How to Use a Compass

In the age of modern technology, many hikers and campers who rely on GPS systems. Smartphones even come with these built in, so they are accessible to everyone.

The issue is, if your phone battery dies, or you lose signal, the GPS function is useless. You can be hitting the trails; you need to head back to your vehicle or your campsite, and everywhere looks the same.

One of the best ways to be sure you get back safe is to understand how to use a compass and a map. For centuries, these have been in use, and never let anyone down.

Learn How to Use a Compass

Read on, and you will learn how to use a compass, so you are never lost again while in the great outdoors.

Understanding Compass Parts

Before you learn how to use your compass, you do need to learn a little about some of the various parts it has. While they are simple, there are several parts, which have specific functions.

  • Baseplates: These are mostly made of a transparent material. The reason for this is so you can lay them flat and still see your map underneath.
  • Ruler Guides: These are straight edges where you can measure distance on the map, calculate triangulation and calculate your position.
  • The direction of Travel Arrow: This is there to show you where you should point your compass as you take a reading.
  • Index Line: You find this right above the outer bezel and a continuation of the direction of travel arrow. This Index line is your ‘read bearing here’ reference mark.
  • Rotating Bezel: Like a watch, these have outer markings of the degrees, and cover 0 to 360 degrees (also known as the azimuth ring).
  • Orienting Arrow: You use these to orient the bezel with the directions on your map. The outer shape of the orienting arrow matches the outer edges of the magnetized needle.
  • Magnetized Needle: This red and white compass needle, will always point in the direction of Magnetic north rather than True-North.
  • Orienting Lines: You find these parallel orienting lines on either side of the swivel point of the needle. These rotate as you turn the bezel, and when you align them with North and South lines on a map, you will align your orienting arrow to north.
  • Declination Scale: You see this in the form of hash marks on the inside of your compass housing bezel.

Adjusting Your Declination

Between True North and Magnetic-North, there is a big difference. You do need to change for this on your compass, or you can find yourself way out of your way.

When you adjust for declination, it can be one of the hardest parts of learning how to find your way with a compass. One of the reasons being the angle of difference varies concerning your location.

If you have a good map, the amount you need to adjust the declination by, ought to be on the map. However, this changes over time, so using an old map can mislead you. You can also check with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, for the area, you will be heading.

Changing your compass to allow for magnetic declination varies between compass brands. You will need to follow their instructions.

In a basic form, you will need to subtract your compass bearing for the west, and then add this reading to the east.

How to use a compass for beginners

Orienting Your Map to Your Location

These steps will be in all hiking for beginners manuals because it is a skill to convert what you see on paper, to what you can see in front of you.

It is now you learn how to make sure your map is oriented correctly; and the first thing you do after setting your declination.

Here are the steps you can follow to complete your map orientation

  1. Lay the compass on your map, so the direction of travel arrow points toward the top of the map.
  2. Rotate the bezel, so North (N) lines up with the travel direction arrow.
  3. At this point, move your compass baseplate to one side of your map where there is a straight line. The travel direction arrow should still point to the top of your maps page.
  4. Make sure to hold the compass and map steady and gently rotate your body. After a while, the tip of the magnetic needle will fall inside the orienteering compass arrow.
  5. You can see how to orient a map is straightforward, and you can now be on your way to identifying landmarks in your vicinity.
  6. As you begin to move, then you will need to keep checking the map and make sure it doesn’t drift from your initial reading.

Take Your Bearings

When anyone talks of bearings, all they are speaking of is the correct way to say ‘direction.’ As an example, if you were heading back to your campsite, you would say you are heading southwest or southeast. You would say you were following a bearing of a given number of degrees.

When you speak of bearings, they are relative to specific locations, and following a bearing from two alternate locations won’t lead you to the same endpoint or destination.

Once you know your position on your map, you can use a bearing to reach any location or destination you want.

Here are the instructions for plotting your way to a location on your map with your compass.

  1. Place your compass flat on your map, so the edge of your compass lines up with your current location, and the site you wish to reach. This can be where you are on the hike and your campsite.
  2. Be sure your direction of travel arrow is pointing in the rough direction of your campsite, or the location you wish to reach.
  3. Turn your bezel until the orienting lines align with north-south grid lines, or the right or left edges of the map. Make sure your North marker points north on the bezel and north on the map.
  4. Check the index line to read the bearing you have taken.
  5. Hold your compass and make sure the direction arrow points away from you.
  6. Spin your body until the magnetic needle sits inside the orienting direction arrow. The arrow will now be facing the bearing you took, and it will lead you to your destination.

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How to Take Bearings in the Field

Rather than take a reading on a map to see your location. You can take readings in the field and find out where you are on the map. This comes in handy if you are on a trail, and you need to see how far until the end.

Here are the instructions for compass navigation using your surroundings.

  1. Search for a landmark in your area you can recognize on the map.
  2. Holding the compass flat, make sure the direction arrow points away from you, and in the direction of the landmark.
  3. Spin the bezel until the magnetized needle is inside the orienting direction arrow
  4. Check the index line to take your reading
  5. Put your compass on your map and put one corner on the landmark
  6. With the direction arrow still pointing in the direction of the landmark, turn your baseplate until the orienting lines run north to south, and your N (North) marker on the bezel points northward on the map.
  7. You can use a pencil and draw a line on your map using the straight edge.
  8. Where the line passes across your trail from the landmark, which will be your location.

Using Triangulation to Find Your Location

If there are no standout landmarks in your area that relate to something on your map or you are not
on a specific trail. You don’t want to go searching for somewhere you can use.

You can use triangulation to pinpoint where you are. To do this, you do the same steps above, albeit using a different landmark. You can even do it a third time to give a more accurate reading.

The second and third readings need to be a minimum of sixty degrees away from your first landmark reading.

Once you finish, you should end up with a small triangle on your map. If it is large, then something has gone wrong, it is a matter of checking your readings.


When you are looking for the best compass for hiking, you do need to be sure it has all the features mentioned earlier. These are basic things, compasses require so that you can read them, and find your location.

You also need a detailed map with compass rose, which is up to date for the area you are going hiking.

Once you learn to read a compass and use a map, you can wave goodbye to a GPS. Your map and compass will be far more reliable, and it will be more fun knowing you plotted your way home from the great outdoors.

How to Use a Compass

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