How To Better Use Maps For Survival

In a world where GPS systems and cell phone trackers make it easier to navigate, many people are lulled into a false sense of security. Unfortunately, when SHTF, computer and satellite assisted navigation technologies may not be available.

Learning how to use paper maps and a compass can make an enormous difference, and should be a part of every survival plan.

The Compass and How to Choose a Good One

Without a compass, you will find it very hard to use a map. The compass has been in use for many centuries, and was originally used to navigate small wooden ships. Later on it was also used for land navigation.

A compass has two important parts: the needle which spins and points to the North, and an outer ring which reveals direction in 360 degrees. On a good compass, the  magnetic arrow should move freely without binding in the case.

While smaller, light weight compasses may seem easier to carry, they can also easily give false readings because the needle does not have enough room to float and balance properly.

It is better to buy a good quality expensive compass than a cheaper one and have it fail when you need it most.

Choose a Good Map

To begin, your map should be an accurate representation of the area you are planning to be traveling in.

Some of the best maps are made by the US Government and are easy to obtain for free or low cost through the government’s catalog. There are also other map making companies, but their products cost more and have less usable information.

It is very important that your map is legible and durable. There should be no thick heavy folds, smudge marks, or tears in the material.

If the map or atlas does not come with water proof covering, you should get one for storage purposes.

Here are some important pieces of information that should be on every map you own:

  •     The Legend is a list of what each of the map symbols mean.
  •     Scale is the ratio of enlarging or reducing the size of a map. An example of this is one inch on the map is equal to 100 yards on the real landscape.
  •     The Compass Rose is a large arrow that shows you which part of the map is oriented to the North.
  •     Altitude and depression markings.  When looking at your map, you will notice circular lines. These lines denote height or depression of the landscape. The tighter or closer the lines, the steeper ascent or descent. The     farther apart the lines are, the less the steepness of the land.

How to Use a Map and Compass

To align the map to countryside you are working, you will need a compass to point out North in the region. Since compasses can be thrown off by hidden metals in the area, you should always try to compare compass readings to Sun position and other information available in the landscape.

Once the map and the compass are oriented, measure distance on the map from where you are standing to a location you wish to go to. Draw an imaginary straight line between these two points. Pay attention to altitude markings along your projected path. If the path looks too steep, make a second imaginary line, or set of lines to go around the area.

Next, take a ruler and measure the length of each line that defines your path. Add up all the lines, and then multiply the number of inches by the scale on the map. This will give you the estimated geographic distance between the two points.

When trying to navigate, you may need to alter course based on the terrain.

For example, if you are going  over a mountain try to cross in a low valley or walk the ridge to a point where your down path will not be too steep. Once down the mountain, set your course again on the flattest land you can find. Also try to stay out of deep valleys. They sometimes end up as a box canyon and you will waste valuable time.

Be a Good Judge of Time, Distance, and Altitude

mapWhen land navigating, be a good judge of time.

Know how to tell time without using a watch. Being able to read the position of the Sun in the sky will give you an idea of the time, and also help you stay on course. If you misjudge the distance, it might be too far to make it with the provision you have on hand.  It is better to overestimate the time and distance and get there sooner than to underestimate the time and distance and run into problems.

People acquainted with GPS systems truly do not realize the risks associated with lack of information about altitudes.

If the altitude above sea level is higher than you are accustomed to, breathing problems can occur. Low oxygen can make your thinking very slow, which can increase your risk of falls or making bad decisions. It can also cause unconsciousness, headaches, and finally death.

Keep a Notebook of All Map Information

Always keep a notebook log a complete record of the trip. Enter into it all course bearings, time and distance information, altitude, and weather conditions of the trip. If you missed any of your end points, there is written record of your information on what might have caused the problem.

The more you use and practice your map and compass skills the better you will get with them.  You can start off with short trips in known areas, and gradually work your way up to more complicated landscapes.

Before you know it, you will find yourself wondering why any person would be happy with the lack of good quality information found on modern GPS systems.

new EMP01This article has been written by Fred Tyrell for Survivopedia.

Photo source: 123RF.

Written by

Fred Tyrrell is an Eagle Scout and retired police officer that loves to hunt, fish, hike, and camp with good friends and family. He is also a champion marksman (rifle, pistol, shotgun) and has direct experience with all of the major gun brands and their clones. Fred refers to himself as a "Southern gentleman" - the last of a dying way. He believes a man's word is his bond, and looks forward to teaching others what he has learned over the years. You can send Fred a message at editor [at]

Latest comments
  • Sorry, but this article misses some points on maps and compasses:
    1) The compass the author references is an engineer’s compass. You line up sight hairs with a distant landmark, read the compass, and go. When you later check the compass to the landmark, you can adjust your course to get back on line. The problem is trying to read the compass while aiming at your landmark. The better compass for map work is the one with the rectangular,clear plastic base. This compass has straight edges so you can draw the lines to triangulate your readings from two distant landmarks; where the lines cross on the map is your location. The edges also have rulers on them so you can determine distance from the map’s scale, although transferring the scale to the edge of a piece of paper works better. Also the clear base makes it easier line up the map to true north as well as reading the details under the compass. There should be instructions included when you buy your compass to explain how to use it.
    2)The author referred to a compass rose being located on the map. Perhaps more important, there should be a diagram or a written statement as to the deviation between true north (North Pole) and magnetic north, which is located (roughly) in northeastern Canada. Magnetic North moves around, so if you are looking at the deviation on a map from the 1900’s, it may be different from the current deviation. Depending on your location and the scale of the map, the angle of deviation can even change from the top to the bottom of your map.
    3)The map and compass needs to be laid out on a flat, relatively level surface. Just be aware that a nail or bolt in the top of your picnic table can change the compass reading, so don’t try to do this on top of the hood of your car.

    • Jay,
      You obviously know what you’re talking about and have some great points, but Fred does address the possibility of compasses being “thrown off by hidden metals”.
      Like you (I’m assuming), I have found that carrying a ruler into the field is pretty impractical. I have a compass that when laid out flat, has a ruler on it. I would suggest buying one of those (more then one use theory).
      good read though

  • A comment about going over a mountain moving to another location to go down and the settlement ng your campus and start again.
    If you have moved off the azimuth line to a different location off from it. You can not suddenly start the same azimuth at a different location. It will be off course from your original azimuth you started on the other side of the hill/mt.
    When at the top pick an object in the distance in line with your azimith . Go down any path you want. But you have to go to the location you marked in line with the original azimuth. When at the location you picked earlier you can then take the same reach g you started with on the hill/mt.
    Example – pick an object 100′ away in a line of a certain azimuth ( say 90°). Instead of walking forward, turn right, walk 25′. Take that 90° azimuth again and walk it. You will be about 25’to the right from your object you pickedat first. You can not walk off somewhere and think you can pick up where you were . You have to go back to the original spot to start again.

  • There are some things you need in a compass:
    1) that it points the same ever time you have it in the same location.
    2) that when you set to a bearing that it always is the same (I have one $60.00 compass that if you set it to some bearing that next time it could be +/- 2 from the first time you set it. It works just fine as long as you always make sure you take the play out by moving the capsule to the same side.)
    3) the diameter of the compass needle/degree scale affects how accurately you can read it. (some compasses you are doing good if you can get within 10 degrees.)
    4) The bottom line is the 10 cent zipper pull compass you have with you will do you more good than $100.00 compass in your desk at home, and one you know how to use is better than one you have to guess at.
    5) to find your current Magnetic Declination go here

  • Nice beginners pointers. Having access to a basically good compass is only the starting point, like all your other gear you need to get out there and practice with it. And shooting a bearing towards an objective is an ongoing thing during a ‘trip’. Straight travel lines only occur on paper, on the real ground it’s NEVER a straight line. So, keeping track of where you are on your map is key, and you’ll pretty much constantly be shooting a new bearing to the next visual point on your destination trail.