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Backpacker Magazine – June 2012

Master Class: Find Yourself on a Map

The best way to avoid getting lost? Always know your location. Study up on these key techniques for identifying terrain features, translating GPS data to a map, and triangulating your position.

by: Molly Absolon

(Photo by: Glenn Randall)
(Photo by: Glenn Randall)

Make Your GPS Talk to Your Topo
Use satellite data to find your location on a map.

>> Match map data and your GPS display
Inconsistencies between navigation tools can put you miles off target. Before translating GPS data onto paper, identify your map’s data sets, then program your receiver’s settings to correspond:
Datum Map datum describes the survey grid used to create the map. Look for the citation in the margin, then update your GPS unit’s datum on the main settings menu. The most common North American datum are WGS 84 and NAD 27.
Coordinate grid Most wilderness navigators use the UTM (Universal Transverse Mercator) reference grid, which is also BACKPACKER’s standard. Another common choice is the latitude/longitude grid. Maps usually have references to both.
North preference Switch your receiver to true north mode if you’re working with a map only. If you’re using a compass, too, consider toggling between true and magnetic readings to smooth declination calculations.

>> Mark a waypoint and note your coordinates
Your GPS unit’s waypoint screen, which displays after you create a new point, shows a precise location as a coordinate set. To translate a pair of UTM coordinates from your GPS to your map, note the last seven digits of both the easting (listed first) and northing (listed second).

>> Find your position
Identify your map’s UTM grid, drawn in blue (older maps may have only tick marks on the margin). Match the first four digits of the easting and northing with the grid. The corresponding 1-by-1-km square marks your general location. Use the last three digits of each coordinate, which represent meters, to pinpoint your position within the 1,000-meter square. Measure east (easting) and north (northing) from the square’s bottom left corner; your position is where the measurements intersect.

Take Bearings and Triangulate
Use a map, compass, and nearby landmarks to orient yourself.

1. Orient the map. Align your map’s north-orienting arrow with the compass baseplate’s direction-of-travel pointer. Place the plate’s edge parallel to the magnetic north line (in the margin). Rotate map and compass together until the needle is ‘boxed’ by the baseplate.

2. Take a bearing. Hold the compass at waist height and point the direction-of-travel arrow at a known land feature. Rotate the bezel until the north-seeking arrow is boxed. Your bearing is the number on the bezel that lines up with your direction-of-travel arrow.

3. Transfer bearing to map. Keeping the north-seeking arrow boxed, place your compass on the map with the baseplate’s edge running through the center of the landmark; mark that line on your map in pencl.

4. Triangulate a position. Take at least three bearings using distinct landmarks. The point where they intersect (it may be a small triangle) is your location.

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Reader Rating: -


May 27, 2013

Best way to always know where you are and to stay found is to know where you are at the trailhead, on a map. Unless you have days of extra food and time, best way to get lost is to take Backpacker Magazine directions for granted. BM often says east when they mean west, don't trust 'em, rely on yourself to know exactly where you are.

Star Star Star
Mike Pici
May 24, 2013

The declination scale on a map is usually useless at best, and seriously misleading at worst, since most of them haven't been updated in years and magnetic north continually changes location.

Star Star Star
May 24, 2013

Yup add east. In Vt the dec is 14 degrees

Star Star Star Star Star
May 19, 2013

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AZ Hiker
Sep 27, 2012

Knowing your location on a map is one way to not-get-lost but sometimes getting lost can be easier than staying found and that's what makes short hikes the most dangerous. No matter how well they know the trail, many people never consider that they might end up unexpectedly spending the night outdoors or waiting for medical help --and so they hike without the essentials. Felix! the Sugar Glider Be Safe Hike Smart (Amazon) teaches essential day-hiking skills, items to pack, how to navigate your way with and without a map or compass, and how to get rescued. Learn to stay found by using a compass and paying attention to your surroundings. A compass doesn't need batteries and works in all types of weather but you need to know how to use it and this book makes learning --easy. This book is for all ages --parents, friends, and children can learn together. It's a fast, easy read that could save your life and will definitely make your hike more safe and enjoyable!

C. Daily
Aug 07, 2012

In taking a bearing steps 1 and 2, what is meant by boxed?

Jul 12, 2012

In my opinion, a beginner learning map reading skills should take a fix about every 20 minutes. Preparing the map makes this a lot easier. Use the scale of miles and make a mark on the map every 1/10th of a mile. Before looking for terrain features, estimate your position using timing and estimated speed from the last position.

For declination I use the saying "In the West, truth is greater than magnetism" The center is around Chicago or where the variation is zero on the map if close to the center of the country.

Steve C
Jul 10, 2012

For beginning map reading, it's important to understand that the mile grid on the map measures only a flat horizontal distance. Hiking across that mile grid in hilly terrain will add distance (vertically). If the angle is 45 degrees up or down across the mile grid, that can add about 43% to the distance, making that one mile about 1.43 miles. Add curves to the trail and the distance is longer. Not a big deal if you understand this, but a stress point if you or others expect your arrival at a certain time.

David Schlewitz
Jul 07, 2012

ADD for East and Subtract for West??!?!?!? Hmmmmmmm . . . . I thought it was the opposite?

AZ Hiker
Jul 07, 2012

Read Felix! the Sugar Glider Be Safe Hike Smart (Amazon). Learn essential day-hiking skills and how to navigate your way with and without a map or compass. A fast, easy read that could save your life and will definitely make your hike more safe and enjoyable!


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