How To Use A Compass | The Complete Beginners Guide

It’s hard to imagine life without the handiest orientation tool of them all, the humble compass. If you are a true hiker, camper, hunter or even just general outdoors enthusiast then you would definitely have a basic understanding of how to use a compass. You would swear by one of these bad boys as you would never know when you could become lost or stranded for whatever reason.

The humble compass has been used and improved over the years and has surprisingly been around for centuries! In fact, it is well documented that the first compass can be dated back to the ancient Han dynasty of China between 202 BC – 220 AD. They were created from a naturally magnetised ore of iron called ‘Iodstone’. As time progressed and improvements were made, they were then conveniently upgraded using iron needles. These iron needles were magnetised by striking them with a lodestone. That is where they get their form that we know of today. They were more than likely created as navigational backups for when the sun, stars, or other landmarks could not be seen. But enough of the history lesson as this article is designed for you who want to learn how to use a compass. Not only that, we’ll try to make it as simple as possible for you to do so!

Why would you need to learn how to use a compass?

Learning to use a compass is a basic outdoor skill that you should learn and master if you are serious about making sure that you never get yourself lost for whatever reason. The skill itself is pretty much like learning to ride a bike, once you do it a few times and succeed and you gain confidence within it, you’ll find that it’s very hard to forget. Sure, there’s a ton of gizmos and gadgets out there today that can do it all for you but in a way, they kind of dumb you down a bit. Not only that, what happens if you run out of battery or the power grid goes down? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. This rings true with the ancient skill of compass reading. So when all else fails, it’s just a heck of a lot more reassuring to be able to get out the old map and compass and just put your sure fire skills to the test!

Things you should understand before you begin

There are a few things to think about before even attempting to take your chances in the lost art of orienteering. Any expert would tell you that it’s super important to make sure that you get your head round these small issues before you begin. So let’s go through some of the basics first and then with extra confidence, take those skills out onto the field.

Getting to know your compass

If you have never even laid your eyes upon a compass before then you’ve come to the right place. Here we have some of the most common components of a compass, what they look like and their function.

Take note that a lot of compass designs may vary but they all share one common factor. That is that they include some sort of magnetized needle which orients itself to the magnetic fields of the earth. The most simple and common design is the baseplate compass, A.K.A. ‘The field compass’. We have chosen to base our learnings on this design due to it’s common nature. It features the following simple components which you should familiarize yourself with to enable you to continue forward.

Baseplate: The clear plastic, rectangular shaped plate which the compass housing is mounted on. It’s transparent to enable the user to hover it over a map and see the map underneath without any restrictions. It has a ruled edge to help with triangulation and contains directional lines/rulers and scaled numbers to help the user to navigate.

Scales & Rulers: The lines and numbers marked out along the edges of the baseplate. These numbers help the user to convert distances on a map to real life distances on a scaled level (Ratios). Eg: 1cm on the map equals 1km on the ground. Scales will vary from map to map. Depending on the maps scale, you may need to convert your compass scale to match that of your map before you begin. Meaning, if your compass is in inches and your map is in cms, you will have to convert your map to inches to suit your compass. The good thing is that when you do it once, you don’t have to keep doing it for the duration of the map usage.

Compass housing: The clear plastic, liquid filled, raised circular container part which houses the magnetic needle. It’s the main part of the compass in terms of function. The needle spins inside of the container as the user either rotates its body or the dial itself.

Direction of travel arrow: Marked on the baseplate, the arrow that begins at the compass housing and points away from it towards the top/front side of the compass. Shows the user which direction to point the compass to obtain a bearing in the direction that they wish to travel in. The user would hold the compass flat and the direction of travel arrow would face outwards, away from the user.

Magnifier: Small, circular magnifying glass used to help the user see smaller details on the map.

Index Pointer/Index Line: The base end of the direction of travel arrow. Begins at the edge of the dial and is where the user takes degree readings to navigate their path.

Degree dial: Rotating circular dial which surrounds the compass housing and displays all 360 degrees of the circle.

Declination Scale/Marks: This part is used to orient the compass in an area with known declination (When magnetic north and true north don’t align) Declination is a term used to show the difference between the 2 ‘norths’ There are many variables that can occur to change the state of declination. Knowing how to adjust your compass for it is vital.

Orienting Arrow: The non-magnetic arrow marked on the base/floor of the housing. Commonly marked in a colour such as red. It rotates with the housing when the dial is turned. When lined up with the magnetic needle, it ensures its user is properly following its bearing.

Orienting Lines: The lines inside the compass housing that run parallel to the orienting arrow. They rotate with the orienting arrow.

Needle: The needle is a magnetised piece of metal that spins within the compass housing. It’s the key component of a compass. One of the ends of the needle is commonly coloured red and and will always point to magnetic north (Not true north as they can be up to hundreds of miles apart depending on your location).

Understanding the difference between True North/Flat North or Magnetic North

Just because there are 2 Norths to think about, it doesn’t mean that it has to be confusing so let’s look at how to easily distinguish between the 2 to save you from any further headaches!

True North or Flat North: This is a fixed point on our earth realm. The two ends of the earth realms axis are documented as the geographic poles, North and South – known as True North and True South.

Magnetic North: On the other hand, magnetic north isn’t fixed and can vary depending on where you are located at the time. The term Magnetic North refers to the tilt of the magnetic field. Magnetic north is estimated to be about 11 degrees from the tilt of the earth’s axis. Meaning that the difference between true north and magnetic north can differentiate up to 20 degrees in some places. If you want the most accurate reading possible then it is important to account for the magnetic shift. Even the tiniest of miscalculations could throw you off kms from where you want to be.

Adjusting your compass for declination

First of all, what even is declination? Declination is the angle between true north and magnetic north. This angle can vary depending on the user’s location and it will gradually change over time due to the shifting of the earth’s tectonic plates.

Most maps will have declination diagrams as well as that date that it was last revised so you can use those figures to more accurately locate your starting position. Of course, the newer the map, the more accurate the figures will be as the declination will change over time. You would usually find an angle and a direction. For example, your map may show something like ‘11 degrees West’

Any time you venture out, it is advised that you check your maps to see what state they are in and how old they are. Some of the older maps may be a little tricky so you might want to check online for any updated maps of the area. You may even be able to find the declination somewhere on the internet which you can write down and use as a reference for your expedition. 

Once you have obtained your declination figure, you should either add the figure from your compass bearing for west or subtract the figure to your compass bearing for east. An easy way to remember whether to add or subtract is “West is best and East is least.” So for West declination, add to the true reading (West is best, and therefore a larger number) and for East declination subtract from the true reading (East is least, and therefore a smaller number).

How to hold your compass

One thing that you should always remember is to hold the compass flat. Whether that be on the palm of your hand or resting on a map. Keep the compass flat at all times.

You should also establish the direction that you are actually facing to get a feel of how the compass functions. You can do this by orienting yourself. Have a look at the magnetic needle, as you hold the compass flat in the palm of your hand and rotate your body. The needle should swing from side to side depending on which way you rotate.

Now turn the degree dial so that the orienting arrow lines up with the magnetic arrow. You should make sure that both of them are pointing North. To find the general direction you’re facing, have a look at the direction of travel arrow. If the direction of travel arrow sits between the S and the W, you can safely assume that you are facing Southwest.

To get an even more accurate reading, check out the number of degrees on the compass. If the direction of travel arrow intersects with the degree dial and shows a degree reading of 52 then you’re facing 52 degrees Southwest.

Using your compass

When it comes to actually using your compass, unless you know exactly where you are in relation to your map then you will need to first locate yourself and mark that point out on your map. This is so you have a reference point to begin. This is a crucial step because if you get this wrong, you could easily become lost.

Locating Yourself – Even If You’re Lost

The best way to begin with compass usage is to understand where exactly you are in relation to your map. You may already know and that’s fine, you can skip this step but if you’re unsure of your location due to being lost or disorientated then this method will help give your approximate location. It’s a triangulation method that has been used with minimal failure for as long as has been documented.

The easiest way to locate yourself is to try to find 2-3 landmarks. Both on your map and by physically locating them in your line of sight. Things such as mountains or lakes are great landmarks to use as they are usually quite easy to spot from a distance. Use these simple steps to give you your approximate location.

1. Using your compass, aim the direction of travel arrow at the first landmark. Orient your map so that north is pointing to true north. You can do this by twisting the degree dial so that the orienting arrow lines up with the northern tip of the magnetic needle. Once they are both lined up, this will enable you to see where your direction of travel arrow is pointing. Don’t forget to correct any declination depending on where you are located.

2. The next step is to get a bearing on the first landmark that you are using. So, line the direction of travel arrow up with your chosen landmark, then slowly rotate the dial until the needle is aligned with the markings for north. The bearing to note down is the degree number that is shown next to the index line. 

3. Now, by placing one corner of your compass’ straightedge on your chosen landmark, slowly rotate the entire compass until the needle lines up with north on the dial. Use a pencil to draw a line across the straight edge.

4. Go through this same process for each of your landmarks. Once complete, you will have 3 lines that form a triangle on your map. Your position is inside that triangle. The size of this triangle will all depend on how accurate you were with working out the bearings. With a bit of practice, you will become more accurate and the triangle will become smaller which of course will give you a more accurate position.

Finding your bearings to enable you to move to your desired destination

After working out your location in relation to your map, you can then focus on moving towards your destination. It’s a good idea to break your journey down into manageable steps as it may not be possible to map it out just by standing in one position. You may need to head toward landmarks to use them as a guide and as you reach them, you can relocate yourself and start the process again.

To begin mapping out a route, you will want to:

  • Adjust your compass for declination as we went over just before.
  • Then orient your map to true north. (Put your compass on your map. Look at which way the red needle is pointing. Turn your map so that north on the map, points in the same direction as the needle).

Once you have completed these 2 foundational steps you are ready to begin with the fun stuff.

  1. Start by carefully placing the corner of your compass’ baseplate on your location. Next, rotate the compass itself so that the straight edge of the compass forms a straight line between your location and your desired destination.
  1. Then rotate the dial of the compass until the grid lines on the compass’ baseplate match the grid lines of your map. This can be a little tricky so try to be as accurate as possible. 
  1. You will then be able to discover your degree bearing. This can be found by reading the degree number next to the index line.
  1. Next, hold your compass flat in the palm of your hand and rotate your body until the north arrow on the degree dial matches up with the needle of the compass. With some practice and luck, your direction of travel arrow will now be pointing towards your desired destination.

As mentioned before, once you have the direction of travel arrow pointing to your destination and you head there. To accurately follow the direction of travel arrow, try to focus on a distant object like a tree, telephone pole, or other smaller landmark, and use this as a guideline. It’s advised that you don’t focus on anything too distant or broad, such as a mountain. Bigger landmarks aren’t precise enough to navigate by accurately and throw you off by a fair bit. Stop, regroup and focus on your next line. It gets a lot easier with patience and practice.

These are some great basic tips to begin with. There are more advanced ways to use a compass which we will save for another post. There are also a range of different compass types that you can use these days. Some are easier to use than others. There are bare bones compasses like the baseplate and you can also use smartphones. Smartphones are a little unreliable in the way that they need to be updated and require power for batteries. Not only that, they just don’t allow the user to think for themselves.

We hope that we have been able to help you find your way around a compass and its usage. Any feedback or questions will be welcomed with open arms so we can further educate all of outdoor enthusiasts who enjoy our content! Happy trekking!

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