Reading the map

A key to both planning and travelling is to be able to envision the terrain shown on the topographic map. Here are a few basic features, which are good to know before heading out.

Topographic maps are colour-coded: blue for water; white for open terrain, green for forest; black for roads, paths, buildings and other man-made objects.

Contour lines represent the topography or vertical shape of the landscape, and will help you identify features like mountains, valleys and ridges; the closer the lines, the steeper the slope.

Depending on where you are, the map may differ. Remember that symbols and information can mean different things in different regions. On all maps, north is always up.


A map is a scaled down model of reality, so it’s important to understand how it represents distance. Using the map’s scale, you can measure distance with the compass base plate. If your compass lacks the corresponding scale, use the regular metric ruler and this simple rule: drop the last three digits from the scale and this is the number of metres on the ground represented by 1mm on the map; e.g, on a 1:50.000 map, 1mm represents 50 metres.


Did you know there are actually two North Poles? One of them is the Geographic North Pole; the point of the axis around which the earth spins. The other one is the Magnetic north pole; where all compass needles point.

… And One of Them Is Moving

The magnetic north pole – along with the magnetic south pole – are the ends of the magnetic field which goes around the earth. There are many different sources of magnetic activity around and on the planet, and these fields are created by magnetic elements in the earth’s fluid outer core. This molten rock does not align perfectly with the axis around which the earth spins. All those influencing factors combined create the north and south attractions at each spot on the globe. The actual strength and direction of north is somewhat varying everywhere, but it is always towards the top of the globe.

When planning and travelling, use significant terrain objects to mark your route. Examples include rivers and lakes, hills, fields, paths, roads and power lines. By holding onto this visual “handrail” you travel faster and more safely, reducing the number of possible route-finding errors.


The difference between the north geographic pole and the north magnetic pole is called magnetic declination, or just declination. This is an important factor to take into consideration when using a map and a compass.

Depending on where you are on the earth, the angle of declination will be different. From some locations, the geographic and magnetic poles are aligned and declination is minimal, but from other spots, the angle between the two poles is fairly large.

In areas with significant declination, adjustments must be made to walk a correct bearing. Information concerning magnetic declination is found on the topographic map.

The declination itself changes just a little, each year. This means using an old map could point in a direction several degrees wrong, and it is crucial to find accurate information for your location.


When heading out for a hike in an unknown environment, details and preparations are crucial. Remember to take enough water and supplies for your stay, and make sure you have the right equipment to keep you dry and comfortable.

Before heading out, plan your trip. Take a good look at the map, and learn to read the graphics of the map. Then you can find which route is the most suitable for your hike, already in advance. Mark good spots for pausing, or where you’ll find a nice view or a beautiful scenery.

The weather can change quickly in the mountains or at sea. To stay safe, and to be sure to find your way home, learn how to use a compass and how to read a map – and practice it often!

Using a map and a compass is just as much about getting lost as it is about staying on course. With the right knowledge you can safely get off — and back on – your planned route, and go wherever you want to go. Stay calm, and enjoy your hike, run, walk or wander.

Navigation is a life-long learning process, and there is always more to find out and new places to explore. There is a wide range of compasses, that all will take you to your destination.