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Navigation on Your Own

Learn a few basic navigation skills that could really help.

Basic navigation skills can be a lifesaver—in the very literal sense. They can also be extremely useful in your day-to-day life. But it isn’t all about knowing how to read a compass. In a city, knowing how to read bus or train schedules is just as important. And knowing where you are and where you’re going is just as important as explaining to someone else how to get someplace.

The basics of a mapkids on phone

Every map has a key. No, not a key to open it, a key to understand its symbols and squiggly lines. It’s usually located one of in the map’s corners. Sometimes it can be as simple as saying which way is North. Usually, there is more information, like what color roads or rivers are drawn in, or symbols that tell you if a subway station is a local or express station. Anytime you are learning an area, look at the map key first.

How to read a compass

A few basic things everyone should know about a compass:

  1. The fixed arrow is your direction of travel. Point that where you want to go.
  2. Hold the compass flat in your hand and away from metal. Compasses work by following Earth’s magnetic fields, and a metal bottle or buckle will throw them off.
  3. True North (the actual North Pole) and magnetic north are different. This is called declination. You may need to add or subtract a few degrees depending on where you are. The U.S. government has a website with declination maps and a tool to find the exact declination for where you are.

In the city

Bus and train schedules often have color, number, or letter designations. Different cities will usually refer to routes by just one, even if the map has more than one. Make sure you know how your city refers to them.

If you’re traveling to a new place, do some research ahead of time. A lot of places have apps for public transportation. Those apps can take a lot of guesswork out of it, but it’s still good to know how to read the maps or ask questions. Not to mention, phones have a bad habit of running out of battery when you need them most.

Sometimes in a city, even a compass can get confused. So learning a few landmarks that are easy to spot can help you get your bearings.

Road trip

Spending eight hours in the back seat of the family SUV can get really boring. There is no WiFi, you forgot your charger, and your dad has terrible taste in music. Reading the map and knowing where you are could be helpful or just something to do to pass the time.

Sure, most cars have GPS these days, but it can be wrong and it doesn’t work if the car dies. Being able to read mile markers on the freeway and find your location on a map are great skills to have.

Into the woods

Spending time out in nature is a lot of fun. There are even fun games like geocaching that take advantage of knowing how to navigate in nature. Geocaching relies a lot on GPS and there’s a phone app to help, but even those require a basic understanding of direction. And what happens if your GPS stops working? Knowing how to read a map and compass can help.

Learn more

If you want to learn more about navigating without technology, your local parks and rec department or outdoor retailer probably has classes you could have your parents sign you up for. Compasses and maps have been around for a long time, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t still useful.


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