Learning Basic Navigation Skills by Julie McNulty for Hike it Baby

We all know to carry a compass as part of our 10 essentials, but how many of us know how to use it? Until recently, I didn’t. Knowing how to use a compass is one of the basic navigation skills and of the utmost importance to safety on trails. If separated from your group or lost in the woods, your compass and a trail map can be your one-way ticket to safety … if you know how to use it, of course.

An informal survey of our Hike it Baby members found that many learned basic navigation skills as children either through Scouting (Boy Scouts of America or Girl Scouts), school classes or clubs, or their parents. Those who learned as children overwhelmingly stated that the skills stayed with them into adulthood.

I never learned basic navigation skills as a child. I vaguely remember learning some beginner topography and map reading in elementary school Social Studies class, but it was not a skill I used often enough to stay sharp. I’m fairly certain I never saw a compass in real life until I was an adult.

As getting our kids outside and hiking moved up on our priority list, my need to learn basic navigation skills became increasingly important. My husband taught me some orienteering skills like map and compass reading, and initially my thought was, “I’ve got a compass on my iPhone; I’m good.” But then my husband reminded me that my iPhone battery could die, and it depends on GPS so it wouldn’t work if I was out of a service area (which accounts for most of the area where we live in Vermont).

Learning basic navigation skills by Julie McNulty for Hike it Baby 

How to get started

Equipped with our new compass, my husband and I headed for the trails and grabbed a map from the trailhead. We laid out the map and spent about five minutes reviewing the map key, scale and elevation changes. Then we went over the standard features of a compass and how to orient the compass with the map.

During our hike, we stopped periodically to orient ourselves and mark where we were on the trail. We drilled using the compass to head in different directions, then reorient and move in a different direction again. And we practiced locating nearby landmarks on the map. In total, we spent about two hours on the trail, and I came away from it feeling refreshed and excited to have practiced basic navigation skills.

Where to find resources

Don’t worry if you missed out on learning navigation skills in your youth; it’s never too late to start. There are numerous resources all around you. You can find online courses, in-person courses, books, pamphlets, webinars, videos, articles and the list goes on.

1. Research courses offered nationally.

REI offers a Map & Compass Navigation Basics class in stores across the country. Their website describes this hands-on course by stating that “you’ll learn the parts of a compass, how to read a topographic map, and how to use them in tandem. You’ll learn how to pinpoint your location through triangulation and then navigate to new locations by following a bearing. You’ll also learn how to plan routes using a topographic map.” It comes highly recommended by our members.

L.L.Bean offers a similar class, as well, through their outdoor discovery schools. Their website offers a course description and a list of things to bring along. Here, you can find all of the info on the L.L.Bean Introduction to Map- and Compass-Skills Course.

2. Check out local course offerings.

Depending on where you are located, there are local organizations, clubs or shops that offer basic navigation courses. Here are just a few that came recommended by our members. There are many more that you can find through a simple Google search or by contacting your local hiking clubs, park systems or sporting goods stores.


New Hampshire



Learning basic navigation skills by Julie McNulty for Hike it Baby

3. Take an online course or webinar.

“Backpacker Magazine” offers a completely online course option through their AIM Adventure U. This Backcountry Navigation course is designed to be taken at your own pace. It’s perfect for a busy mama!

4. Read a book or article.

Why not get a book? Read it at your own pace and explore when ready. The following books have received great reviews:

Be Expert with Map and Compass by Björn Kjellström

The Essential Wilderness Navigator: How to Find Your Way in the Great Outdoors by David Seidman

Wilderness Navigation: Finding Your Way Using Map, Compass, Altimeter & GPS by Bob Burns

One of our members mentioned the Boy Scouts of America’s Orienteering merit badge pamphlet. It is incredibly affordable and you can purchase a copy online even if you are not a BSA member.

As for articles, REI has a pair of complimentary articles on compass and topography basics. Both are informative as well as easy to read and follow. And “Backpacker Magazine” also has a great piece, Navigation 101: Understanding your Compass.

5. There’s a YouTube video for that!

And finally, you can go on YouTube to watch videos on the navigation! There is a YouTube how-to for everything these days!

Read more:

How did you learn basic navigation skills? What resources would you suggest to a beginner?

Photos by Walter Payton Edwards and Amy Diebold.



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