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Reading the Map

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.


The easiest way to use a map and compass together is to orient the map towards North. Simply align the map meridians with the compass needle so that “up” on the map is pointing North. Now everything on the map is in the same direction as on the ground. When travelling along your route, remember to keep the map oriented at all times. By doing this it will be very easy to follow your route since turning right on the map also means turning right on the ground! Properly orienting the map is quick, easy and the best way to avoid unnecessary mistakes during your trip!


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.


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.

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.


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.


On many of our compasses, you can compensate for magnetic declination by using the fixed declination correction scale inside the capsule.

Some of our compasses are equipped with an adjustment screw for compensating the declination more permanently. A small screwdriver 

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