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Staying Found

How to stay found on the map

The best navigation advice is simple: never get lost! Sounds a bit stupid, but it’s true. Navigation is incredibly hard when you have to figure out where you are every hour. Better to know where you are at all times by regularly checking the map with the surroundings.

Bushwalkers that regularly follow the map are more likely to pick up things that don’t seem right. They’re keeping an eye out for where they are in relation to landforms, the direction they are traveling in, and how it changes. They’re also watching the changing distance between their current location and where they want to be.

Keeping a keen eye on the map is the best way to know where you are at all times. Here are a couple of ways to do that:

Orientating the Map How to orientate the map in the direction of travel

It can be challenging to match a map up with the terrain, particularly when your brain has to make additional calculations about the orientation of the map relative to the landscape. At some point in our lives everyone has tried to stand on their head to make sense of whether a map is telling them to go right or left. People naturally find it easier to relate a map to the surroundings when everything that is to our left on the map matches everything that is to our left on the ground. Orientating the map in the direction of travel makes life a lot easier.

This is the key to orientating a map: placing it to line up neatly with the features on the ground. Many navigation courses make a big deal about this, claiming it’s the first thing that anyone should do before navigating. In reality, bushwalkers will rarely orientate the map accurately with a compass, unless for interest to figure out the exact names of distant peaks. Instead, they tend to orientate the map so it’s right by eye (terrain association) because it’s much quicker and flexible, and relies on the user understanding what they’re reading on the map, not just blindly following a bearing.

In short, there are two ways to orientate a map, depending on how accurate it needs to be:

  1. By compass
  2. By terrain association

Note, that the map does not need to be orientated to take a bearing from a map as the bearing is independent of the direction the map is pointing.

By Compass

  1. Rest the map on level ground.
  2. Rotate the compass bevel to set local magnetic variation (subtract 12.5° for Sydney, NSW area).
  3. Place the compass on the map ensuring the grid lines are parallel with the edge of the compass, and that the top of the compass is pointing towards the top of the map.
  4. Rotate the map and compass until the north (red) needle is sitting in the orientating arrow on the compass bevel.

Handy Tips

  • Remember that compasses work using a very weak magnetic force from the earth. If any objects with a stronger magnetic force are nearby they will distort the compass reading. Make sure that you are not near metal or power lines when using a compass. (e.g. never try using a compass on the hood of a car). Some regions of the earth have high iron content in their rocks making using a compass impossible. The easiest way of telling this is if the compass needle swings erratically, and never points consistently in the same direction, regardless of anything you do!
  • Generally, map orientation only needs to be accurate within a few degrees. Most of the time you can leave the compass with the magnetic variation set inside your map case and orientate the map whilst you are standing.

By Terrain Association
Terrain association is just matching the visible surroundings to the map. It is the most common method that bushwalkers use to orientate a map, but requires a good understanding of how to map read and translate features into real landforms. For this method to work, the user must know their approximate location.

Bushwalkers can determine map orientation by matching contours, comparing vegetation to that depicted on the map, man-made features (shapes of buildings, directions of roads) and hydrography (shape and size of lakes in conjunction with the size and direction of flow of the rivers and streams).

Handy Tip
Generally, bushwalkers use some combination of compass use and terrain association. Usually, they use the compass to get a rough idea of the lay of the land, then fine tune it by matching specific land features to the map. The best way to find out what works for you is to get out there and try!

Thumbing the map How to thumb the map to keep track of where you are

Switching the eyes from the map to the landscape and back again is tiring on the eyes and it’s easy to get disorientated and look at completely the wrong section of map (parallel error).

“Thumbing the map” is a technique used by bushwalkers to trace their location continuously onto the map. It means gripping the map between thumb and hand with the thumb at the exact location of the bushwalk and moving the thumb along the route as they move. In this way, bushwalkers can trace key waypoints {link to key waypoints chapter} as they occur, and know what’s coming up. This is far easier than having to figure out where they are on the map each time they stop.

Some walkers find that folding the map to a convenient size prevents damage and makes it easier to read. Many also use a map case to protect the map from getting damaged. Often map cases come with a neck-strap, allowing the user to carry it on their person and follow the map as they go.

Map Memory and Key Waypoints How to use map memory and key waypoints to stay found

Map memory is about memorizing key features or ‘waypoints’ on a map and ticking them off in your brain as you pass them. It’s about knowing what’s coming up, and if you don’t come across these features, then it quickly triggers a red flag. Think of map memory as ticking off a series of reliable key waypoints.

Key waypoints are those features that are in some way prominent or recognisable. Bushwalkers use key features to orient themselves, know where they are, how far they still have to go, and be able to navigate along the planned route. Memorising the next few waypoints allows the bushwalker to ‘put down the map’ so to speak, or rather at least enjoy the scenery for a bit rather than having their head constantly buried in the map.

A good guide is to memorise the next three major waypoints coming up, and mentally tick them off as you pass them. If anything happens that you weren’t expecting, then you can quickly fix it up. This mental mapping process means that you quickly know where your last ‘known’ point is, so when something doesn’t feel right you notice it straight away, rather than having to figure it out from scratch each time.

The best checkpoints are linear features that cross your route. Use streams, rivers, hard-top roads, ridges, valleys, and railroads, but be aware that some map features are more reliable than others. The next best checkpoints are elevation changes such as hills, depressions and spurs.

Chose waypoints are those that are easy to remember and obvious, but not so common that they are tricky to distinguish.

Examples include:

  1. Land features like knolls, saddles, ridges. Generally very reliable (or as reliable as the data first collected to make the map).
  2. Route features like river crossings. May be unreliable e.g. river crossings can be rainfall dependant.
  3. Man-made features like junctions, road crossings. Again, may change over time or not be reliably marked on the map in the first place.

The number of reliable checkpoints along established on-track routes will vary, but aim to get at least one or two per kilometre. Once you start looking for this detail in the terrain, you’ll find it easier and easier to pick up. Suddenly a boring flat way has subtle ups and downs that you might not have otherwise noticed. Encourage everyone else in the group to keep a lookout for these checkpoints too.

GPS/smartphone devices Using GPS and smartphone devices as navigational tools

GPS devices and mobile smartphones allow the user to pinpoint their location to an accuracy of around 10-20m, often a much greater precision that by map and compass. They communicate with satellites and work well when they have a relatively clear view of the sky. They will not work in enclosed canyons, gorges and caves.

GPS technology allows the user to identify their physical location and plot it back to a topographic map. In a practical sense, often bushwalkers use a GPS to double check their location matches with where they think they are, or to identify recommended campsites, water locations, entrances to canyons, passes through cliff-lines, etc.

GPS users should make sure that their GPS is set to the right datum and projection, and that they understand how to translate the coordinates reported on a GPS unit onto a standard topographic map.