Navigation- Map Reading Basics

Navigation is where you find your way using tools such as a map, compass, GPS and even the stars or the sun! However as you’re not allowed to use a GPS in adventure racing and many won’t get to see the stars and who knows about the sun, for reliability reasons we will focus on maps and the compass.

Navigation skills are essential in adventure racing and is often what makes or breaks your race.

In this article I will cover some basics to help you get started with map reading.


For orienteering, adventure races and other navigation in the wilderness, the most useful type of map is a topographical (or topo) map. Topo maps are loaded with information and detail about your surroundings, but most importantly topo maps show the landscape in 3-D on a 2-D piece of paper, so we can work out how high the hills are or how steep a slope is. Adventure races supply maps specially produced for the event and often have more detail than commercial topo maps.

To read a topo map you need to understand what the various features mean. These features include contour lines, elevation, scale, the grid and the key/legend. You’ll be able to use all of this information to plan a route and navigate throughout the race.

Contour lines

These are usually brown lines drawn on the map and connect points that are the same height. From contour lines you can determine the shape of the land. If you followed a contour line you’d walk around the side of a hill, not going up or down. On NZ topo maps the contour lines are usually at 20m height intervals. If the contour lines are spaced wide apart then the terrain is relatively flat. If they are close together, the terrain will be steeper. If they are very close together you’re likely to find a cliff.


When you look closely at a topo map, you will see a number aligned with a darker contour line. This tells you the elevation (height) of that line. Important points such as large hills and peaks will have their elevation printed next to them.


The scale is usually located on the side of the map or in the legend/key. It looks like a mini ruler and shows how much the terrain has been scaled down to fit on the map. With topo maps you can use the scale to work out the distance between two points on the map, how long it will take you to travel, when to expect a track junction or other feature and to check on your progress. It’s helpful to work out the distances between points before the race starts to save on time during the race.

Magnetic declination

Near the scale will be a diagram showing the magnetic declination for that area. It is usually around 23 degrees to the east (right) of grid north. This means you need to adjust your compass bearing according to the map declination to get an accurate reading. This can take some time to get your head around and often trips teams up with their navigation. I highly recommend drawing the magnetic declination lines on your map pre-race and using those as your new grid lines as it can be easy to forget mid-race.

The grid

The grid of light blue squares on your topo map can be very useful in helping you determine the distance between points. The width of each grid is usually 1km. You can check to be sure using the scale.

The legend or key

The features on a map are usually simplified using tiny symbols. The legend or key is a list of these features alongside their definitions. It is usually printed in a table at the side of the map. Get hold of several maps and become familiar with these features and their definitions.

How To Read Your Map

A great idea for practising your map reading skills is to get hold of a map of your local area and go exploring. The first thing you need to do is to orientate your map to your surroundings (turn it to match the terrain). Look for natural features around you that you can spot on the map, like hills, valleys, rivers, lakes etc and turn your map until it lines up with those. You can also use your compass to orientate your map quickly. Once your map is facing in the right direction choose a point you want to head towards. Choose something like a track bend, creek or cliff that is nearby to start with so you know you are heading in the right direction. Use the scale on your map to estimate how long you think it will take you to get there. Take note of features on your map as you pass them. Repeat this exercise as many times as you can to improve your map reading skills.

This simple exercise will help get you familiar with map detail and features.

I highly recommend looking up some local orienteering events and getting along to them. There are always people there that are willing to help you get started.

If this all sounds very foreign to you, then maybe look into up-skilling through a course in navigation basics.

To find out more on the upcoming courses go to:

Kym is a mum of 3 energetic boys, trains and races in multisport and adventure racing (currently as part of Tiger Adventure NZ). She is the co-creator and retreat leader at NZ Adventure Retreats and is part of the team that has won the Spirited Women Adventure Race long course for the past 4 years.

Kym along with Rach Smith (NZ elite orienteer) from Navigation North and Nic Leary (NZ elite mountain biker and physio) will be running a specific Women’s Adventure Race Skills weekend in Kapiti November 28th/29th and Auckland Feb 12th/13th to help with up-skilling in different aspects of the race and helping you become a more confident and competent adventure racer.

Contact: or 0272500435 for more information.