In the age of Google Earth on smartphones, with GPS units pre-loaded with Topo Maps – it’s all too easy to see why the art of navigation is being lost to laziness. But what happens when the batteries go dead or you lose service?

You’ll be wishing you’d joined that scout group and had an insight into how to read a map. If you put all your eggs into the digital basket, you’ll also be wishing you brought a map in the first place.

That’s rule number one with navigation: never, ever, rely solely on electronic devices to guide the way. Not only can they run out of battery, they can also be wrong, be that from dodgy satellites, dodgy programming or simply dodgy base maps.

That’s not to say there isn’t a place for electronic devices in the navigation world, but the ability to go traditional and read a map, operate a compass and even go back to the basics, goes a long way to making sure you stay on trail, rather than lose it altogether.

Here are our introductory tips for the different elements of becoming the next navigator extraordinaire.


It’s no use having a map and compass in hand (or a GPS unit for that matter) if you have no idea how to use it. In this case, knowledge is the power to get you from A to B. There are plenty of navigational courses on offer through various private and public institutions offering practical and theoretical classes. If you are looking to do a particular activity in the outdoors, seek out a course specific to that (i.e. sailing navigation differs from backcountry hiking, and white (snow) season navigation has it’s own particulars).  Navigation is taught through Australia’s many TAFE (or equivalent) Outdoor Education courses and the many orienteering clubs accessed via Orienteering Australia ( often host skills sessions.

Good general wilderness navigation courses can also be taken through:


The Internet should be viewed with healthy skepticism when it comes to ‘facts’ however in the realm of navigation, it’s hard to bluster the details of core knowledge, so a good search online will unearth all manner of tips and demonstrations when it comes to navigation. It’s a great starting point. Obviously trust organisational-based websites more so than independent, unverifiable blogs, however often good bush navigators are also passionate and very knowledgeable bloggers. or go to the state-based bushwalking clubs who have libraries of good information.

The Internet is great for researching your destination, too, which will give insight into the terrain and often what maps you should be carrying with you.


Guidebooks are the next step after general online research – and usually available in print or digital format. It’s important to read up on your destination, as authors and professional researchers often have good insight into common navigational errors on certain trails or through certain landscapes. Take on board the knowledge of those who have already stepped where you are about to. In Australia, there are numerous publishers, large and small, producing guides to most wilderness areas. For bushwalkers, start at Bushwalking Australia with its list of reputable publishers

Because print runs are often low of titles specific to relatively small patches of the Earth, often so too are the publishers small, and hard to find. A good place to research guidebooks is


The more detail, the better. The more recently updated / published the better.

There are several online retail outlets servicing the map market, including: and

You can get an idea of the available maps via GeoScience Australia – search for the region you want to cover here:

For outdoor activity, topographic maps at 1:10 000, 1:25 000 and 1:50 000 scales show geographic features in enough detail to be useful.

GeoScience Australia has a short guide on how to read maps: or try this free online How To book:

It is crucial to know how to read a map by understanding what the visual cues, icons and markings all mean. The main idea of a map is to be able to locate yourself on the map, so you know where you are in the landscape, where you want to go and the best way to travel overland to get there safely (mind that cliff). You can judge where you are on a map by picking out landscape features in sight (rivers, mountain tops, man made structures) and pin point them on the map along with where you are standing in relation to them. The most important points upon opening your map are:

What is the map scale? This is important because scale tells you about the comparative size of features and distances displayed on the map.

Which direction is north? This is important because direction orients the map to the real world.

Another great guide is available for download via GeoScience Australia: or try Australian Geographic Outdoors’ quick guide:

Remember to purchase a waterproof map cover before taking your map on your journey – a crumbling, waterlogged map is no good to anyone!


Don’t be fooled by the fancy looking ones – the simpler the better. All you need is a needle that works (points north and hasn’t been corrupted), and the dial and the baseplate to be well marked.

Silva ( is widely regarded as the go to for compasses – make sure you get one for the correct hemisphere in which you intend trekking, they do differ.

The main functions of a compass are: to tell which direction you are traveling – your heading; to tell which direction an object is from you – its bearing; to keep you following a straight line of travel; to orient a map, aligning it with the actual land; triangulation, which determines your location with the map; and planning routes – distances and directions to travel on a map.

Here’s a good introduction to compass use:

Here’s a good video guide:

Again, we highly recommend taking a course to understand the finer points of using a compass, which is another article unto itself.


GPS-enabled handheld units and watches are all the rage these days, and can undeniably be a huge asset when travelling through the wilderness. Assuming you have satellite reception. And assuming you have enough battery life. And assuming you know how to use it. Taking those as an all-round yes, a GPS system is an awesome navigational assistant, but should always backed up with a map and compass.

A GPS operates by triangulating your position based on at least three satellites pinpointing where you are relative to each other. You need to have clear line of sight to some patch of sky to enable the satellites to pick up your signal.

Handheld units have the most features and with a big screen, and pre-loaded with the correct maps, make finding your way easy. A locater on the screen that represents you shows where you are on the underlying map, which is also a visual on screen with all the attendant features of a regular map (depending on how detailed the map is that you have loaded up). You can then see exactly where you are, and make navigational decisions accordingly. Most units also have a compass for taking bearings. Better units can waymark your route – both marking where you have come from (thereby allowing you to accurately backtrack) and marking where you want to go if you have the correct coordinates to plug in prior to setting off (a route file  – commonly GPX – downloaded from someone who has taken the path previously for instance). More information on how to select and use a GPS unit can be found at:

Some of the more popular units for wilderness junkies include those from:

A guide to what to consider when selecting a unit can be found at: and a buyers guide at:

Nature’s Navigators

Of course, if your GPS has died and your map gone to shreds in the rainstorm, there are a few basics you can master to allow nature to guide your way:

Shadow Stick Compass

You can figure out which way in North/East/South/West by driving a straight stick into flat, level ground. Mark the endpoint of its shadow with a rock. Wait 15 minutes and mark the end of the shadow position with another rock. Imagine a straight line between those two points: this represents an approximate east-west line. Stand with your left foot on the first point and your right foot on the second point and you’ll be facing in a general northerly direction.

Wrist Watch

Point the twelve o’clock mark of your watch in the direction of the sun (or one o’clock if it is daylight saving). The difference between this position and the hour hand will be an approximate north-south line. If you have a digital watch, then draw an analogue watch in the dirt and set its time to the reading on your watch.

The Southern Cross

In a clear (southern hemisphere) night sky, find the Southern Cross constellation. There are three methods to locate south and they all rely on finding a point in the sky known as the ‘south celestial pole’, then finding the point on the horizon directly below it. They give slightly different results, but they are all accurate enough for everyday (or everynight) use.


  1. Length of the cross

Imagine a line that goes from the top star in the cross and out through the bottom. Measure along this line 4.5 times the length of the Southern Cross. The point on the sky where you end up is the South Celestial Pole. Point at the South Celestial Pole with one finger. Drop your arm straight down until you are pointing at the horizon. You are now pointing due south.


  1. Through the pointers

Draw an imaginary line through the Southern Cross, from top to bottom.

Draw another imaginary line going straight through the middle of the pointers (at right angles to a line joining the two pointers). Point at the spot on the sky where the lines cross. This is the South Celestial Pole.  Drop your arm straight down until you are pointing at the horizon. You are now pointing due south.


  1. Halfway to Achenar

Imagine a line that goes from the top star in the cross and out through the bottom. Follow this line along until you reach a reasonably bright star (slightly brighter than the brightest star in the Southern Cross). This star is called Achenar. With one hand, point at the top star in the Southern Cross. Use the other hand to point at Achenar. Bring your hands together. You are now pointing at the South Celestial Pole. Drop your arm straight down until you are pointing at the horizon. You are now pointing due south.

Once you are facing south, north is behind you, east is on your left and west is on your right.


Confused? See  Source: CSIRO


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