1ksfbanner95 great eastern knife ad
Staying Found

Simple survival tips for using a map and compass

Take some time to familiarize yourself with your magnetic compass.
Simple survival tips for using a map and compass

It’s really hard to think when there’s this awful, nauseating realization that you may be lost in the wilderness and you start to panic. Suppose you have a map and compass along, and a basic idea of how to use them. But maybe you didn’t think about using them…

The day may start out nice, but suddenly bad weather threatens. And – you don’t know where you are.

by Leon Pantenburg

After all, the sun was out, the day was nice, the trail is clear, the scenery beautiful and you stuck the map and compass in the pack somewhere. It was hard to get to, so you didn’t check it.

And, the point was to get out in the woods and relax, and who can unwind when you have to fool around with land navigation tasks? Besides, you’re well prepared, with survival knife, a survival kit, tarp  and…all that stuff.
But then it starts to get dark, or the weather changes, and you don’t remember which of the forks in the trail you took. At this point, many people will start to panic, and when that happens, you can’t reason.

But in this situation, remembering some common sense land navigation memory aides and acronyms will help calm you down. Once you can correctly orient the map, you can figure out where you are and where to go.

You can also decide if the smart option is to set up a shelter, build a fire and stay put while waiting to be rescued. Don’t try to make this kind of decision when you can’t think!

Humans are hard-wired to want an activity pattern. Creating a routine to fall back upon in this situation could help calm you down. It will hasten your ability to make good decisions.

Here’s a survival mindset exercise that uses simple, easy-to-remember map and compass memory aides. Memorize them, and the order they’re in, and you’ll have one more tool in your survival kit.

STOP: First and foremost, in any wilderness emergency is the need to focus on the situation. Stop (sit down while you’re doing this part), Think, Observe and Plan. Stay seated until you reach “P” and don’t get up until you have a plan. Then, get out the map and compass.

Red=N: Which end of the needle is north? Maybe you want to write this on the compass somewhere: Red = North.

These are basic navigation tools: compass, emergency whistle, map and GPS. Start with the basics: does the red compass needle point north?

Yeah – this is elementary stuff, but really important. Disorientation is a symptom of dehydration, fatigue, hypothermia and panic, and you can have all these problems at once. And maybe you also have to deal with  pain, because of an injury.

Also – and this sounds really elementary – make sure the needle actually does point north before you buy a compass. Twice, I have found name brand, quality compasses where the red needle pointed south. (I’m not the only one – wilderness expert Peter Kummerfeldt relates a similar story, with a different brand of compass.)

The first instance was on a compass that belonged to a member of Boy Scout Troop 18, in Bend, Oregon. I noticed the compass on an outing, when the scout was navigating by the white arrow. I convinced the scout that the compass was dangerous (It really was!), and bought it as a joke for Gordon Cotton. (Cotton, director of The Old Court House Museum in Vicksburg, MS., collects all types of  Southern memorabilia. A “Rebel Compass,” of course, would naturally point south!)

The other instance wasn’t funny, and could have lead to tragedy. I happened across a compass, with a red needle that pointed south, on the shelf of a local sporting goods store. An unsuspecting customer could have bought the compass, assumed the red needle pointed north and gotten really, really lost. The salesman was appalled, and checked out all the rest of the compass inventory on the spot.  Never, ever buy a compass that has anything whatsoever wrong with it!

Red in the shed: OK – you remember, and are positive, that red is north.

This compass needle is aligned with the orienting arrow. The “Red is in the shed.”

But, next, aren’t you supposed to do something with the pointy do-hickey in the bottom?

It’s probably more dignified to say “Box the needle” or “Align the red, north-pointing needle with the orienting arrow figure on the bottom of the dial.” But you’ll remember “Red in the Shed,” because it rhymes and the alignment box resembles, with a little imagination, a tall, skinny shed.

Two norths? There are two norths on a topographic map: Magnetic north and True North and the difference could confuse an exhausted, cold person.

Magnetic north is where the needle points to the actual magnetic North Pole. In 2005, that was about 800 miles from the geographic north pole, near Ellef Ringes Island in the Canadian Arctic (Latitude: 82.7, Longitude: 114.4).

True north is the direction to the top of your map.  Since the earth is a pear-shaped object and a map is flat, inevitably, there will be some variations

So remember this acronym: MN to MN = Magnetic needle, magnetic north: The Magnetic needle on your compass points to magnetic north. MN-to-MN.

True north is always and truly at the top of your map.

But that’s not the only thing about true north and magnetic north you need to know.

The difference in angle between true north and magnetic north is called declination, and you’ll have to adjust your compass and map.

Which way to adjust for declination? How do you remember if you adjust for easterly or westerly declination?

In the continental U.S. , just look at the Mississippi River. If you have to go east to get to it, then you adjust for easterly declination. If you have to go west, it is westerly declination.  And, if you live in the zone along the big river, you probably don’t have to adjust for declination at all.

Anyone venturing out into the wilderness needs to have a good working knowledge of a map and compass.  Never rely on a GPS alone. Any electronic device can fail, and the best GPS in the world is only as good as its power source.

These tips are a very small piece of staying found. A critical tool in your survival kit is knowledge and skill. Invest the time and money to take a good land navigation class, then buy a quality compass.

Another good idea is to make your own topographic maps. I use the National Geographic Topo! Outdoor Recreation Mapping Software, and make a custom map whenever I go out. There are other fine mapping programs on the market also, and don’t forget google maps as a resource. 

Memorize these aids, and that potential panic attack will dissipate while you figure out where you are!

Please click here to check out and subscribe to the SurvivalCommonSense.com YouTube channel – thanks!



Be Sociable, Share!
View Comments (2)


  1. Leon

    12/16/2015 at 10:53

    Glad to help out. Check out these links:http://survivalcommonsense.com/category/how-to-stay-found-in-the-wilderness-using-natural-signs-map-compass-and-gps/

    Navigation expert Blake Miller also contributes to SurvivalCommonSense.com – here are some of his posts:http://survivalcommonsense.com/category/gps-tips-from-blake-miller-land-navigation-expert-and-wilderness-survival-instructor/

    As one ole man to another – we can never quit learning – people will think we’re boring!
    Have a great day! Leon

  2. Ole Grandpa

    12/15/2015 at 08:53

    A very interesting read. For this ole man a few more links to more info would have been nice. This hard headed ole man is very thick and often needs things taken to a 1st grade level for it to sink in. But the article did whit my interest to learn more so will start doing a lot more research. Then trying to figure out is there might be somewhere close that has classes, never heard of any in my area but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any.

    Thank you for the spark that started the fire under this ole man to learn more.

    O_G in OKLA

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Staying Found

Leon Pantenburg is a wilderness enthusiast, and doesn't claim to be a survival expert or expertise as a survivalist. As a newspaperman and journalist for three decades, covering search and rescue, sheriff's departments, floods, forest fires and other natural disasters and outdoor emergencies, Leon learned many people died unnecessarily or escaped miraculously from outdoor emergency situations when simple, common sense might have changed the outcome. Leon now teaches common sense techniques to the average person in order to avert potential disasters. His emphasis is on tried and tested, simple techniques of wilderness survival. Every technique, piece of equipment or skill recommended on this website has been thoroughly tested and researched. After graduating from Iowa State University, Leon completed a six-month, 2,552-mile solo Mississippi River canoe trip from the headwaters at Lake Itasca, Minn., to the Gulf of Mexico. His wilderness backpacking experience includes extended solos through Yellowstone’s backcountry; hiking the John Muir Trail in California, and numerous shorter trips along the Pacific Crest Trail. Other mountain backpacking trips include hikes through the Uintas in Utah; the Beartooths in Montana; the Sawtooths in Idaho; the Pryors, the Wind River Range, Tetons and Bighorns in Wyoming; Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, the Catskills in New York and Death Valley National Monument in southern California. Some of Leon's canoe trips include sojourns through the Okefenokee Swamp and National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia, the Big Black River swamp in Mississippi and the Boundary Waters canoe area in northern Minnesota and numerous small river trips in the Midwest and Pacific Northwest. Leon is also an avid fisherman and an elk, deer, upland game and waterfowl hunter. Since 1991, Leon has been an assistant scoutmaster with Boy Scout Troop 18 in Bend, and is a scoutmaster wilderness skills trainer for the Boy Scouts’ Fremont District. Leon earned a second degree black belt in Taekwondo, and competed in his last tournament (sparring and form) at age 49. He is an enthusiastic Bluegrass mandolin picker and fiddler and two-time finalist in the International Dutch Oven Society’s World Championships.

More in Staying Found