How to Use a Compass

Learning how to use a hiking compass is critical to safe outdoor exploration. Whether you are trying to figure out in which direction you are currently heading, or where you need to go, there is little available as reliable as the compass as a time-tested navigation tool. It is a must-have for any outdoor explorer and is always at the top of any proper outdoor equipment checklist.

Of course, a compass has its limitations.

  1. A compass will always help you to determine what direction you are headed, but the only way to understand what that means in relation to your overall surrounding is to pair a good map with your compass.
  2. As simple as a compass can be, it will still be as impossible a puzzle as fire was to a caveman, if you don’t know how to use it properly.

The following are 4 things that anyone planning on adding a compass to their arsenal of outdoor exploration tools and skills must know:

Understand the Make Up of a Compass

There are a few different types of compasses, including both mirror and base plate models, best for map use, and others designed to be more of sighting compass, and not as good for orienting to a map as a base plate compass would be. While there are a wide variety of compasses, they all include the same common elements as seen in the diagram below:

Mirror Compass Base Plate Compass

Mirror Compass

Base Plate Compass

As with any compass, the entire instrument revolves around the magnetic needle, which always faces north. Where the magnetic needle faces in relation to the direction of travel will be how you obtain the bearing of your direction of travel.

How to Hold a Compass

Knowing how to hold a compass is critical to getting an effective reading.

Hold the compass level in your palm. The reason for this is that you want to keep the needle level, so it does not bottom out on the base of the compass, which would otherwise provide an inaccurate reading.

How to Use a Compass
Source: Wikipedia

Find Your Bearings on a Map

Using your compass to keep you headed in the right direction is one thing, but utilizing it to actually navigate your way around an area is another. Again, going back to the idea that a compass is only truly effective when paired with a map, you need to know how to actually use the two together.

Using your compass with a map will require that you are able to find your “bearings”, or, the direction from your current position that will lead to your intended destination. To do this, you need to utilize the rotating ring around the dial. This ring is divided up into increments that add up to 360 degrees. Once you align your compass and map both to north, place your compass over your current location on the map, and then draw a straight line from the compass center to your desired destination.

With the origin of your line starting at the center of your compass, this line (called the ‘travel line’) will cross through the bearing number on the rotating ring around the dial. By following the exact bearing number as the direction straight-ahead of you, you will be taken to your exact destination.

For a great example, please see the video below.

Know the Difference Between Magnetic North and True North

By this point, you should know not only what kind of compass you have and how to read it, but how to find your bearings on a map so that you can determine your location and destination as well.

But there is one last component to the understanding of how to use a compass:

Magnetic North, which is the north that is displayed on your compass, is not the same as True North. In other words, the location of the North Pole, or True North, is not actually located at the exact top of the planet. Magnetic North, on the other hand, shifts depending on the activity of Earth’s magnetic fields and it is where a compass needle will point towards.

Although the margin of error caused by the difference (known as ‘declination’) is likely to be minimal, it will vary depending on your location around the Earth. So, it is imperative that the map you pair to your compass always be as up to date as possible.

Utilizing these 4 tips above will help you to learn the basics needed to effectively add a compass into your outdoor exploration arsenal. But as you get out into the field and start exploring, you may find new tips and tricks that work well for you. Share your own compass tips below in the form of a comment!

What Must-Know Compass Tips Do You Have?

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