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Finding Your Way With Map and Compass

Topics: Topographic maps, contours, elevation, navigation, compass use, compass reading, distance, map scale

Length: One class period

Type of Resource Being Described: Fact Sheet


A topographic map tells you where things are and how to get to them, whether you're hiking, biking, hunting, fishing, or just interested in the world around you. These maps describe the shape of the land. They define and locate natural and manmade features like woodlands, waterways, important buildings, and bridges. They show the distance between any two places, and they also show the direction from one point to another.

Maps are made to scale; that is, there is a direct relationship, a ratio, between a unit of measurement on the map and the actual distance that same unit of measurement represents on the ground. If, for instance, 1 inch on the map represents 1 mile (which converts to 63,360 inches) on the ground, the map's scale is 1:63,360. Below is a listing of the scales at which some of the more popular USGS maps are compiled.

To determine the direction, or bearing, from one point to another, you need a
compass as well as a map. Most compasses are marked with the four cardinal
points—north, east, south, and west—but some are marked additionally with the
number of degrees in a circle (360: north is 0 or 360, east is 90, south is 180, and
west is 270). Both kinds are easy to use with a little practice.

This fact sheet explains the basics of topographic map concepts, map reading, and the basic concepts on how to find your way with a compass.


  1. Learn to measure distance on a map
  2. Learn map scales
  3. Learn navigation with a topographic map


Use this Fact Sheet to teach students about distances, scales, and navigation with topographic maps.