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Map and Compass Skills

This program may be scheduled for groups whose members are 12 years of age and older and requires at least two weeks of advance notification due to limited center staff and volunteer availability. Participants in this program must be able to tolerate short walking distances on sandy substrate in the climate typically represented in the time of year you book your program. The length of this program is two hours.


Historically, being able to navigate using a compass was an essential skill for explorers. Today, modern GPS devices tend to take the place of traditional map and compass reading. Participants in this program will learn to read the topographical and physical features of a map, set a compass heading and pace out a distance. Once everyone is familiar with the compasses they will have an opportunity to test their skill on a navigation course.

Pre-visit recommendations:

  1. Review terms:
    • Magnetic north: the variable location towards which a compass needle points in response to Earth’s magnetic field
    • True north: the northern most tip of the Earth (North Pole)
    • Declination: the adjustment angle between true and magnetic north
    • Orienting arrow: the arrow inside a compass that points north -> south
    • Bearing: measurement of direction between points (angle or degree of adjustment)
    • Scale: the ratio of map distance to actual land distance
    • Contour lines: lines on a map that connect points of similar elevation     
  2. Review the degrees in a circle
  3. Discuss topographical map features


  • Indoor PowerPoint presentation on navigation history, vocabulary and compass use
  • Practice setting a heading
  • Outdoor practical; walk a square
  • Outdoor skills test, navigational circle
  • Review and evaluation

Post Visit:

  1. Make a compass course around your school
  2. Create working compasses with cork, paper clips and cups of water
  3. Study star charts or other historic navigation tools