Navigation Skills 8 Orienting, Setting or Thumbing the Map

By Dave Roberts   

on October 15, 2014    5/5 (2)

Navigation Skills 8 Orienting, Setting or Thumbing the Map

So you can now read your map, you’ve got your route all planned out and you can identify a compass from 50 metres. You’ll be glad to know, you’re ready to try some skills out in the field.

How to handle and hold the map

Is it in a case? Don’t go with it hanging around your neck – you can’t easily navigate like that and are more likely to garotte yourself. It’s a bit like walking through Betws-y-Coed with clacking walking poles along the pavement or setting off in full mountain kit from Pen-y-Pass in sunny weather in August.



Setting the map, also called Orienting or Thumbing the map.

In order to do this, you must be able to identify the features that are in front of you! You then, basically, have the map spread out in front of you in the same direction as the features with the top of the map pointing north. This is fundamental to most of the skills of navigation, so it’s certainly one to practice! Once you can do this, the landscape unfolds in front of you and navigation becomes much easier.

You may need a compass (in order to point the map north) although you may well be able to point the map in the right direction by sight in most conditions by identifying the features in front of you.

Orienting the Map Alone

You can do this by sight. Put your thumb at your location (hence thumbing the map), and rotate until the map shows what’s in front of you. It sounds easy, and once you can read a map and the landscape then it is reasonably straightforward. Thankfully, you can also cheat or check how accurate you are by using your compass (FINALLY!). Try to do so by eye at first, and use the compass to check if you’re correct.

Using a Compass to Orient Your Map 1

1 Place the compass on the map, with the index lines lined up with the map’s grid lines


2 Rotate your map / self as needed in order for the compass needle to settle within the Orienting Arrow.


Using a Compass to Orient Your Map 2

You can also do it like this – but I find it adds another step compared to the above version.

1 Set the compass itself so that the orienting arrow is pointing north. Magnetic north is good enough for this.

2 Place the compass on the map, with the edge of the baseplate lined up with the map’s grid lines

3 Rotate your map / self as needed in order for the compass needle to settle within the Orienting Arrow.

What you see in front of you should mirror the features on the map. Just get used to reading stuff upside down!

In a bit of a chicken and egg situation, if you’re good at relating featured in front of you to the map then orienting the map in the first place should be easy. Once you’ve got the map oriented properly in front of you, it makes it much easier to then begin to understand how the features on the map and the landscape relate to one another. If you’re finding it difficult, then try orienting with the compass in order to help you compare what the landscape and map are showing us.

This is a skill that’s easily practised – so get out locally and practice the skill over the coming weeek


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Dave Roberts

Dave Roberts founded Walk Eryri in 2004, with the aim of providing routes that are off the beaten track. Walk Eryri is now part of Mud and Routes which continues to provide more off beat routes and walks in Snowdonia and beyond. Dave has been exploring the hills of Eryri for over thirty years, and is a qualified Mountain Leader. Dave also established Walk up Snowdon, Walk up Scafell Pike and Walk up Ben Nevis just to mention a few.

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