Everyone knows that a compass is one of the essential tools that you should bring with you when you are heading out on a hike or into the wilderness to go camping.
Even if you have an electronic GPS, a compass is a tool that can save you if you run out of batteries or get severely off course. Despite knowing how essential they are, not everyone knows how to navigate with a compass.
This simple guide will give you the basic knowledge that you need to navigate with a compass. These tips are best used together with a map but can be used as standalone guidance when necessary. Let’s start the process of learning how to use a compass together.
How to Navigate with a Compass
Note: If you are reading this article as a precursor to a lesson or navigation course, or as a refresher on how to use a compass, that’s great!
That being said, you should take a full, proper navigation lesson / course on how to find your way with a compass with a real instructor, in the outdoors, before completely relying on any knowledge given in this article.
Step #1: Learn the Compass Parts
All of the following instructions will be confusing if you don’t first learn the different parts of the compass. With that said, there are a number of critical components that you should become familiar with in order to use a compass effectively from the very beginning.
The parts that are most important for basic navigations are as follows:
This needle has a red tip and will align to the northern direction because of the compass’s ability to find magnetic north. This floating needle should spin freely when you move the compass around. Otherwise, your compass may not be working properly.
This is the one that protects and houses the floating needle. Usually, the outside of the housing is moveable, which allows you to adjust the degree and sight that you are following.
While most compasses may not come with this, it is recommended that beginners get a compass with a baseplate or direction-of-travel arrow. This arrow should be pointed in the direction that you are moving when you use a compass to ensure that you properly align yourself to the world around you on the ground.
Step #2: Hold the Compass Level
When you stop to read your compass, you should hold it near your waist, your belly button is good to aim for, and in a level position. Once you have it leveled, you should look straight down at the compass.
Be sure that the direction-of-travel arrow is pointed in the direction that you are going and that you hold the compass steady through the entire reading to ensure that you are on course.
Step #3: Become Familiar with the Floating Needle Movement
When you complete step #2, you should see that the floating needle will always point north. Once it settles into a position, slowly move in a circle to see how it always points in the same direction.
This is the floating needle showing you which way North is. Unless damaged, a compass will always show North with the floating needle.
Step #4: Rotate the Housing and Account for Declination
If you want to travel southeast, you should rotate the housing of your compass between the “S” and the “E” when lined up with your direction-of-travel arrow. This will ensure that you are moving in the direction that you wish to be moving.
You should also consider at this point if the north in your area differs from the true north. This phenomenon, called declination, can be looked up online or noted on maps of the area.
Typically, the map will indicate how many extra degrees to rotate the housing to ensure that your compass is actually pointing north. These few degrees can really make a huge difference.
Step #5: Line Up with Your Map
Now, it’s time to understand your map in a real-world context. To do this, you need to set your map. To do that follow these simple steps:
- Put your compass on the map with the direction-of-travel arrow pointing left to right
- Next, keeping the compass in one position, move your map till the top of it lines up with the direction of Magnetic north, typically a red arrow, on your map
- Double check that everything is lined up as it should be
You should now have found set your map and aligned it to the world around you. If you know your exact location on the map, you should then check off the features you see on the ground, with the features you see on the map.
They should all align. yourself on the map. It is always a good idea to stop and look around every once in a while, to reorient yourself, to confirm where you are on the map. This will help you gain an understanding of where you are on the ground in relation to the map.
Step #6: Checking and Following a Bearing
Typically, when using a compass and map, you are trying to find your way to a specific location that may not always be straight north, south, etc.. So, you will need to find and follow a bearing. Here’s how to do that:
- Line the straight side of the baseplate up with your destination and your current position on the map. Ensure the direction-of-travel arrow is pointing in the direction of your destination.
- Rotate the housing so that the orienting lines in your compass line up with the N-S grid lines on the map.
- The index line on the baseplate will now give you your bearing.
- Hold the compass in front of you, with the direction of travel pointing away from your body.
- Rotate until the floating needle lines up with the orienting arrow. You can now move towards the area where the direction-of-travel arrow is pointing.
- Remember to account for declination as required i.e. adding / removing a few degrees to get the bearing correct and exact from the map to the ground.
Check out the video below to learn more about how to use a compass when you are heading out on the hills.
There you have it – the basics of how to navigate with a compass. There are more complex compasses and ways to use them that can make your navigation techniques even more impressive, but knowing these basic tips will be enough to help you find your way back on the trail should you ever find yourself lost.
Share this useful information with fellow hiking friends who don’t know the basics of properly using a compass. You might just save a life by doing so! Hiking can be very risky, so don’t get caught without knowing how to use a compass.