How to orient a map

(Third in a series – Before you go on an outdoor adventure,  get a good compass and find some useful maps.) A map with all its squiggly lines and colors can, at first glance, seem like a confusing jumble.  One of the first things that you’ll want to do to start making sense of a map is to use a compass to orient the map.

That is, simply turn the map so that north on the map is facing north in the real world.  It can also help if you stand on the south side of the map facing north yourself.  That way things that appear in the north on the map should be ahead of you and things you see on the left or right side of the map should be toward your left or right in the real world.

The easiest way to orient a map using a compass is:

  1. Lay the map flat on a flat surface.  Avoid large metal objects, magnets, and electrical wires because those can interfere with the compass.
  2. Find the compass rose on the map.  This is a line showing which direction is north on the map.
  3. Set your compass on the map with the side edge of the baseplate lying alongside the north line of the compass rose.
  4. Turn the entire map on the flat surface until the compass and the north line of the map are both pointed north.
  5. Position yourself on the south side of the map facing north

This is not foolproof everywhere in the world because compass (magnetic) north is not exactly the same as geographic north – but this is an easy way to get a map close to oriented until you learn how to deal with magnetic declination.

(And it just so happens that the line of zero declination currently runs right through southwest Mississippi, so if you are in Mississippi or any of the neighboring states, declination won’t make much difference in the orientation of your map.)

Next in the Series

Previously – What kind of maps do I need?

Next – How to find directions with a compass?


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