How to use a compass

How to use a compass

We are great at telling people to not go into the wilderness without a map and compass, but if you don’t know how to use them it’s pointless. With the knowledge of how to read a map and how to use a compass, you can locate yourself in case you get lost. Then you can find your way either back to the trail or a place to seek help.

Also, not knowing how to use a compass properly can get you lost. For example not knowing the difference between true north and magnetic north can put you miles away from your destination.

How to use a compass properly

Don’t worry, we’ll talk about the difference between true north and magnetic north in this article so you won’t make that mistake. I will also explain what all the numbers and lines mean on the compass, as well as how to use them with your map to reach the desired destination.

Move away from any metal

A compass uses a magnet and the earth’s magnetic pull. If you are trying to orient yourself near a vehicle, camera, or other objects that can interfere with the earth’s magnetic pull, you want to be sure to move away from that object. If you don’t it could have you traveling south when you think you are going north.

Search REI for compasses

The design of a compass

Although a compass is quite small and can fit into your pocket, it is packed full of things that give you a lot of information. A basic compass comes with the following things:

  • Baseplate – what the needle housing is fixed to, has rulers to help measure distance on your map
  • Direction of travel arrow – which way to point your compass to follow it
  • Needle housing – encompasses the magnetic needle in order for it to pivot to the earth’s magnetic field
  • Degree dial/rotating bezel – how to determine what degree your direction of travel should be
  • Magnetic needle – points to magnetic north always (unless there is metal nearby)
  • Orienting arrow – how to line the degree dial with magnetic north
  • Orienting lines – how to line your compass up with the index lines on your map
How to use a compass , and in depth lesson on orienting yourself.

True north versus magnetic north

The needle inside your compass will point to the magnetic north, not the north pole, or true north. However, the magnetic field inside the earth changes over time because of the earth’s liquid center. So it’s always important to make sure you have an up-to-date map.

A map is shown as a sample of declination

The difference in degrees between true north and magnetic north is call declination. And the declination is listed on the map. In Arkansas the declination isn’t that large, however, if you are in, say Olympic National Park in Washington State (map pictured above), magnetic north about 15.8 is degrees to the east of true. But in the White Mountains in New Hampshire (map pictured below), magnetic north is about 14.9 degrees to the west of true north.

A map is shown as a sample of declination

This is why it is so important to adjust for declination when gathering a bearing. If you don’t, it could potentially lead you way off course.

How to find a bearing

So if you are wandering around the wilderness without a trail to show you where to go, how do you find your way? The first step in doing this is to find a bearing.

Say, you are standing at a creek, and you want to hike to a summit. The first thing you are going to want to do is to locate yourself on the map.

Place the compass on the map. Line up the straight edge of your compass’ baseplate with where you are on the map and so the direction of travel arrow points to where you want to go.

When using the edge of the compass, the direction of travel arrow won’t exactly point to the location, but it will point the way you want to go. If you want it to point exactly to the location, then you will need to mark your location on the map in the middle of the compass, not on the edge.

You then want to turn the degree dial so that the index lines on the map are in alignment with the orienting lines on your compass. Or the orienting lines line up with your map’s north and south. You also want to make sure that the north side of the degree dial points to the north side of the map, not south.

Make note of what degree is marked at the index line on your compass or the line that is aligned with your direction of travel arrow. You then will want to adjust the number of degrees to the east or to the west to compensate for the declination. Turn your degree dial in order to find the correct degrees.

This is your bearing.

Now hold the compass level with the ground. Turn your entire body until the orienting arrow and magnetic needle line up. Some people call this “red in the shed” and some call it “putting the dog in the dog house.” Once they are lined up, you are facing the bearing and the way you want to travel.

Clear as mud? Here’s a breakdown:

  1. Place the compass at your location on the map
  2. Pivot the compass so the direction of travel arrow points to where you want to go, with the straight edge of the baseplate in between the two points
  3. Rotate the degree dial so that the orienting lines are aligned with north and south on the map.
  4. Adjust for the degree of declination
  5. The degree read in alignment with the direction of travel arrow is the degrees in which you need to travel
  6. Hold the compass level and rotate your body until the orienting arrow lines up with the magnetic arrow.
  7. Walk toward your bearing.

But what if there are objects in the way?

Sometimes you can’t get a clear view of that summit, or you might have a large obstacle in your way that you have to hike around like a lake or cliff.

In this case, you will want to take a bearing to the obstacle. When you reach the obstacle, you will need to take another bearing. Sometimes, you have to do this several times, especially in Arkansas, where the forests can be thick.

How to find yourself on a map

By using a compass and map, you can get a general idea of where you are.

To start, you want to find a distinct landmark that you can see and identify on the map, like a peak. Point your compass’ direction of travel arrow toward the peak and rotate the degree dial until the magnetic arrow lines up with the orienting arrow.

A campass rests on a map

Next place the compass on the map with the direction of travel arrow pointing toward the peak, then draw a line along the straight edge of the compass. You want to be sure the to line up the map’s north and the magnetic north and with the proper declination.

Find another distinct landmark at least 60 degrees different and repeat the process. When you draw the second line, you will be in the general vicinity of where the two lines intersect.

Here’s the breakdown:

  1. Find a distinct landmark
  2. Gather a bearing on that landmark
  3. Transfer that degree difference from north to your map (don’t forget to compensate for declination!)
  4. Using the straight edge of your compass draw a line from the landmark.
  5. Repeat steps 1-4 on another landmark at least 60 degrees different.
  6. Use a third landmark for a more accurate reading.

Practice makes perfect when learning how to use a compass

Like learning phone numbers – which we have all forgotten since the invention of smartphones. The more you practice the better you will be. Carry a compass with you and practice these skills every now and again. Or go on a hike and even though you may not need a map and compass, practice finding a landmark or finding yourself on the map. The more we rely on GPS, the more out of touch with orienting we become.

A map and compass are great tools to have, but you also have to know how to use a compass and map properly.

For a good video, check out this one by REI.

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How to use a compass – we are great about telling people to not go into the wilderness without a compass, but you also need to know how to use one.

One comment

  1. I do it differently. First I turn the compass bezel by the declination. Then I put the edge of the compass aligned to a north-south line on the map and rotate the compass/map until the magnet is in the orienting arrow. At this point north on the map is north in reality. Then, keeping the map in place, I put the edge of the compass so that it’s on both the starting point and the destination. Then I rotate the bezel again until the magnet is again in the orienting arrow. Now I have the correct bearing.

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