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If map use is going to be part of your vacation, you might want to review the attached article, which describes "finding north" and why you might want to be able to  do so.  The article contains some simplifications, so do not use it for targeting missiles.


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Travel Advice - Map use - finding north

Most travelers do not need to express their directions in a precise manner.   If you just want to know how to locate your position on a map and how to orient the map for use, read our articles “How to search a map to determine where you are” and “Orienting maps for use.”  If you want to express your location or navigation maneuvers in terms of cardinal directions, the following article might be of some assistance.

In order to use a map to precisely describe your location  or for precise navigation, you need to align the map with  a geographical reference.   In essence, you need to turn the map so that the visible features on the map are aligned with symbols identifying the same features on the ground. An aligned map allows you to determine and describe paths on the map that will take you to your chosen destination.


Once you have found your position on a map and oriented the map to the real world, you still may not know the actual direction that you are facing. When you orient a map so that the road you are traveling on is pointing towards the top of the page (and out the front window of the car – aligned with  the highway you are on) all directions seem the same. You could be traveling north, east south or west. Many people prefer to know more specific directional references than can be gained from simple map orientation. In order to understand and use the cardinal directions for describing locations on the map relative to each other, you need to know the directional bias of the map.

The easiest way to determine the approximation of north shown on maps is to see if a north arrow was included on the map. The north arrow symbol on maps is usually a simple line drawing labeled with the word "north", the letter "N", or a star pointing in the direction of north relative to the features shown on the map. If the north arrow is missing, look at the map closely and try to find either a map grid or lines of longitude and latitude.

The map grid is identifiable as a series of relatively evenly spaced squares or rectangles drawn on the map and referenced in an orderly progression of letters, numbers, or some combination of both. Good quality highway or street maps contain these grids as a method of finding places referenced in the map index. The map grids are not always precisely aligned with longitude and latitude but, more often than not, the lines running from the bottom to the top of the map sheet point in a northerly direction.

If the map grid is absent, you may still be able to find some indication of longitude and latitude. Lines of longitude are imaginary lines that run between the North and South Poles and, if symbolized on maps, can be used to determine the direction in which north lies. In some cases, the lines longitude may only be ticked with a small mark on the margins of the map.


Finding an indication of north on the map is the first step. Next, you need to determine the direction pointing to north in the real world.   If you have a compass this is an easy task.  Otherwise, doing so  is easy on sunny days, since the apparent motion of the sun in the sky is from east to west. If your right hand is pointing towards the position of sunrise and your left hand is pointing towards the position of sunset, you are facing north or close enough to north for purposes of map use. Simply align the “north” shown on the map with the north that you are facing and you will be ready to go.  At night, if you can find the North Star, you can then establish the directional orientation of  the map (but darkness might prevent you from being able to align the map features with reality).

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