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Understanding how to read a map and the use of the compass is an indispensable skill. Even in the high tech era of GPS the ability to understand a map is still a valuable skill to have.
Navigation is about getting from one place to another. To become a good navigator takes experience, and lots of it, but just as with walking you can start easy and work your way up.
A few basic tips to start:
These are skills you likely use every day without even realizing. People navigate all the time by finding identifiable objects like roads or buildings to help them get to their destinations. The only difference when you take these skills into the wilderness is you’ll be using natural features as your landmarks.
These observations are then related to the map. It is better when starting to learn about navigation to concentrate on becoming familiar with interpreting maps - this can only be done by practice and plenty of time in the bush with map in hand.
Maps provide you with a bird's-eye view of the prominent features in a given area. Knowing how these features relate spatially to one another and can help you figure out where you are on your map simply by looking at the location around you and can also help you figure out where your final destination is in relation to where you are standing.
Every backcountry explorer needs at least a basic compass. A compass can help you navigate more precisely from point to point. I’m sure you’re wondering why not rely exclusively on a watch or GPS receiver that includes a compass function? Because what happens if the battery dies or the device malfunctions? You need the dependability of a compass that relies only on earth's magnetic fields.
Topographic Maps: A topographic map helps you envision the appearance of terrain between 2 points. This enables you to plan the best route of travel between them. Contour lines are used to indicate the shape and steepness/depth of hills and valleys. Many also include information about prominent man-made features like tracks, roads and bridges.
Sketch maps: Are usually produced by outdoors people for specific uses and are only available for a limited number of popular areas. Hills are often indicated pictorially, so accuracy is sometimes low. However, special details of tracks, passes, campsites and water availability are invaluable. Where possible, use both sketch and topographic maps together.
Orthophoto maps: Are similar to topographic maps, but are printed with an aerial photograph of the ground as a background to the other data. A fair idea is obtained of the pattern of vegetation, but other detail sometimes suffers. They are only available for limited areas.
A breakdown of the components that make up a map
Scale: Displays how a measurement on the map (1 inch, for example) equates to miles/kilometers of terrain covered by the map.
Contour lines: Hills and valleys are shown by contour lines, they connect points on the map that share the same elevation, providing a 3-dimensional perspective of the landscape. Tightly packed contour lines indicate steep terrain; widely spaced lines indicate relatively level terrain. Contour lines never intersect.
Contour interval: The vertical distance represented by two adjacent lines is called the contour interval.
Index contour lines: Every fifth contour line is the index contour line. Usually the line is slightly bolder and intermittently includes the elevation (usually the number of feet above sea level) of all points on that line.
Using the numeric information from the contours and the interval information from the bottom of the map, you can figure out:
Grid: The grid is a system of lines drawn over maps and is related to latitude and longitude. The grid is used to identify points on a map. Details of how to use these references are given on most maps that have the grid.
North pointers: There are three norths: true, magnetic and grid. The relationship between true, magnetic and grid north is usually shown on the map by a diagram.
1. True north is the direction of the north geographic pole. The borders of most maps are true north and south, with north usually being at the top.
2. Magnetic north, to which compasses react, coincides with true north in Australia along only one line.
3. Grid north is the direction of grid lines: almost true north and south.
Combined, all of the above can enable you to determine your elevation, the ruggedness of the terrain around you and the most desirable route to travel to reach a destination.
A compass makes wilderness navigation possible by enabling you to accurately gauge directions from your current position. The most basic function of a compass is pointing north (magnetic north, that is). Knowing where north is allows you to identify all of the other directions (south, east, west etc.) as you travel and to head in those directions.
Bearings: Bearings allow you to assign a specific numerical direction, called a ‘bearing’, to any direction in the full 360° circle around you. This means you can head toward a very specific spot, rather than simply heading in a general direction.
To convert general compass directions into bearings, a compass has a special rotating bezel mounted around the outside edge of the compass needle. A bezel's outer edge includes index (degree) lines that breaks down the 360° circle into 2° or 5° increments. The bezel then measures the direction towards the object in terms of an angle, specifically a clockwise angle between a straight line pointing due north and a straight line pointing toward the object. This bezel allows you to express any specific direction as a number between 0 and 360.
Why is it useful to know the bearing of your destination instead of "to the northeast"? Because precise navigation results in efficiency, safety and speed.
Triangulation: Triangulation is one of the most common and most useful navigation techniques; it involves using both a map, a compass and two separate landmarks. It is a simple procedure that, when done correctly, can pinpoint your exact position on your map even if you have no idea where you are.
First you need to identify two unmistakable landmarks. If you take 2 accurate bearings on the two landmarks, and draw a line on your map from each landmark along the bearings taken, your location will be where the two lines intersect.
Triangulation is based on the principle that once you've taken a bearing on a visible landmark, you can logically assume that your position lies somewhere along a line drawn to that landmark along that bearing, the second bearing allows you to define the point.
Magnetic Declination: Map and compass navigation works on the principle that you know one thing at all times and that is where north is. Unfortunately, compass needles point toward "magnetic north," a point that is close to true north, but not right on top of it. And this is where "declination" comes in.
Declination is the angular difference between ‘true’ and ‘magnetic’ north. The tricky thing about declination is that this angle is different depending upon where you are standing in the world.
Declination is usually indicated diagrammatically with a series of arrows drawn on a map. These diagrams are often not to scale so always use the values, not the drawing to set your compass.