Thumbing The Map: How To Keep Track Of Where You Are

Thumbing The Map: How To Keep Track Of Where You Are

Man looking at a amp
Where was I again? Photo: Paul Kirtley

We’ve all had the situation where we know where we are on the ground but keep losing track of where this is on the map.

It’s different to being lost – where you have no idea where you are and any thread back to a place where you did know where you were has been severed.

So, I’m not talking about being lost.

Neither is the situation I’m talking about the same as not being able to work out where you are on the map.

It’s just that annoying situation where you look away from the map for a while, come back to it a while later and have to go through the rigmarole of relating what you can see on the ground to what you can see on the map. Again.

Where was it on the map again?

Going out for a hike isn’t much fun if you just have your head stuck in a map the whole time.

You want to be able to look around, whether it is to take in the scene, the view, the landscape, spot birds, check out animal tracks or sign or whatever interests you on a given day.

You also want to be able to look where you are going. Walking along with your nose buried in the map means you are more likely to trip up and fall flat on your face.

You want to be able to cover distance. It’s impossible to stride out into your full walking pace when you are looking down at the map.

Besides, the map won’t tell you where you are. The landscape around you tells you where you are.

The map helps you keep track of where you are and work out where you are going.

So there is an interplay between looking down at the map and looking up at the landscape.

Aerial view of boreal landscape in Canada
It’s the landscape that tells you where you are. Photo: Paul Kirtley

Using A Map Marker

The simple solution is to put a temporary marker on the map where you last were. Then as you move along, move the marker. When you look away from the map then back again, you can immediately locate the last known point on the map without having to zoom in on this spot again. It means you are less likely to make a mistake in doing this too – particularly important when you are in a landscape with repeating features for example.

The temporary marker I like to use is my thumb.

I’m holding the map anyway, so I just hold it in a way where my thumb is over the last place I knew I was.

A hand holding a topographic map
Thumbing the map – that is, using my thumb as a marker of the place I was when I last looked at the map. Photo: Paul Kirtley
Looking at wristwatch while holding map.
Checking my watch for timings but my position is still marked by my thumb on the other side, just by how I’m holding the map. Photo: Paul Kirtley

Combine Thumbing With Tick-Off Features

When I teach navigation, a methodology I share is to look at your proposed route, noting features you will pass on the route – examples might include crossing a fence or other boundary, crossing a stream, reaching a fork in the trail, passing a hut, or something more subtle such as a change in gradient.

On the map you can follow the route with your eye and, as you pass over these features represented on paper, envisage them on the ground. You then have an idea of what to expect on your route. As you walk it in reality, you can mentally tick them off. This has a few advantages, which I won’t go into fully here but among them is confidence.

In addition, you might want to add a back-stop or collecting feature – that is, something which alerts you if you overshoot your intended target on a given navigational leg.

But back to thumbing the map. If you have a series of tick-off features in mind, then as you reach them, just move your thumb forwards and carry on. This way you move down the trail quickly and efficiently, confirming and keeping track of where you are without having to check and re-check on the map all the time.

Thumbing The Map – It’s Not Just My Whacky Idea

Thumbing the map is a technique I use regularly when I am hiking a trail I don’t know. I primarily use it when hiking. I don’t, for example, use it while canoeing (hard to hold a paddle in the water at the same time).

It certainly wasn’t my idea though. It’s widely used, particularly by competitive orienteers.

Thumbing the map, does, however, translate over to other activities, sometimes surprising. One which I noticed while on various trips in Canada was that it works well while flying a float plane.

View from above of a float plane flying over the Canadian wilderness
Float plane flying over Canadian wilderness. Photo: Paul Kirtley

It wasn’t me flying the plane of course.

For those who may not have had the experience, these planes fly relatively low and do not have particularly sophisticated navigational technologies.

View from a bush plane over the Canadian boreal fores, wester Ontario.
Flying low enough to see the major topographical features. Photo: Paul Kirtley

While they do fly with GPS, in my experience, the pilots will fly with a topographic map on their lap and navigate the wilderness by lakes, watercourses and other visible features until they reach their desired landing place.

So, it brings a smile to the face of my inner navigation geek when I see the pilots also thumbing the map as they go.

Internal view of float plane with instruments and yoke and hands holding a map
Float plane pilot using topographical map for navigation. Photo: Paul Kirtley
Float plane pilot thumbing the map
Thumbing the map! Photo: Paul Kirtley

Thumbing The Map: Give It A Go

If it works for a bush plane pilot, then maybe it’ll work for your next trail hike. Give it a go if you don’t use it already.

If you do already use this technique, let me and other readers know in the comments below.

Final Word – Thumbs, Yes. Fat Fingers, No.

While using your thumb is useful to keep track of where you are on the map, using your digits to point features out to others is vague. A pudgy finger covers hundreds of square metres on a 1:50,000 map. Better to use something more precise…

Pointing out map features with a blade of grass
Use something finer and more precise as a pointer when indicating features to companions. Photo: Paul Kirtley

Related Material On Paul Kirtley’s Blog

PK Podcast 004: Tristan Gooley And The Beauty Of Natural Navigation

Six Men, Three Boats and The Bloodvein: Canoeing A Wilderness River

Way Out North: A Boreal Forest Foray

13 thoughts on “Thumbing The Map: How To Keep Track Of Where You Are

  1. This is a technique often used by orienteers, I’ve been known to draw an arrow on my thumbnail as a reminder! I also use a system of symbols to record known or estimated positions whilst travelling. Triangle for known positions and circle for dead reckonned/ estimated positions as I travel. I use other symbols for other information and annotate my maps often. Chinagraph pencils on mapcases or lumograph pens on laminated maps are good for this. They wipe off easily with a day of hand gel.

    Having trained and as a hydrographer and cartographer the benefit of taking note of micro future as you travel can’t be overstated. Differences in height or aspect can be used to verify location whilst on the move. These techniques are just as valuable in urban areas as rural albeit now that gps/ phone technology has mostly replaced paper street maps.

    Good info Paul, great blog.

  2. Hey Paul – Great article – the last picture is almost certainly a GPS (Green pointy stick). You mentioned tick off features, before setting off for a leg I tend to think about an acronym a canoe coach taught me – DDT Kills Flies…

    Distance, Direction, Terrain and Catching Features – combining that with a thumb on the map helps me identify where I am!

    I have also been known to use a chino-graph pencil on a long trip, particularly canoeing, to circle something I have passed – with a time noted – that way if I travel on and have trouble, I can roughly work out an area I am in by the time passed and it’s easy to follow a load of circles on the map to locate whereabouts I am at that moment.

    I love coming to the blog, something interesting every time!

  3. I allways cover my maps with a seethrough selfsticking plasticwrap for protecting bookcovers (non naitive in lack of vocab (= ) and draw on them with a pen. Eraseable with either alcohol or a whiteboardmarker so that I have my hands free. I also allways draw a sketch of the route on a piece of paper with directions, distances and importsnt landmarks. Helps me memorizing the route and is a backup if my map gets damaged or lost. I definitly will test your thumb technique, sounds nice and easy to do if no tools are available. Thx for the tip.

  4. I’m a former public school teacher…laminate everything; you can even use packaging tape for a laminate to save money.
    Now, mark that spot with a sharpie and when finished (at home) erase with goo gone or nail polish remover…the bonus is that map will last forever!!
    You’re welcome.

  5. Wow–seems my technique is quite popular…great.

    Note to self: read comments first next time.

  6. Very useful post at a perfect time for me as i’ve been trying to challenge my navigational skill recently.

    I’ve gone out a few times in the last few weeks with map and compass and although the south of England isn’t a great place to try to challenge myself it’s been a great few outings anyway and i’ve gained some confidence too so thats all good.

    1. Gradually building experience and confidence is always a good approach Liam.

      I hope this technique proves an additional useful tool in your navigational tool kit.

      Warm regards,


  7. For EXTRA precision, or for those with big thumbs, you can also draw an arrow (or line) on the tip of your thumb nail. 🙂

  8. Often when teaching nav for DoE I find that orientation of the map and then thumbing the location is most useful. So holding the map in the direction of travel, whether that is upside down according to the printing or not. My experience is that some folk can do the orientation in their head without thinking, but some don’t get it until the map points in the direction of travel. Thumbing is most useful because it concentrates the mind onto the prominent features. When these are very obvious we often call them handrails. When teaching young folk nav it is the attention to detail and concentration on it that is often missed because of the physical effort they are putting in.

  9. I have used this technique for years without knowing it was a technique LOL.
    I always look at the map and identify key features and once I have reached them I move my marker. With the new age and technology we have access to much more than just the old tropo map, I now print google earth images and blown up maps of where I’m going to back up my topo, I treat these as disposable (I can reprint when back home) so I’m happy to draw all over them this way I can mark where we are and have been, also I can mark interesting features or other info worth noting for the next time I’m in the area.
    I have found map reading and good compass work to be dying art as so many people are turning to GPS, the argument of what if you run out of batteries is even starting to lose traction with small portable solar panels and battery banks you can charge devices from. I personally like to use maps and compass and have the gps as a back up not the other way round.
    Anyway another great article Paul, I love reading you blog’s keep them coming.

  10. Hi Paul,
    Another great article, my tip like many is the sharpie pen on the thumbnail, but another way to improve yourself is to move your thumb as you walk, do this on a simple route you know well, try to judge your pace and move your thumb slightly don’t keep looking at your map every five minutes, after about thirty minutes check the map, how far out are you? practice where you know and you don’t have to think about anything else, the only way you learn these “arts” is to do it even if you get it wrong, books give the guiding principles, but the more you learn the better the outdoors become.
    Once again many thanks Paul,

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