.

2 Map and compass

It never hurts to have a map and compass on you, especially when it’s clear that these supplies will be needed for survival. Please keep them in an easy-to-reach pocket of your backpack or wear them around your neck, so they’re always within reach!

Increasingly, rescue services encourage people to arm themselves with an up-to-date map and compass. Learn to use them before heading out on your next trip.

3. Plan the route your taking

A topographic map does more than show you how to get from A-B. A mental picture of the terrain enables hikers who are heading into unknown territory for an adventure that will be both physically challenging and mentally stimulating! Before each hiking day starts, take some time every morning with your coffee cools to look at all possible routes you might hike that day – rivers, valleys, ridges, peaks, cliffs, buttes, gullies gradients (i e contour lines). Build a mental picture of where you’ll be hiking. With practice, this will help you stay out of trouble.

4. Start simple before going complicated.

If you are a beginner and want easy trails, start on the easiest ones. As your navigational skills improve, it is time to increase difficulty with more challenging paths in nature but always remember that there should not be too much separation from civilization for safety reasons!

5. Take your time

When you’re lost in the woods, taking a break and re-assessing your location can make all of the difference. If unsure about where things are at, take some time for yourself by grabbing something sweet or settling into an open field with map study as company – because nothing compares to finding out that high point was nearby!

People can get frustrated while hiking back uphill after misjudging distance from one landmark; try not to let this happen to yourself or your group. There are few things worse on a hiking trip than a group falling out with each other.

6. Landmarks & time reviews

Take note of the time whenever you reach an easily distinguishable landmark (e.g., junctions, lakes, passes, summits, river crossings). A pencil and notebook to keep track is old school but reliable. If your GPS stops working for some reason or is giving out too much static and becomes unresponsive, this information can help get you back on track!

7. Travel at a constant speed

Pacing is perhaps the most commonly underestimated aspect of navigation. When you find yourself lost, knowing how far you have gone can be vital in calculating where your next landmark will be and estimating how long it will take to get back home if all goes well (see Landmarks & time checks above).

Pace should ideally match the terrain conditions: slower on hard surfaces like concrete or snow-covered trails, faster over sand /gravel paths. Knowing this pace beforehand helps orientate yourself better for unforeseen circumstances like running into unexpected obstacles along the route.

Keeping a constant pace can be difficult. Starting fresh in the morning, try not to push too hard. Be prepared to stop and rest frequently. Avoid the temptation to push on at the end of the day; take the time to find a good spot to camp.

If it’s a day hike, understand your strengths and weaknesses, plus weather conditions. Always keep leeway in your plans to cover misfortune and unexpected problems. There are few things worse in winter than hiking the last hour in darkness.

8. Magnetic Variation

Magnetic Variation (sometimes called magnetic declination) is the angular difference between true North shown on your map and magnetic North that is recorded by your compass. 

Is it that important? If you always walk on easy-to-follow, well-signed paths, then Magnetic Variation may never be an issue. However, what happens if snow covers all the trail signs and you can’t see the wood for the trees? Even a few degrees variation can make a significant difference and maybe add hours to your journey.

How do I adjust for Magnetic Variation

Most good compasses these days have a built-in adjustment for magnetic declination, but there are also tables and calculators available online. If you’re using a paper map, draw in the corrected bearings directly onto your map.

Where do I find information about Magnetic Variation? The magnetic Variation is generally shown somewhere on the map border. Make sure you have the most up to date map because Magnetic Variation is constantly changing.

9. Travel the route of least resistance 

When faced with multiple alternatives when hiking cross country, more often than not, the path of least resistance is your best option. You can always take a little side trip for that unique viewpoint.

10. Stuff happens

Many people make mistakes, and it can cost time if you don’t recognize your error quickly enough. So take pride in seeing things objectively rather than subjectively so that no matter what happens- whether or not we get lost -we always know how our navigation went.


This guide has hopefully given you some great tips for navigation in the outdoors. A compass may not be suitable for everyone, but there are plenty of other tools that will help keep you safe out there on your next adventure! Learning how to navigate can save your life, so take a few minutes and think about what would work best for you.

Scroll to Top