Navigation for kayakers

Navigering för kajakpaddlare

Find your way with map and compass

Navigation means that you find your way on the water in a controlled manner. In general, you must know where you are and where you are going. If you are paddling in known waters, you will probably have no problems with navigation. But as soon as you venture into waters less familiar to you, navigation is an important element. To help you, you must have a map and preferably also a compass. You can also use GPS, but the equipment can be sensitive to water and depends on the battery and, in the opinion of many, should be seen more as a complement to a map and compass. Map and compass always work.

If the weather is favorable and you are traveling in lesser-known waters, it can often be enough to follow along on the map so that you know where you are throughout the trip. When you cross a larger body of water, a fjord for example, or when you approach an archipelago from an open sea, you often see only an outlineless curtain of land in front of you. What may look simple from the map's helicopter perspective becomes significantly more difficult when the view becomes horizontal. It becomes difficult, almost impossible, to distinguish individual islands and narrow straits, bays and bays. With the help of a compass and map, you can then easily keep the right course. Should you end up in fog, which can often occur in the spring and during the fall when the temperature differences between water and air are large, you quickly lose the ability to orient without a compass.


There are basically two types of maps to choose from when traveling along the coast and in our largest lakes: the nautical chart and the topographic map. Charts give very good information about the lake. What the surrounding landscape looks like is not clear at all, with some exceptions. The exceptions may be certain high mountains, tall towers, etc. which are well visible from the lake and constitute good navigation points. However, the charts show very well all sea markings such as dots, hake and lighthouses. The fairways are thus very clearly visible. And as a canoeist, you should avoid them as much as possible during the boating season because of the risk of being hit or exposed to steep surges. At the same time, no map is usually needed there to see where the waterways go. This is usually evident from the often frequent boat traffic.

Topographic map

The topographical map provides information on both the lake and land areas. On the sea section, fairways and some lighthouses are indicated, but less clearly than on charts. In return, the land section is all the more detailed. As the name indicates, the topography is very clear and detailed. The silhouettes of the islands are easy to read because all height differences are shown. Buildings, larger piers, steep beaches, presence of forest etc. appears clearly. Since as a kayaker you almost always have land in sight, the topographical map is in my opinion preferable. But opinions often differ on this. If you are part of a group, you can bring both parts. The topographical map at a scale of 1:50,000, called the Green Map or the Terrain Map, is most suitable as it provides a sufficient level of detail. The blue map, also called the Road Map, at a scale of 1:100,000 can also be useful but shows less detail. Along coasts with no or few islands, it may be sufficient, e.g. along the eastern coast of Skåne and Blekinge, the southern coast of Småland and the coast of Halland. Nautical charts are available in the form of overview charts usually on a scale of 1:50,000, coastal charts on a scale of 1:180,000 – 1:250,000, archipelago charts on a scale of 1:50,000 and special charts of traffic-intensive or difficult-to-navigate areas. There are also so-called boat sports cards with special information for boat sports. However, they are quite unwieldy to handle for kayak use. Regardless of the choice of map, you should have it readily available in front of you either in the cockpit or on the foredeck. Be sure to keep the map in a waterproof map case that is attached to the deck lines. The slightest gust of wind can otherwise cause the map and case to blow away and disappear.


As for the compass, you can make do with a loose one available at the cockpit. Tie it to a deck line so you don't lose it in the water. Many also have a fixed compass mounted on the foredeck. It must then be easily readable from the paddler's position. With the loose compass, you take out the desired course direction on the map, read the degrees and then make sure that the fixed compass keeps the same degrees during the paddling. To avoid fixing your gaze too much on the compass, look for a fixed mark on the land hill in the direction you are going or in its vicinity and then paddle towards this. You also keep your balance more easily if it is windy and paddling becomes more pleasant. So you can usually be content with only having a loose compass. A fixed compass, however, simplifies the procedure, provides greater safety in fog and bad weather, and provides easy information about current capsizing without you having to stop paddling to check against the loose compass.

Take out compass direction

Learn on land how to take a compass direction and practice it so you can quickly take the right course once you are in the kayak and maybe have other things on your mind at the same time. The compass consists of two parts; an often transparent plastic plate with a solid arrow in one direction and some parallel lines; a rotating part, compass housing. Place the compass with its side along the path you are going to follow on the map. The fixed arrow on the compass should be in the direction you want to travel from start to finish. Turn the compass housing so that the north mark on the compass housing points north on the map. This is important. If you place the south marking on the compass housing towards the north, the compass shows an error of 180 degrees, i.e. you are traveling in the exact opposite direction to the intended one if you follow that course. Turn the compass housing so that the lines at the bottom of the compass housing are parallel to some meridian on the map. Meridians are lines that run from south to north and connect the poles to each other. Now put the map aside and turn the entire compass, not touching the compass housing, in your hand so that the movable arrow inside the compass housing points towards the north mark on the edge of the compass housing. When the moving arrow coincides with the north mark on the compass housing, the fixed arrow shows in which direction you should travel.

Have the map case attached to the deck lines within reading and reach on the foredeck. Feel free to bring a simple hand compass with a short rope that you attach in the same way. Optionally complete with a fixed compass on the foredeck.