Home Learn thebasics Hardware reviews Software reviews Ship's Locker LEI Tips and tricks Technical issues Adventures with GPS Favorites Canadian Digest 

Maps, Compasses, & GPS's 101

A Basic Course


Topographic Maps (topos)

 By far, the maps of choice for hiking, backpacking, and the other activities mentioned above are the 7.5 minute topographic map series. In the US, these maps are produced by the United States Geological Survey (USGS), but most countries have their equivalent. The 7.5 topo maps provide excellent detail, including streams, woods, elevation contours, railroads, and just about any other feature that you might need to get you back to camp. Each map covers an area of about 7.5 miles X 6 miles, depending on where you are in the country. In paper form, the US versions cost about $6 each, and they are now available in digital form on CD-ROMs that can be used with your computer. In the US, see http://topomaps.usgs.gov/ordering_maps.html for the paper maps and http://topomaps.usgs.gov/drg/ for the CD ROM versions to get ordering information. For Canadian topo maps, check out http://maps.nrcan.gc.ca/index.html. Now let's look at some of the basics of map reading.


Most maps are set up with North at the top, South of the bottom, East to the right, and West to the left. For example, if you know where you are on a map, and you want to travel to a place that is directly above you, then you must go north. This is where the compass comes in.


The Compass

 The needle of a compass is magnetized and will point to anything metallic (iron-containing) or magnetic. In this case, the magnetic force is supplied by the molten iron in the earth's core. The colored end of the needle (or the end that has the letter N on it) will point towards the north pole of the earth's magnetic field. All you have to do is line up the North on the compass dial with the north end of the compass needle and all of the other directions will line up as well.

 Unfortunately, the north pole that the compass needle points towards is not the same one that Santa lives in, and in 1998, it was about 725 miles away and is constantly moving! Depending on where you live on earth, this may result in a compass error (called declination) of anywhere from a few degrees up to 20-30 degrees or rarely even more. The amount of error (declination) in your area is indicated by a series of arrows located at the bottom left of your topographic map. In the figure below, the declination is 8 degrees to the West of true North.

Since declination is constantly changing, this reading could be a little bit off, especially for older maps like this one.


Here is an example of error caused by declination. In the Maryland area, magnetic north is between 10 and 11 degrees to the West of true (geographic) north. To put this into perspective, let's say you're walking towards a destination (in Maryland) that is one mile (1.61 km) away. If you do not compensate for declination, you will end up nearly 1000 feet (305 meters) away from the target. As you can see, for long distances this amount of error should be compensated for. If you're using a GPS, you can set it up so that it gives directions in magnetic degrees, thus eliminating the need for compensation.


The direction you have to travel to get to your destination (waypoint) is usually referred to as the bearing. Realizing that there are 360 degrees in a circle, compass bearings are referenced by the number of degrees they are away from north, in a clockwise direction. For example, due East would be 1/4 the way around the circle, or 090 degrees. In turn, due South would be halfway around a circle or 180 degrees, due West equals 270 degrees, and due North would be 360 degrees or back to 000 degrees. The numbers on the compass dial (bezel) are the bearings referred to above.


Finding your way to a destination (Waypoint)

In order to navigate to a destination, which is usually referred to as a waypoint on a GPS, you must know 2 things; 1) Where am I now? and 2) Where am I going? This may sound simple, but its a little more complicated than what weve covered so far. Your location on a map is given in reference to a grid system. On the USGS topo maps there are two grid systems used; latitude/longitude (L/L) and Universal Transverse Mercator (UTM). Most people are probably already somewhat familiar with L/L, but by far the easier system to use on topo maps is UTM.

In this system the world is divided into 60 equal zones from West to East. The West Coast of the US, for example, is Zone 10 and the East Coast is Zone 18. To see what Zone you are in, check out [ http://www.dmap.co.uk/utmworld.htm ]. On topo maps you will see an occasional marking for latitude and longitude, but you will see many other marks that represent the UTM grid markings. On most of the newer maps, the markings are extended into grid lines covering the whole map, however, you might have to draw in the grid lines on the older maps.

Here's how the UTM grid line system works. The distance between any two grid lines is 1 kilometer (1000 meters). On the bottom/top of the topo maps, the numbers under/over each grid mark represent the number of kilometers that mark is East of the start of the zone. On the sides of the topo maps, the numbers for each grid line represent how many kilometers that line is North of the equator, if you're in the northern hemisphere. Going South from the equator, the numbers start at 10,000 and count down from there. In practice three more digits are tacked on to the end of each grid line number. The purpose of these last three digits is to tell you how many meters past a given grid line the position is. To give your position, you simply tell how many meters you are East of the nearest grid line and then how many meters you are north of the nearest grid line. Remember, East distance (Easting), then North distance (Northing)!


Let's look at two actual examples on a map. On the map below, you'll see a position labeled as 001. Notice that it is located right at the intersection of 2 grid lines.

The UTM coordinates for this position would be given as the following:

 18 435000 E

4248000 N

Now let's break down the numbers in this UTM position.

18 = the zone number. This map is in Maryland, which is in Zone 18. Unless you live close to the start of a new Zone, chances are that all of your local topo maps will be in the same Zone.

 435000 These numbers give your "Easting" or which grid line the position is east of and how many meters past. Look at the map again. You will notice that the position 001 is right on the 435 grid line. It is 000 meters east of that line, so the last 3 digits of the position are 000. The E refers to Easting as explained above.

 4248000 N In a similar fashion, these numbers give your "Northing" or how many meters north you are from the nearest grid line. Check out the map again and you will notice that position 001 was right on the 4248 line. It is 000 meters north of that line, so the last 3 digits of the position are again 000. The N refers to the Northing.

 In the second example, notice the Waypoint numbered 002. It is located exactly in the center of the grid. It's UTM position would be given as:

 18 435500 E

4248500 N

 Now let's break down the numbers in this UTM position:

 18 = Once again, this is the Zone number.

435500 As before, these numbers give your "Easting", or which grid line the position is east of and how many meters past. Look at the map again. You will notice that the position 002 is halfway between the 435 grid line and the 436 grid line. There are 1000 meters between these two lines so half way over is 500 meters East of the 435 line. Hence, the last 3 digits of the position are 500. The E refers to Easting as explained above.

4248500 N In a similar fashion, these numbers, as noted above, give your "Northing" or how many meters north you are from the nearest grid line. Check out the map again and you will notice that position 002 was halfway between the 4248 line and the 4249 line, so it is 500 meters North of the 4248 line. Hence, the last 3 digits of the position are again 500. The N refers to the Northing.

OK, this example was easy because the position was in the middle of a grid, but what happens if it's not? Actually, the answer to this problem is quite simple. Almost all 7.5 min. topo maps are 1:24000 scale. This means that 1 mm measured on the map corresponds to 24000 mm (or 24 meters) on the ground. With this knowledge, all you have to do is take out a small metric ruler (or use the scale on the base of your compass if it has one) and measure the distance from the given grid line to the position point in millimeters and multiply by 24. This will give you the number of meters to use in the last three digits of the UTM coordinate for Easting or Northing. If you're using a 1:50000 scale map, then just multiply the number of millimeters by 50. If you're out in the field and you don't feel like going to the trouble of actually measuring the distance, you can simply estimate the measurements and get reasonably close.


Now, here's where the GPS enters the picture. Once you have figured out your destination position using the UTM grid lines, you simply enter those coordinates into the GPS unit as a waypoint. Make sure that your GPS unit will work with UTM coordinates (Most will). Next you simply select that waypoint and use the GOTO function on your GPS unit (see Andrew's GPS article for a thorough explanation). It will tell you the distance and bearing from your present position (the GPS knows this) to the waypoint you just entered. All that's left is to take out your compass, find that bearing, and start walking in that direction. If you have to make a detour around some obstruction, don't worry about it. Just check your GPS periodically and it will give you the new bearing and distance to the waypoint. On most units today, there is also a plotter screen that will draw a line that represents the path you have walked and a symbol for the waypoint you have entered. By comparing the two, you can evaluate your progress towards your destination.


There are a couple of other points that need to be emphasized here. A feature that is commonly overlooked by the beginning GPS user is the notion of a map datum. A datum is an attempt by map makers to correct for the fact that the earth isn't perfectly round, but rather elliptical in shape. Over the years, a variety of different datums have been developed and used as references on maps all over the world. The problem that arises from this is that the same position on earth (your house for example) will have different coordinates depending on the datum used to prepare the map. The same is true for your GPS. It will give two different coordinates for the same position, based on which datum you have it set for.


 The trick is to make sure that your GPS is set to the same datum that your map is referenced to. Most USGS topo maps are referenced to NAD 27 (1927 North American Datum), but some of the newer ones use NAD 83. This information is printed in the lower left corner of the topo maps. Once again, BE SURE YOUR GPS IS SET TO THE SAME DATUM AS YOUR TOPO MAP! Failure to do so could result in errors of 200 meters or more in your displayed position. Topo maps from other countries may use different datums, but the same rule applies as above. Consult your GPS owners manual to learn how to set the correct datum to match your map's datum.


 One final step is to mention some of the features that can be found on any topo map. Many features such as roads, streams, swamps, woodlands (in green), and towns are self-explanatory. A folder describing topographic maps and symbols is available on request for USGS maps. To speed up the learning curve, examine a topo map for your area to see how it treats familiar features and landmarks.


 A particularly useful feature found on all topo maps is the use of elevation contour lines. These lines connect points of equal elevation above mean sea level (MSL). Depending on the age (in the US) or country of origin of the map, elevations may be given in feet or meters. Adjacent lines will increase/decrease at a predefined contour interval given at the bottom center of the map. When contour lines are packed together closely, this indicates a rapid change in elevation such as a hill or steep slope. Farther apart means flat land. This may be very helpful when trying to pinpoint your location in an otherwise featureless landscape.


Above, I have presented only the most basic of skills you will need to become a successful land navigator, but it should be enough to get you started. A quick search of the Web with AltaVista will turn up many more sites that will give you more details if you are so inclined. Below I have listed just a few to get you started.

Ron Wilson






Maps and compass GPS in Outdoor Recreation The Good News about GPS A Little GPS that could

Home Learn thebasics Hardware reviews Software reviews Ship's Locker LEI Tips and tricks Technical issues Adventures with GPS Favorites Canadian Digest