Navigation Techniques 2.1: Setting the Map

Updated: May 18

Welcome to the second series in my online navigation course. In this series, we will look at techniques to add to your arsenal to develop your navigation.


The techniques we will look at over the next couple of articles can all be practiced in your local area. As a first time navigator, this will be the best environment to learn in as you know the area and it will be a more comfortable learning environment. Start with practicing these techniques on footpaths before heading into more remote environments. The theory you will learn here will set you up well before heading on to a navigation course to put this into practice.


Let's kick off this series with one of the fundamental techniques you will need: Setting the Map.

Setting the Map


Setting the map, or orientating the map, is a key skill that you should learn and continue to practice whilst navigating. Setting a map helps you to visualise the area around you by relating features on the ground to features on the map and turning the maps so they line up and correspond with each other.


Think of it this way and try this task:


Open Google Maps on your phone. Tap the location icon. This should centre the map on your location. Hold the phone flat in front of you and move your body around to face in different directions. Notice how the map doesn't move and the top of the phone is always 'north'. Now tap the location icon again. Notice now how the map turns and the top of the phone is now the direction you are facing. Again, hold the phone in front of you and turn your body to face different directions. The map should move with your body and the features around you stay in their actual locations in relation to the ground.

This is how setting a map works. Orientating the map to match the position of features around you. There are two ways in which we can do this:


  • Using features

  • Using a compass


Using Features


We have looked at the three types of features in this article. It is usually easier to set the map to linear features as we can align them so they are parallel.


To use features:


  • First, look at the map and identify where you are.

  • Then look at all the features around you that you can also identify on the map. As mentioned above, linear features are the easiest to identify but also look at area features and finally spot features to help you gather information.

  • Stand still and turn the map so the features on the ground line up with their representative features on the map. For example, if you are stood on the road and there is a stream to your left and a woods to you right, align the map so the stream is on the left, the woods on the right and the road on the map is parallel with the road on the ground.


This is how setting a map works. Orientating the map to match the position of features around you. There are two ways in which we can do this:


  • Using features

  • Using a compass

Using Features


We have looked at the three types of features in this article. It is usually easier to set the map to linear features as we can align them so they are parallel.


To use features:

  • First, look at the map and identify where you are.

  • Then look at all the features around you that you can also identify on the map. As mentioned above, linear features are the easiest to identify but also look at area features and finally spot features to help you gather information.

  • Stand still and turn the map so the features on the ground line up with their representative features on the map. For example, if you are stood on the road and there is a stream to your left and a woods to you right, align the map so the stream is on the left, the woods on the right and the road on the map is parallel with the road on the ground.


Take a look at the two images below from Mountain Training's publication: Navigation in the Mountains


Using a compass

My last article in the series Introduction to Maps looked at the compass. To set a map with a compass all we require is the magnetic needle and the grid lines on a map. Using a compass to set the map is the easiest and quickest way, especially at night or in poor visibility if you can not see many, if any, features.


To use a compass:

  • First we place the compass on the map. It doesn't matter how or where.

  • Hold the map and compass together and rotate them together until the magnetic needle is parallel to the grid lines. Ensure the red north needle is pointing to the top of the map (Grid North)


Your map is now set to your surroundings. Use this time to look at features on the map and relate them to the ground and vice versa.

Top Tips for setting a map:

  • Use your thumb or a stick on pointer to mark your location on the map before setting the map.

  • Practice setting the map at any point when you check the map. This will force you to look at the area around you and can minimise errors in navigation.

  • When walking with the map, try to keep the map orientated as you walk.

Practice setting a map in your local area first and then develop this technique by going to different areas. Try to use all types of features first and then confirm with a compass.


Be aware that there may be inaccuracies in maps when looking for features. Field boundaries can move, forests can be cut down, footpaths may be moved and buildings knocked down or built. A map is only truly accurate the day it is printed and there may still be slight inaccuracies. Take a look at some examples below in my local area:


I am at the red dot on the map looking back up the road (North west). Look at the map and look at the picture. Notice the large building (Factory) on the map is no longer present in the image.


In this example, I am stood at the red dot in image 2 looking North. Notice how the lake does not show on the map in image 2 (do not confuse the small pond in image 2 for the lake)


Image 3 is from a map that is 15 years old. Notice the changes to the landscape and how this map is no longer accurate. This stresses the importance of having up to date maps.

This brings us to a close on this part of my Navigation Techniques series on Setting the Map.

There are no Questions for this part unfortunately. Instead, head out in your local area with a map of the area and practice setting the map to handrails and keeping the map orientated whilst walking.


To put these skills into practice and to learn more, take a look at my Navigation Course I offer. All confirmed bookings will receive a 10% discount code to use on Harvey Maps products from their site.


Next Up:


The next article in this series will be Part 2: Measuring Distances

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