Navigation with map and compass is one of the many skills required to become a registered Maine guide. Credit: Courtesy of Aislinn Sarnacki

You can read maps for years and not see all the information they have to offer. I should know.

As a hiker, I rely on maps to help me confidently explore trails. As I’ve huffed and puffed uphill, I’ve learned firsthand that when contour lines on a map are closer together, the land’s slope is steeper. And when they’re farther apart, the slope is more gradual. Using common sense, I’ve figured out which symbols mark wetlands, parking lots and mountain peaks. But I’ve also missed a lot of information that I could have read from the maps I was using, if only I’d known how.

To improve my navigation skills, I recently took an online lesson from the Maine Outdoor Learning Center. The instructor’s name was Greg Sarnacki — and while we have the same Polish last name, which is uncommon in Maine, we don’t know if we’re actually related.

A registered Maine guide, Greg is passionate about teaching people about navigation, whether it’s by map and compass, GPS device, or celestial bodies. During the Zoom lesson, we touched on all three methods.

In just a few hours, I learned all sorts of tips and tricks. For example, did you know that contour lines — the lines on a topographical map that signify changes in elevation — point upstream, in the direction water is flowing from? I didn’t. That’s extremely useful when planning a paddling trip. It would also be helpful to know if I became lost in the woods and managed to find a flowing body of water to follow.

I also learned that green areas on a U.S. Geological Survey topographical map feature vegetation that’s more than 6 feet tall, while white represents areas with vegetation that’s shorter — such as fields or exposed bedrock on mountains. That can be helpful when planning a hike, because it can give you an idea if there might be open views or sunny stretches of trail. And, again, this information could help you pinpoint your location if you become lost — though it’s important to consider the date on your map, because vegetation can easily change over time.

Then there was the math aspect of the lesson — not my favorite, I’ll admit. I felt like I was back in grade school as Greg drew longitude and latitude lines on a circle representing Earth. We used degrees, minutes and seconds to describe direction and locations.

It was a little intimidating to learn that there’s a true north, a magnetic north and a grid north, and you have to do a little math to move between them while using a map and compass. But once I understood why multiple norths existed, it didn’t seem so challenging. It was just simple addition and subtraction.

For me, who has always preferred geometry over algebra, the diagrams helped it all make sense. I find it’s easier to learn something if I can truly visualize it. Lucky for me, that’s what maps are all about.

But what if, in an unfortunate series of events, you lost your map and broke your compass? Or, heaven forbid, wandered out into the woods without them in the first place? Well, then you’d need to use the same navigational tools that people have used for thousands of years: the sun, stars and moon.

I knew about the North Star, which can always direct you north. But I didn’t actually know how to find it. After all, it’s not the brightest star in the sky. So Greg showed me a few ways to find this celestial beacon using easily recognizable constellations such as the Big Dipper, Little Dipper and Cassiopeia. And also he taught me that if you draw a line between the horns of a crescent moon, then extend that line down to the horizon, you’ll find south. It’s not exact, but it gives you a general sense of direction.

During the day, you can use the sun to guide you. Of course I knew that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. But I never realized that at midday, when the sun is at its highest point in the sky, it’s not actually directly overhead. At midday in the Northern Hemisphere, the sun is actually a bit to the south, which means shadows point north. Pretty neat.

A detailed trail map is an important resource to carry with you when hiking. Credit: Courtesy of Aislinn Sarnacki

While I endeavor to be a lifelong student, I didn’t book a navigation lesson out of a simple thirst for learning. I’ve got a goal in mind: to become a registered Maine guide for recreation, which includes camping, canoeing inland waters and, of course, hiking. I’ve thought about it for years, but it wasn’t until a few months ago that I really started to pursue this goal.

My plan is to prepare for the Maine guide test with a combination of independent study and courses. I purchased a bunch of books recommended by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife for future guides, including “Be Expert at Map and Compass” by Bjorn Kjellstrom, updated by Carina Kjellstrom Elgin. (I think I need another bookshelf.) But since I sometimes mix up left and right, I figured I should learn about navigation directly from an expert. For me, it’s one of those topics that’s challenging to learn about from written words alone.

Many people in my life might have assumed that I already knew plenty about navigation. After all, I hike and use trail maps all the time. I own a GPS device and use it to find geocaches. And I’d actually taken a short map and compass course at a past Becoming a Maine Outdoors Woman event. But I still had — and have — a lot to learn.

Now I know a little bit more. I’m becoming more comfortable with my compass. I’ve been looking up at the stars and moon and drawing lines in my head. I’ve been thinking about how satellites orbiting Earth send information to GPS devices, and how contour lines can help us visualize a landscape, with all its hills and ravines.

I can see why people like Greg are enthusiastic about navigation in its many forms. It’s empowering to know how to glean all sorts of information from a map, and how to use a compass to travel from point A to point B. It’s reassuring to know that the stars really can guide you. It just takes a little knowledge and practice.

So if you see me wandering around in the woods with a compass in hand, don’t worry. I’m just practicing. I figure it’s best to work on your navigation skills before you’re lost.

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Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn Sarnacki is a Maine outdoors writer and the author of three Maine hiking guidebooks including “Family Friendly Hikes in Maine.” Find her on Twitter and Facebook @1minhikegirl. You can also...