Navigation and orientation in the wilderness

For many, the idea of venturing out into the wilderness and exploring the great outdoors is an exciting prospect. However, it is important to be equipped with the necessary skills and knowledge to navigate and orientate oneself in an unfamiliar environment. Understanding how to read a map, use a compass, and recognize natural landmarks are essential skills that can help ensure a safe and enjoyable wilderness experience.

Map Reading

The first step in navigating in the wilderness is to become proficient in map reading. Maps provide valuable information about the terrain, such as elevation, water sources, and potential hazards. Topographic maps are particularly useful as they depict the contours of the land, allowing for a better understanding of the terrain and how to navigate through it.

When reading a map, it is important to first determine your location. This can be done by identifying a nearby landmark or using a GPS device. Once your location is established, the map can be used to plan a route and navigate through the terrain. Pay attention to contour lines on the map, as they indicate changes in elevation and can help determine the difficulty of the terrain.

For those who don’t know, check out the quick course of the Basic map reading skills.

Using a Compass

A compass is another essential tool for wilderness navigation. A compass allows you to determine your direction of travel and helps to maintain a consistent heading. The most basic use of a compass is to determine your direction of travel by aligning the compass needle with the north-south grid lines on the map. This will give you a heading to follow.

It is important to note that the magnetic north on a compass is not the same as true north. The difference between the two is called magnetic declination and varies based on your location. To get an accurate reading, it is necessary to adjust the compass for magnetic declination. This can be done by using a declination diagram or setting the declination on the compass itself.

For those who don’t know how to use a compass, check out the quick course:

Natural Landmarks

In addition to maps and compasses, natural landmarks can also be used for wilderness navigation. These can include features such as mountains, rivers, and rock formations. By understanding the layout of the land and the relationship between natural landmarks, it is possible to navigate through the wilderness without the use of a map or compass.

One key skill to develop is the ability to recognize the direction of the sun. Knowing the position of the sun can help determine direction, even if a compass is not available. In the northern hemisphere, the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. By observing the sun’s position in the sky, it is possible to determine north, south, east, and west.


Navigating and orientating oneself in the wilderness can seem like a daunting task, but with the right skills and tools, it is possible to explore and enjoy the outdoors with confidence. By learning how to read a map, use a compass, and recognize natural landmarks, you can be prepared for any situation that arises. Remember to always take safety precautions when venturing out into the wilderness, and never underestimate the importance of being well-prepared.

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