ArticlesThe Lightweight Philosophy

Map Reading and Navigation


“I know exactly where we are; I’ve been lost here before.”

-A guide on Mount Rainer

“The little steamer that plies on the Upper Saranac makes the different landings in a
zig-zag manner that knocks the compass points endwise. Only by staying where you can
watch every turn of the prow can you retain a definite notion of north and south. And
that is how it happened that, being unobservant of turns, I found the sun setting in
the east–a vexatious thing to a woodsman.”

-Nessmuk, Cruise of the Sairy Gamp, 5, Forest and Stream, Sept. 13, 1883

On one of my early trips to the Boundary Waters, the four of us awoke early one fall
morning and shoved off onto Cherokee Lake. The yellow and red fall foliage jumped off
the trees at us, distracting me from my duties. For some reason, maybe because I
purchased all the maps, my duty was navigator on the trip. I strapped my compass to
the bungee cord that ran across my thwart, looked at the map, located our campsite,
look at the compass, deduced that we could get to Omega Lake by heading through
several other lakes in a generally easterly direction, and then I set off down the

Ten minutes later, the shoreline looked nothing like the map, and while I tried to
figure out where we were on the map by comparing my two compasses and my compass on
my watch – just to make sure that it wasn’t a mechanical failure – two canoeist with
only one Duluth pack between them buzzed by in a perfectly restored canvas and cedar
Old Town OTCA. They knew where they were going. They were going there fast. Normally,
in a city, I would have switched into Zen method of navigation mode and followed
them, because if you follow someone that looks like they know where they are going,
chances are that you’ll get there too. This time I just looked at my paddling
partners shrugged my shoulders and put my tail between my legs and headed back to the
campsite to get my bearings.

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I learned a valuable lesson that day, and it was all about navigation. If you want to
learn navigation and avoid the pitfalls I experienced that day, you’ll learn not only
to use a compass, but also good map reading before you venture into the wilds of the
northern woods or the wilds of the woods anywhere.

Do the Declination and Spin Your Needle

Most people are shocked when learning the north on the map they are studying may not
be the same north that their compass is pointing at. That’s because most of the maps
that we use to navigate the wilderness with are orientated to True North, or to the
true North Pole. Our compasses, on the other hand, point towards what is commonly
referred to as the magnetic north pole. (This is actually a slight misunderstanding
of where the compass points to. There is no giant location of magnetic rock that
draws the points of our needles; the earth generates magnetic signatures that vary in
strength and direction. The compass needle is affected by the interaction of these
different fields and points to the average of the fields in your current location.)
This slightly shocking concept, luckily, is easy to compensate for, because our
mapmakers have taken the time to figure out the declination for you. Declination is
simply the difference between True North and the direction that your compass is
pointing, or magnetic north. On most maps, a declination diagram that shows True
North and then a second arrow representing magnetic north will point either to the
east or the west. Then with some simple math, you add or subtract based on the
degrees west or east declination, respectively, to arrive at a bearing to use on your
compass. While, this is the cheapest way to adjust for declination, if you spend
slightly more on a compass, you will get a compass that is able to account for
declination by adjusting it as needed. This method of set and forget is often the
simplest way of adjusting for declination. One of the nice things about canoeing in
the Boundary Waters is that declination is so close to zero degrees that I often just
ignore it there, but elsewhere you shouldnt ignore declination, or you are likely to
get lost.

Okay Wise-Guy, My Map Doesn’t List Declination

Some maps fail to list the declination. In cases such as these, you will need to
figure the declination out on your own. The easiest way to do this is to come to a
known point on the map and take several field readings of known landmarks represented
also on the map. Compare your field reading to the reading on the map and the
difference between the two is the declination.

A Field What? How Do I Read My Map?

Taking a compass field reading, which a reading from where you are at to a landmark
in the distance, is actually easier than you think. What you need to do is grab your
compass and hold it out an arm length in front of you. Point the bearing arrow on the
front on the compass towards the landmark that you want a reading for, and then
rotate the Azimuth ring until the red arrow, that turns with the Azimuth ring, lines
up with the floating red magnetic arrow. Then you have your reading and can take it
from the Azimuth ring at the point where the ring crosses the bearing arrow.
Compasses with mirrors make this process much easier; they often have lines that you
use like the sites on a gun, and the mirror when angled at 45 degrees allows you to
see the Azimuth ring, red arrow, and magnetic arrow while you line them up. This
results in a much more accurate reading. To translate this reading to a map you need
to add or subtract based on your east or west declination, respectively. Or just use
a compass that allows you to set and forget the declination.

And How Do I Read My Map?

To read a map, you may have to set your compasses declination back to zero, so make
sure that you check your compasses manual before you start to do this. When you are
looking at a map there may be a number of different lines on it, these may or may not
be orientated to True North, but the edge of a map will be orientated to True North.
What you want to do to get a map bearing, is to place your compass on the map with
its edge lined up from your current location to the landmark that you want to arrive
at. Then turn the Azimuth ring until North on the Azimuth ring is lined up with True
North on the map. The reading at the bearing arrow will be the bearing from your
location to the landmark you took the reading for. Apply the declination to this
reading and you will have a bearing that you can follow in the field.

We’ll Just Follow the Breadcrumbs Home

To be able to follow this to the landmark you are shooting for you make sure that the
correct bearing reading is set on the Azimuth ring at the bearing arrow. Hold the
compass an arm length out in front of you, and spin around in a circle until the red
arrow lines up with the floating red arrow. You are now on the correct course. You
could spend all day holding the compass out in front of you, but it is much easier to
look and see if any unique features line up with your reading. If they do, you can
just head towards that feature and when you arrive take another reading.

Why Should I Go to the Right?

When traveling off of a bearing, it is helpful to aim slightly to the left or right
of your destination. This way when you get close, like to a shoreline, you know that
you must turn to the right or left to get to your destination. If you don’t do this
and you somehow miss your destination, you wont know whether or not you must turn to
the right or left to get where you want to go.

Fence Yourself In

It is also helpful when navigating to practice the so-called fence yourself in
maneuver. Look at the map, and your destination on the map, and make a couple of
notes about any features that run in a line on each side of you and ahead of you,
then if you get lost, you know that you just have to head in the direction of one of
these features. When you arrive you’ll know at least that you are at one of your
fences. Great fence features are rivers, roads, big lakes, etc&

And Now the Hard Part

Most of the time, when traveling in wilderness, you will be able to see a great deal
of distance around you. If this is the case, you can almost always get your bearings
by navigating off of landmarks. More often than not, a simple glance at your compass,
and an understanding of what you are looking at is enough for you to navigate by. If
you happen to be stuck inside a heavily wooded area or on a calm lake covered by fog,
you may not be able to use the following techniques, but the again how often does
that happen?

So, That’s What a Cove Looks Like

The first thing you need to do is start to understand what you are looking at on a
map. How do the depictions of features on the map relate to the actual terrain
features that you are encountering? Most often in a canoe or kayak, the following
features will be encountered: a shoreline, coves, peninsulas, islands, streams, bays,
portage trails, and rivers.

The Shoreline

When traveling along the shore you will see that the shoreline often jets in and out,
turns into a bay here, and a cove there, it will have small peninsulas here and
there. You just need to understand what is what. The easiest way to learn this is on
your first day out. Paddle the shoreline, and while doing so watch the map closely.
Try to visualize the shore that you are seeing from above and compare that to what

you see on the map. As you practice this, you will find that just by looking at the
shore, you will be able to locate the feature you are looking at easily because of
the practice of visualization.


On a map, a cove looks like a small lobe of the lake that goes away at an angle from
the main lake. When you are looking at a cove, you will often see the shore of the
lake look like it is pinching together. There will be an opening and you may not be
able to see further down it.


Peninsulas are sometimes deceiving when looking at them; they can actually look like
the shore line if they are big enough, but the smaller ones that are not as wide are
easy to recognize. The trees will have light coming through them. Also, as your eye
follows the peninsula along its distance, you will see an end of the shore as it
rounds the corner. Sometimes these features can blend in, so if you expect to
encounter this, make sure you are closely watching the map.


Islands are one of the most confusing features to encounter when paddling. Its not
so bad when you have a big lake with just one on it, but when you paddle into an area
with many different islands, it becomes very confusing to tell them all apart and be
able to tell where one island ends and the other begins. The easiest way to navigate
through this is to island hop. Before you get to the island, figure out on the map,
which is closest to you. Head for this island. Pick a shore to follow. Follow the
island around this shoreline; watch your map, and when you run out of shore going the
direction that you want, pick the next island on the map. Play this game until you
navigate successfully through the bunch of them. If you are coming up on a group of
islands, and you know you just want to pass through, it can sometimes be easiest if
you take a compass bearing from the map and follow that bearing as closely as you can
while heading through the islands. If your bearing leads you to the center of an
island, turn and retake your bearing from the map when you get to the end of the


When traveling on a lake or river you will often see small stream emptying into them
on the map, by aware of these great reference points. Be on the look out for a small
‘V’ shape that leads away from the shoreline. When you see this, you may want to
investigate closer, streams can be fun to explore. After you’re done exploring, look
at the map and when you see where the stream is on the map, you will know where you


Bays can be quite confusing when they are large. Often it will just look as if the
shore continues off into the bay and there is no indication that you are traveling
into a bay. This is fine if you dont mind traveling extra distance around the bay,
but if you are trying to get point to point and want to avoid bays, be on the look
out for a shoreline that goes away from you and looks to be round. In the distance,
you can often see a shore that is straight across from your location. This is where
you want to head.

Portage Trails

It’s inevitable that finding a hard portage trail will baffle even the best
navigators. The best way to look for a portage trail is to aim right or left of where
you think it will be and then head along the shoreline until you see it. Be on the
look out for an opening in the woods, trampled grass, rocks arranged in the water as
a dock, or a sign of humanity. You will occasionally end up heading down a moose
trail, so if the portage trail is suspect head on down it with your pack first and
come back for the canoe later.


Rivers are often the hardest water feature to navigate, and sometimes the most
dangerous. If you don’t know exactly where you are on the river at all times, you may
end up on the wrong side of the river before difficult rapids or even if you are
completely unlucky find yourself looking over the edge of a waterfall. The best way
to navigate a river is to have one eye on the map and one on the river at all times.
Work off of river turns, if the river is turning right or left, you should be able to
follow this turn on the map. Always watch the map and know what kind of turn in ahead
of you. Then when you go around it, check it off and be ready for the next turn.

Map, Shamap, I Own a GPS

Global Positioning Systems are gaining in popularity for good reason; you can look at
the screen, especially those with maps, and know exactly where you are. Then with
this knowledge you can look at your paper map figure out where you want to go, plot
this in the GPS, and it will tell you where to turn, which way to go, how fast you
are going, and how long it will take you to get the your destination. For these
reasons, Global Positioning Systems are a wonderful tool to bring into the woods with
you. Make sure you bring leave your map and compass though, because I’ve seen
waterproof GPSes stop working after taking a swim, and what if your batteries go

Kick Back, Relax, You Found the Campsite

If you follow these few tips, practice map reading as often as you can, always have a
map in front of you when you are canoeing or kayaking, you will find yourself not
getting lost as often as before. Still, when I, occasionally, get lost, I find myself
thinking back to those two canoeists in the Old Town OTCA and one portage pack
between them going like fire on a compass course, and I get motivated to figure out
where I am and not get lost again, because the person with the best navigation skills
always seems to arrive at the camp earlier. And more time to relax is the best time
to relax. Happy Map Reading.

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