First, there’s orienting the map. That means placing it before you so the leading edge is the same direction as the horizon. That way, what you see on the map and what you see on the landscape correspond to each other. If you don’t do that, you have to turn things around in your head, and that’s a sure recipe for getting lost. Most maps are printed with north at the top these days, but however they are printed on the page, that is often how they are mounted for public use – regardless of which direction one is facing. Tecumseh Jr/Sr High School has a giant map of its building on the wall in the atrium – the wrong wall. You can’t find anything using it. Malls are bad about this, too.
Then there’s following the map. Some people can make all the lines and colors make sense so that they can “read” the landscape. Others can’t. If you can follow a map, however, you usually don’t need much in the way of compass skills or fancy GPS technology. Faced with an obstacle, you can get yourself around it and still know where you are. We were barreling across Kansas on our first trek at Philmont, when the highway got infested with roadwork. Knowing where we were trying to get to, and knowing that Kansas is flat and laid out checkerboard-fashion, I dodged north about a mile above the roadwork and turned on a gravel road heading the direction I wanted. It was a wild ride, but only a few miles later, I could work my way south to the main road again, with no time lost.
Using a compass with a map is another level of skill. Seeing how good map-reading skills make this mostly redundant, orienteering courses are about the only venue we have for this. But then, there’s that one time. I was hiking up Ben Nevis in Scotland by myself. There were other people on the trail, but no one else in my party. It was a lovely day. I had a map and figured that was all I’d need, but the trailhead shop said it was really, really important that I have a compass and know how to use it, in case I couldn’t see to walk down off the peak safely. I grumbled and bought the cheapest compass they had, one obviously not made for orienteering. Well, I got up on the shoulder of the mountain where the path slowly zig-zagged up a slope of featureless scree, when the fog socked me in. I couldn’t see more than ten yards in any direction. And then I realized that I had lost the path. I stepped down a few steps. No path. I worked my way up a bit, thinking the path might be just above me, when I saw something looming up out of the fog to the right. I knew I was close to Five Finger Gully, a gigantic gash running down the side of the mountain; if I slipped over the side there, I’d have time to think about it before I hit. I was all alone, lost in the fog, on a dangerous mountain slope. So I sat down and took out my cheapo compass and laid it on the map. If I walked true north across the face of the slope, I should meet a switchback in – at an educated guess – 160-some paces (a pace = two steps). So, using my compass, I began marching north across the scree. At about 153 paces, I put my foot down on the path and did a right face and began walking easily up the mountain again. That was the only time it ever truly mattered that I knew how to do that, but we say “Be Prepared” for a reason.
Map-making is another level of this skill, and still useful in our world today. When I was a boy, it was a requirement for advancement to make a map of your campsite. We were taught how to measure our pace, and we would pace off the distance between each feature – tent, fire, tree, privy, etc. – in the campsite, noting the bearing as we did so. Then we would use our drafting skills to make a map, showing the error of closure and direction of north. Well, I hadn’t used that skill for many, many years when I had to file a site plan to get my septic permit for the house I’m building. I got out my compass and a notebook, and I began pacing off all the features of my building site and noting the bearings between them. Then I made my map, and the County Health Inspector approved it.
There are no skills so arcane that you can’t find an ordinary use for them.