How to Orient a Map

How to Orient a Map

Brian Connelly
Last Updated: October 12, 2020

Want to Know How to Orient a Map?

You’re in the right place! In this guide, we will be covering the following:

    • Learn the two methods of orienting a map correctly
    • Improve your overall skillset in land navigation
    • Know how to check if your map is oriented properly

Getting lost is never fun, wherever you happen to be. But while the consequences of doing so at home in the town or city might be minimal, in the backcountry they could be greater and graver by far. One of the most important skills to learn to ensure any such consequences are avoided is orienting your map correctly.

Orienting a map simply means having it aligned correctly with the real-life features that surround you.

In this article, we will offer a short, straightforward guide to show you exactly how it’s done.

Two Methods of Orienting a Map

Map reading is a foundational skill of land navigation that allows you to use what you see on the map in front of you to navigate in the actual terrain in which you’re hiking. However, before you can do that correctly, you first need to learn how to orient your map properly.

There are two ways in which you can orient a map: you can either do it by sight or by using a map & compass

How to Orient a Map by Eye

As the name implies, this method involves orienting a map by relying solely on topographical features and your own eyesight.

Here’s how it’s done:

Step 1: Find your approximate location

The first step is to find your current location on the map. This can be done by referring to easily identifiable features in your vicinity and locating them on your map. 

Step 2: Identify three features or landmarks

Next, find two or more prominent features or landmarks indicated on your map and try to identify them in the real world.

If this proves to be tricky, you can try doing it the other way around: by finding features in the terrain and then identify them on your map.

Step 3: Turn your map and double-check

When you’ve identified and found enough features, turn your map until the features in the real world line up with the ones on your map.

After this, double-check your position using additional features and landmarks to make sure you have the correct orientation.

Orienting Your Map Using Your Map and a Compass

If the terrain or the weather doesn’t allow you to do things by eye, then orienting your map using a compass is the way to go.

When orienting a map with a compass, you need to make sure that you have already adjusted for magnetic declination. Adjusting for declination ensures that the magnetic north (the one that your compass needle is pointing to) is aligned with True North (geographical north used in the map).

Once you have adjusted for magnetic declination, you can proceed with the steps below:

Step 1: Find a smooth flat surface

First and foremost, you need to find a relatively flat surface. Next, lay your map over it and make sure to flatten any creases or folds.that might prevent you taking accurate readings.

Step 2: Turn the dial

Take out your compass and rotate the bezel until the North (marked in your compass as “N”) is aligned with the direction of travel arrow.

Step 3: Slide the baseplate

Next, place your compass on the maps so that one of its edges lines up the north-south grid lines.

While doing this, always make sure that the direction of travel arrow is still pointing toward the top of the map. The orienteering lines of your compass should at this point also line up with the north-south grid lines of your map.

Step 4: Turn the map and compass

Lastly, while holding your map and compass, turn your body until you’ve placed the “red in the shed”. This means that the magnetic needle is inside the outline of the orienting arrow of your compass.

If you’ve correctly adjusted for magnetic declination, then your map should now be oriented correctly, meaning, the placement of features in the terrain will correspond to those on your map. 

Map Reading? No Problem!

So, how did you enjoy our article on how to orient a map?

Knowing the right way to orient a map can make the difference between getting lost and getting to your destination safely. As such, it’s one of those “must-have” skills that every hiker should set aside a little time to learn. With a little bit of practice and by following the above tips, however, you’ll soon be good to go!

If you have any comments or questions about this article, please feel free to drop them in the box below.

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