How To Read a Compass and Map

Words & Photography: Scott Norris (@_scott_norris) // summer 2018

Hollie Scrambles over the knife-edge ridge of Crib Goch

I love maps. I was about to write 'I'd feel lost without one' and then realised that's kind of the point... Map reading is not only an incredibly satisfying and useful skill, but also a major confidence booster when out on the mountains.

Reading a map starts with learning how the map relates to the real world. Once you can pinpoint your location and which direction you are facing, then you can work out where the adventure's taking you! So read on (or click the links below) to learn:

Radventures links the paper map(s) needed (where possible) underneath the map for each walk. So if you're not sure what you need for a trip, you can always check there.

The compass

Since learning to read a compass is easy, we'll start with that. Hold out your compass, flat. Wait for the needle to stop spinning. Red is north. North is red. Once you learn that red is north, you can read a compass. Did I say it enough yet? Red is north. Think of it as the red is coloured in because it's the bit of the needle you're supposed to look at. You always find north first.

So you look at the red bit of the needle and it tells you it's north. You can work out West, East and South from there as they are marked on the compass. This way you can always check for reference if you can't remember which is where. I was told 'Never Eat Shredded Wheat'. Pretty silly, but it worked for me. It relates to going clockwise around the compass: North - East - South - West.

The points inbetween each of these four main points are labelled a combination of the two. So the point between South and East is South East (SE). The point between South East (SE) and South is South South East (SSE). When using a three word compass point (like SSE) the original four point reading (N E S W) comes first. Eg. SOUTH South East, NORTH North West, EAST North East. For now, concentrate on getting the four main points down and the rest will fall into place in time.

So you can now read a compass. Great! Good job. Pat on the back. You're on your way to becoming a navigator. Now, on to the map.

Reading Landmarks

Spotting landmarks is the quickest way to get a gauge on your location. Say you can see something obvious like a power line in the next field over. Looking at the map, you very quickly know you must be in the vicinity of the power line. If you have a compass, checking it might reveal that the power line is to the west. So before even looking at the map, you know you are somewhere to the east of a power line.

Finding your position from the power line is easiest when you know you're facing the same direction as the map. To align yourself, simply check your compass (north will always be noted on the map, but is usually orientated to the text). Level your compass by holding it out flat. Find north (red of needle). Compare it with the map and either rotate the map, or physically turn your body until both are aligned.

If you're unsure what a feature in the real world, or on the map is, check the map's key (also called a 'legend'). It's a table of symbols and descriptions, which lets you know what everything on the map means. Learning the map's key and how it relates to the world is the first real step towards efficient navigation. So check often until you're confident. The more symbols you can recognise, the more opportunity you have to map read effectively!


Okay, so you've established what a power line is and that there's one to your left, but if you don't have a compass, or you want to be more accurate. How can you pinpoint where you are?

If you can find another landmark on your right and a third behind you, you'll be able to make an educated guess. Once you've established the three landmarks surrounding you, draw an invisible line between them and you on the map. The point at which these lines intersect is you! Well, more or less. The more landmarks you find, the easier it is to build an idea of where you are on the map and the more accurate your triangulation will be. A landmark can be anything: a lake, a bend in the road, a lone bothy, the point where the woodland recedes. Once you get the knack, this becomes second nature. You can confidently respond to your hiking companion's dismayed cries of 'Where are we?!' with 'Do not fret! I will triangulate.' Everyone will think you're super cool.

Anecdote: If you've ever wondered what the trig (triangulation) points on top of summits are, they were used for an advanced implementation of this method. In the 1800's surveyors sat heavy telescope-like devices (called theodolites) in the top of trig points and used angles to measure the heights of summits.

The Scale

The scale of a map determines its size in relation to the world. Maps come in various sizes, most commonly 1:50,000, 1:40,000 and 1:25,000. A 1:25,000 map shows lots of detail, but covers less ground than a 1:50,000 map. Half as much. 1:25,000 maps are great for walking because of this, so start here if you're unsure which map to get.

For 1:25,000 maps: 1cm = 0.5km. A tile on a 1:25,000 map is 1km. It's 1km tall, it's 1km across. It's almost 1.5km diagonally. By utilising this scale system you can work out roughly how far you've travelled, or have left to travel.

If you have a transparent compass, you have a ruler too. The marks on the side of the compass are usually 1cm increments. Place the compass onto the map and you have a distance-measurer (technical term). You can quickly see how many km away something is as the crow flies:

  • 250m = 1cm
  • 1km = 4cm (one tile)
  • 1mile = 6.4cm

If you're a keen bean (like me) you can stick these measurements onto the back of your compass or note them down to help you learn.

Contour Lines

Contours are rad. They make mountains in your mind. They are visual representations of mountains and hills. Contour lines (usually brown/black) denote the shape of the land and run along equal levels of elevation. This allows you to see changes in height. The space between each set of contour lines tells you how steep or flat the terrain is. If there's a large gap between each set of contour lines, that means it's a gentle slope. If the gap is small, it's a steep slope.

The elevation difference between each set of contour lines is called the contour interval. Each contour line represents a set distance in height gain/loss. For example, the contour interval might be 10 so the contours would read 0m, 10m, 20m, 30m etc. It varies from map to map and is listed in the key. This is why lines closer together mean a steeper slope, because the contour interval remains the same throughout. Imagine you're stretching out the spacing of those 10m of ascent over a larger slope or crushing them up into a vertical rock wall. It's the spacing inbetween each contour line which determines the steepness.

By understanding the contours you can visualise the surrounding hills and mountains. You can work out where the cliffs are and where gentle slopes turn into a steep ascent. This change in elevation can become a landmark and then used for navigation. It takes a bit of practice, but before long you'll be able to see a 3D image in your mind from the map.

Great routes for learning to visualise this are hikes where you can see a large portion of the surrounding mountain range and that are easy to navigate. Hikes that immediately come to mind are:

It may seem obvious, but if you're learning, make sure to hike in good visibility!

As mentioned above, finding your position from contours is easiest when you know you're facing the same direction as the map. To align yourself, Find north. Compare it with the map and either rotate the map, or physically turn your body until both are aligned.

So, there's the basics. Time to get out and put these skills into practise!

I hope this article helps you to get out and feel safe on the mountains. Please feel free to comment below if it has. Or post a pic on our facebook page. We'd love to hear from you!