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How to Find the North If you get lost in the Wild

Come back to home

A basic rule is not to head out Hiking without a good Hiking Map. Even if the area is known to you and you only plan to stay on well-marked trails, you should always bring a map. Unforeseen circumstances such as thunderstorms, lightning, accidents, or trail damage might force you off the trail at which time a map can make the difference between finding your way back home and getting hopelessly lost. In this section, we will have a look at the features of a good map and how to read and use these features


How to find North in the Wild


Scale  is the degree of reduction used for the map. For instance, 1:100000 would indicate that one centimeter on the map corresponds to 100000 centimeters (or 1 km) in reality. The smaller the reduction, the more detailed the map will be. The scale can be used to determine the distance between two points on the map but beware: especially in mountainous areas, the calculated distance between two points may differ greatly from the actual distance. Drawing an Altitude and Aspect Ratio Diagram will give you a better feeling for the actual distance.

Longitudinal Lines

Longitudinal Lines are the imaginary vertical lines that run across the globe from north to south. The meridian (zero degrees) runs through Greenwich in the United Kingdom and longitude is measured in degrees, minutes, and seconds either east or west from this meridian. The International Date Line lies exactly opposite from Greenwich at 180 degrees.

Latitudinal Lines

Latitudinal Lines are the imaginary horizontal lines that run across the globe from east to west. The equator is the zero degree meridian with latitude measures in degrees, minutes, and seconds either north or south from the equator. Good maps give the longitude and latitude which can be used to indicate the exact location on the globe.

Contour/Altitude Lines

Contour/Altitude Lines are lines that run at the same altitude thus giving the elevation of the locations on the map and the ways hills, mountains, and valleys run. Contour lines are drawn with a fixed interval in altitude difference. For instance, a 50-meter interval would mean that altitude lines will be drawn at for instance 400, 450, 500 etc. meters above sea level. The altitude of the major altitude lines is written in the lines while minor altitude lines can be derived from knowing the interval used on the map. Using the contour lines, you should be able to draw a picture of the area. Areas where the contour lines are very closely grouped will indicate steep terrain. Many maps will use symbols for extremely steep terrain like cliffs and waterfalls.

Magnetic Declination

Magnetic Declination: Magnetic Declination: good topographic maps will give you the so-called magnetic declination which is the difference between true and magnetic north for the specific locations on the map. Using this information, you can adjust your compass readings and assure yourself of the absolute northern direction. Go to Navigating & Orientation with a Compass for more information on Magnetic Declination.

Map Number

Map Number: Most maps are numbered and have a schematic that shows you where this map fits into the surrounding maps. In this way, you can easily purchase or select the maps needed to cover your Hiking areas.

Date of Printing

Date of Printing: Almost all maps mention their date of printing. It is very important to use a recently published map as things do change. Do not rely on old maps and ask locals for the latest maps and possible last minute updates. For more information, visit our Hiking Preparations – Terrain Conditions section.


Legend: The legend explains the meanings of symbols and the line colors/styles used on the map. Most symbols are standardised but they may vary depending on the country and the company that publishes the map. Examine your map’s legend to make sure you are not making assumptions made on the symbol usage and legend of other maps.

Trails, roads, train tracks, cable car lines, boat routes, etc

Trails, roads, train tracks, cable car lines, boat routes, etc.  Maps use different colors, line style, or symbols to indicate the way trails and roads run on the map. Some altered maps may even have different styles for the difficulty of the trails and to indicate whether the trail is a summer, winter or year-round trail. If you are following a certain trail then you can use these lines to stay on course and verify your location. You can also use them to find alternative routes to reach your destination.

Trail Duration

Trail Duration: Some maps of mountainous areas either have the time it takes to hike between two points written on the map or come with a separate booklet giving those details. As explained, the distance by using the scale between two points on the map can differ greatly from the real distance. Furthermore, the terrain and obstacles can greatly affect the time it takes to hike certain trails on a map. For this reason, many local maps include the time it takes an average hiker to complete a certain trail. Often, these times are accompanied with a difficulty rating and perhaps even a listing of the obstacles needed to be crossed. When hiking in a new area, first try a small hike to see how you measure up against what the map makers consider to be an average hiker.

Other Natural and man-made features: Besides trails and roads, most maps will have symbols for major features like bridges, houses, waterfalls, rivers, lakes, etc. Using these features, you will be able to determine your location on the map.