The global positioning system (GPS) is a wonderful invention that has saved a great deal of time and effort. It’s simple to use on our phones and helps us avoid traffic and find the best route from A to B. The simplicity of the GPS also reveals the risk of using it, however. Should you find yourself in a location without cell phone service or if your battery runs out, do you know how to read a map to find where you are, where you want to be, and the best way to get there?
Never Eat Soggy Waffles
The first thing you need to do before you even look at the map is to be able to tell which way is North. There are many ways to do this, but the simplest ways are usually the best.
Use a Compass
Simplest and most accurate method for determining north is to use a compass. To use a compass to find North, hold it in flat and level in front of you. While keeping your arm still, turn your whole body until the ‘North’ symbol points in the same direction that you are facing. You are now facing North. To your right is East, to your left is West, and directly behind you is south.
Use the Sun
For this to work, you only need to know if it’s morning or afternoon and where the sun is in the sky. The sun always rises in the East and sets in the West. If it’s before noon, then the sun is in the eastern sky and casts shadows to the West. If it’s afternoon, then the sun is in the western sky and casts shadows to the East.
This information alone may be enough to help you figure out generally which direction is North, you can be more exact by sticking a short branch into the ground so that it casts a shadow. Put a small rock where the tip of stick casts it’s shadow and wait for about 10-15 minutes, then put another small rock where the tip of the shadow is now. Draw an arrow from the first rock towards the second rock. This arrow points East.
It’s important to mention that because of the tilt of the earth as it orbits the sun, this method doesn’t give you truly accurate directions. The closer to the equator you are, the more accurate this will be, but the closer you get to the poles, the more inaccurate this method becomes.
Once you’ve determined which way is North, it’s time to look at the map. Open it up and determine which way is North on the map. Most maps are made so that North is at the top. Look around to find the compass rose or “North arrow” on the map just to be sure.
Now that you know which way is North in the real world and on the map, you should make the two line up so that North on the map points the direction you’ve determined to be North. Orienting the map direction to the real world will make everything else much easier. As you study the map, you can use the terrain features and landmarks to figure out where you are and where you want to go.
You Are Here
With map North oriented to the real world North, you should start trying to identify landmarks and terrain features to start making connections between the map and the real world. Examples of terrain features and landmarks are hills, ridges, mountains, valleys, rivers, lakes, major road intersections, high-power lines, railroad tracks, and towns.
Look around you and try to spot as many of these major features as you can and make a note of which direction they are from you. Then look at the map and try to find those features on the map. For example, if you’re on a ridge and you spot a lake to your North and a hill to your East, try to find those on the map. When you do, draw a line South from the lake and West from the hill. The ridge on the map where those two lines meet is approximately your location.
If you can’t spot any landmarks or terrain features from your current position, try climbing a hill or tree so that you can get a better view of the area. Don’t forget that your current location may be a great terrain feature.
Great, now you know how to find your current position on the map. Now it’s time to pick a direction to travel and plot a route. In most cases, you just want to get back to a town with people in it so look on the map for any sign of towns or homes. Once you’ve selected where you want to go, look at the map to determine the best path to get there. If there’s a river between you and where you want to go, you may want to select a different destination. Similarly, if there’s a steep cliff or canyon, you also might want to pick a different goal.
If, however, there are no major obstacles between you and your destination, pick out some major landmarks and terrain features to use as checkpoints for your trip. Make a list of the various checkpoints that you need to hit or pass by in order to ensure that you’re still on track. It’s also helpful to make a list of landmarks that indicate that you’re travelling in the wrong direction.