How to Use a Compass

The compass is the one survivalist tool that just won’t die. Relying solely on Earth’s magnetic fields, the compass won’t run out of battery, need an update, or lose a signal.

When paired with a map, a compass can be as accurate as GPS, but some basic compass skills are necessary. In this guide, you will learn how to use a compass using a standard map compass.

#1 – Parts of a Compass

Before we head out into the woods, there are several key components of the compass that must be understood.

  • Baseplate – the baseplate is standard on any navigation compass. It is a transparent plate on which the compass mounts to one end. Usually, it has a ruler along two adjacent sides.
  • Direction arrow – the large red arrow at the top center of the baseplate. This arrow indicates which way you are traveling about magnetic north.
  • Dial – a moveable ring around the magnetic needle housing, this dial contains degrees that enable you to find a bearing.
  • Orienting Arrow – this is a red arrow on the inside surface of the needle housing. When finding a bearing, the direction of travel arrow helps align the compass with the map.
  • The Magnetic Needle – the red end of the needle always points to magnetic north. However, the difference between magnetic and “true” north differ depending on your location. Maps will usually indicate this difference.

#2 – Understand Magnetic North

Magnetic north, the direction which all compass arrow points, is not actually at the tip-top of the North Pole. It moves and is now moving towards the Northernmost reaches of Russia, away from Northern Canada.

Magnetic declination is the measure of the angle between true north and magnetic north. This angle changes depending on where you are, although a compass map will indicate the magnetic declination for the given area.

Calibrating the compass to magnetic north is simple but depends on the type of compass you own. Suunto is one of the major brands, and they provide a special tool that allows you to flip the compass over and use the tool to rotate the magnetic dial to the appropriate declination.

If you are unable to calibrate the compass for magnetic north, then you can do it simply by adding or subtracting the magnetic declination to each bearing you read.

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#3 – Finding a Bearing

Finding a bearing with a compass will allow you to safely navigate through the wilderness to a pre-determined destination on a map. You will need a map of your area and know your location on that map. Lastly, you need a destination.

Once you have your destination plotted on your map, you need to figure out how to get there. Using the long side of your compass baseplate, make a straight line between your destination and your current location.

Next, line up the orientation arrow with the north-south gridlines of the map. Be sure to account for magnetic declination as noted on your map, adding declination to easterly bearings and subtracting declination for bearings to the west.

You are all set to go off and find your destination. Rotate your compass so that the compass needle is within the red orientation arrow. Now, with your compass held horizontally in front of you, follow the red direction arrow on the front of the baseplate.

#4 – Using Bearings in the Woods

If you have a map but don’t know where you are, then you can use a compass and a landmark to find your general location.

First, find a landmark that you can see that is also on your map, such as a mountaintop. Hold the compass in front of you, pointed towards the landmark and away from you. Rotate the dial so that the compass needle is within the directional arrow. Read your bearing and account for declination.

Now, open your map and put your compass baseplate flat against the landmark. Rotate the compass until the red orientation arrow aligns with north on the map. Make sure the directional arrow on the top of your compass is still pointing, generally, towards the landmark.

Once that is done, you can draw a line along with the compass that intersects with the landmark. You are somewhere on that line.

#5 – Triangulation

The true art of compass navigating lies in triangulation. This technique allows you to find your exact location in the woods, just with a compass and a map. (It’s also the foundation of the sport/hobby of orienteering.)

Triangulation is the same as finding a bearing in the woods, but instead of using one landmark, you use three. Preferably, the three landmarks you use should be spread out to increase the accuracy of your reading.

Once you’ve followed the process outlined in #4, find two more landmarks, and do the same. Mark the three bearings on your map, and wherever those lines intersect, you’ve got your location.

Most of the time, the lines will not intersect but form a small triangle. The inside of that triangle indicates your location. If your triangle is large, then you’ve miscalculated, and you should start over.


About the Author

Trey is a lifelong hunter and avid camper. He lives outside Denver, CO with his wife Kaci and their lab mix Ziggy. They spend as much time as possible outdoors - hunting, fishing, and camping.

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