Written by 5:13 pm Wilderness Navigation Masters

10) How to locate yourself & navigate with just a map

Hello and welcome to this lesson of the online course Wilderness Navigation Masters, where you will learn how to locate yourself on your map to navigate using a topographic map only.

This is an interesting lesson because once you finish watching it, you can start imagining yourself during your outdoor activity taking landmarks from your topographic map and searching for them around you.

Why using a map only :

There are two reasons for that :

  • Most of the time, using a topographic map is enough.
  • You have to master using your map only because if you don’t do it any techniques based on that will not be effective.


I know that I’ve already said it before, but I have to: Pre-activity planning is essential.

Because when you do it after you leave your car for example and you start going into the wilderness, you will already have an idea of what surrounds you. And knowing that only, will give you a general idea of where you are on the map, and prevent you from getting lost.

And when you want to know where you are exactly on your map, you can start looking for the tiny detailed elements.

Navigate using a map only:

But to do that, you have to :

  1. Locate yourself on the map
  2. Orient your map to match the landscape.

You may have this question:

But why should I orient my map?

This is essential …  because when you know where you are on your map if your map is not oriented and you start walking in a certain direction, you will not know what you will get into,

Locate yourself on your map #1

If you try to know where you are on your map with the help of an obvious reliable landmark but not unique. For example, like a house where there are also some houses near it, you will not know which one of them you are next to.

So, in order to locate yourself on a map, you have to use obvious reliable and unique landmarks.

If you are new to this area for example, and you try to locate yourself on this map excerpt using a house as a landmark, you will not succeed, because they’re a bunch of similar houses.

But when you use an obvious, reliable, and unique landmark like this bridge here, that it’s:

  • Obvious: because it’s big,
  • Unique: because there no other similar bridge,
  • Reliable: because a bridge is not something that will be built and removed after just 10 years.

Another reliable obvious unique landmark is this athletic field here or this airport here.

Locate yourself on your map #2

Like you see, even in a city, it’s hard to found obvious reliable and unique landmarks.

But don’t worry, because there is another way to locate yourself on your map which is using linear landmarks, like routes, mountain ranges, creeks, overhead power lines, etc

But the problem here is, if you are next to one linear landmark only, like a creek, you can’t know where you are exactly at, because it’s a long line.

But, if another creek intercepts it like that, when you are next to this intersection, you can locate yourself exactly on your map.

Another example

Now let’s see how many two linear landmarks intersections can we found on this map excerpt.

The first intersection I see is this one between a single-track railroad and this primary highway.

The other one is this intersection between this secondary highway and this road here.

The next one is this intersection between this power transmission line and this single-track railroad here or with this secondary highway here.

Another intersection is this one here, between this red and black road.

Now that you start getting familiar with the intersections that you can found in a city, let’s search for intersections in a wilderness topographic map excerpt.

Another example

The obvious landmark in this map excerpt is this river here.

The first intersection in it is this one with this Unimproved road.

The second intersection in it is this one with a creek here.

If we move to the left, we found this intersection between this creek and this Unimproved road.

Above it, I can see this intersection of creeks here.

Another intersection is this one between a creek and a lake.

The last intersection that I can see is this one here, between two Unimproved roads.

Locate yourself on your map #3

If in a situation, you still can’t found an intersection between two linear landmarks, I still have another solution for you, which is searching for an imaginary line intersection.

Let me explain it to you.

This is a topographic map excerpt of the Crater lake.

And this is a photo that is taken from this trail. 

The two unique points that I can see in this photo, and I can use to draw my imaginary line is the edge of the island and this peak.

When I draw this imaginary line in my topographic map excerpt, for sure I can know that this photo is taken exactly from this place on the trail.

I know that this may be looking simple for you, and I agree with you, but it’s very useful when you try to locate yourself in the wilderness but you have only a linear landmark and two-point landmarks.

I’ve wanted to show you another example using a real photo, but it’s hard for me to found ones on the internet that I can use.

For that, I’ve created this illustration to explain myself.

Let’s say that you are walking on this Lion Gulch Trail, but you don’t know if you are here, here, or here.

But, in one direction, what you can see is this.

Two mountains and a ridgeline between them, and a mountain peak in the background.

The ridgeline on the map is this, and the mountain peak in the background is this.

so, when you draw the line that starts from the mountain peak and goes on the lowest point on the ridgeline … this intersection with the trail, is your location.

Now I think you’ve started seeing how can you benefit from just an imaginary line of two points landmarks.

Orient your map

Now, after you locate yourself on your map, the only thing you have to do to start to navigate is to orient your map to the landscape.

This means if you take your map between your hands in front of you, what you see in the front of you in the real world match what is in the front of you at your position on your map.

Yes, sometimes that forces you to read the toponymy on your map upside down, but it’s easier to have the toponymy only upside down than to have it right, but all the map is upside down.

This is an example of an oriented map versus a non-oriented map.

Navigate using your map

Now to navigate using only your map, all you have to do is to move in the direction of a point landmark like a summit or to follow a linear landmark like a river.

But do not forget that you should orient your map when you are moving. Not always, like a GPS, but at the same time not after an hour.

I can’t give you an exact time duration between each time you have to orient your map, because it depends on multiple things like your capacity of remembering your trail, and the topography of your area, etc. But as long as you are attentive when you are outdoor when it’s time to orient your map, you will have a feeling to do it.

All that just to keep knowing where you are on your map because this is your way to keep yourself un-lost in the wilderness.

Now let’s go to the exercises.

Exercise #1

This is a photo of Hidden Lake, and there is three topographic map excerpts, only one of them that are oriented to the photo. Which one?


The correct answer is the first one “A” because this peak is this,  this one is this and this cliff right here it’s what is represented here by these contour lines that are close to each other.

Exercise #2

In the second exercise, I want you to search for a digital or physical topographic map and start looking for imaginary and real linear landmarks intersections, that you can use to locate yourself in this area.

That’s all for this lesson, I hope that you learned something out of it.

Did you start imagining yourself outdoor having your map between your hands and looking for what around you, and trying to locate that during your activity?

If yes, let me know in the comments section below.

Thank you and see you in the next lesson.

Updated on December 6, 2021 by Ben

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