How To Use A Compass: The Basics Of Outdoor Navigation

Want to stop relying on your smartphone or GPS to navigate in the outdoors? You knocked on the right door! Here is a step-by-step to guide to learn how to use a compass.

If you want to safely navigate the wilderness, you should learn how to use an old-fashioned paper map and compass. There are no batteries to charge and unless the magnetic poles suddenly change, the needle of your compass will always be here to direct you. A compass is part of the outdoor 10 essentials, and we’re here to explain you how to use it!

To build that article, we worked together with Winston Endall to produce the most easy-to use and comprehensive guide to outdoor navigation. Winston is instructor in wilderness survival and navigation. Winston shared his valuable knowledge and I tested it on the ground just for you!

While handheld compasses have gotten more advanced, the techniques used haven’t changed much in hundreds of years. When you add compass skills to your repertoire you will a much better equipped outdoors person. Aside from the life-saving aspect of knowing how to navigate with a compass, you will also have one of the coolest techniques in your toolbox to demonstrate your outdoor savvy (and getting away from staring at a screen isn’t a bad thing either).

Why Should You Learn How To Use A Compass, Even If You Have A GPS? 

A compass doesn’t run out of battery or breaks easily

A compass will never run out of power and rarely breaks. Even one that is decades old will still work. With a compass, the computer in the GPS is replaced with your brain which as long as you have snacks, should keep working as well.

A compass won’t let you down if you have bad reception

When under heavy tree cover, in canyons, or in severe weather, the GPS signal may be weak or non-existent. If you are relying on an electronic device to show you where you are and it isn’t accurate you can be thrown severely off course. This can become particularly dangerous if you try to find a specific route between the cliffs and canyons.

A paper map allows you a better view of the surrounding area

It’s hard to see the big picture when you are looking at a little screen. I find it easier to spread out the map and get a better sense of the terrain. You can see your whole route rather than little segments of it. With a map, you can see your whole route in one view while also seeing the details of elevation, distances, and landmarks.

What you need for wilderness navigation

The map and compass are obvious but it is smart to bring a little notebook and pen. I suggest a Rite in the Rain notebook and pen as they work even when wet.

Whether for writing down your bearings so you can reverse it needed or making notes about your trip, having this can be very useful. When leaving a known trail or location it is smart to write down the direction you’ve gone in. People have gotten lost having left a trail to pee and didn’t take note of the direction they went in.

Get to Know Your Compass

To use a compass you need to understand how it works. While there are little button compasses with just a needle to maximize your navigation capabilities you will need a base plate compass with a mirror.

Basic Anatomy

  • Transparent baseplate: The baseplate is always clear, so you can see the map below it.
  • Travel arrow: The direction to target when you take or follow a bearing.
  • Ruler: To determine distances, using the scale of your map. By measuring on your map you can then convert it to distances in the real world.
  • Scale markings: Many compasses have scale marking for the common map scales. Using these you can translate distances as long as your map matches one of the scales.
  • Rotating bezel: To set your compass for bearings, includes 360 degrees markings, and cardinal directions.
  • Mirror and sight: used to take bearings using visual landmarks on the ground. You can hold the compass in front of your face and by adjusting the mirror read the compass. This allows you to use the top site to take a reading off of a landmark in the distance.

Needle housing components

  • Magnetized needle: Points to magnetic north
  • Index line: “read bearing here” mark, tells you on which bearing the compass is set
  • Orienting arrow: Identifies north in the rotating bezel. It moves with the bezel and is large enough to perfectly fit with the magnetic arrow. This arrow will rotate to line up with the needle to find your bearing or transfer a bearing to your map. The inside of the orienting arrow is commonly referred to as the dog house.
  • Orienting lines: These parallel lines rotate with the bezel making it easier to align your compass with the north-south lines on your map.
  • Declination scale or adjustment: Used to set the magnetic declination of the compass. [see skill 2, more details]

Navigation Skills

Once you know what parts of your compass do, you need to understand how to use it with a map to find your way.

Skill 1: Map Reading Basics

Maps are a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional world shrunk down to a size you can carry in your pocket. With practice, you will be able to visualize the terrain by examining a map. It won’t show you how rough a trail is but you will get an idea of the peaks and valleys, elevation, and general layout.

Orientation

The top of the map is north. From there moving clockwise the right side is east, the bottom south, and the left is west. The parallel vertical lines on the map are there for you to line up your compass to orient everything in the right direction.

Contour lines

Since a map is only two-dimensional, contour lines are used to show changes in elevation. The space between two lines represents a grade. The closer the lines are together the steep the slope.

Depending on the scale of the map, the difference in altitude between the lines can be anywhere between 10 and 50 feet. The legend of the map will list this height. Major increments and mountain peaks will show the elevation on the map.

Here you can see two peaks at 1452m and 1459m, with the bottom of the valley being at around 1100m

Scale

Just like a model car, maps use a scale to let you know how much the actual terrain has been shrunk down. Common scales are 1:25,000 and 1:50,000. This means one inch on the map is 25,000 inches on the ground (.39 miles).

On this map, 1 centimeter equals 25000 times more than reality (i.e 250 meters)

Legend

The legend on the map contains a description of what all the markings on the map mean.

It will usually show:

  • Scale
  • Trails and road descriptions
  • Contour line measurements
  • Landmarks
  • Waterways
  • Points of interest
  • Declination

Skill 2: Declination adjustment

True North vs. Magnetic North?

While compass needles point in a northerly direction, they are not targeting True North most of the time. The North Pole is the point at which maps are oriented to while compasses aim at magnetic north which is a slowly moving spot in the Canadian arctic.

The difference between True North and Magnetic North is declination. The difference in degrees between the two of these points varies depending on where you are. In North America, the two coasts are off by around 20 degrees. As you move into the center the amount decreases.

This is important to compensate for, especially when traveling over open land because over a distance you can up miles away from where you think you are.

If you are in the west you will adjust to the east and vice versa to compensate for the difference. East adjustments are positive and west are negative. For example, if you are in the Adirondack High Peaks in New York, the declination is 13.3 degrees west. So you would subtract that number from each of your calculations to find true north.

Most maps will have the declination listed in the legend but check the date on the map as the angle changes slightly each year. Before heading out on a trip I just the declination of the location I’m heading to via Google.

Set declination on your compass

Some compasses have a declination adjustment which allows you to adjust the orienting arrow so when the bezel is set to the north with the needle in the dog house you are facing true north. A little screw on the back with a declination scale makes this adjustment very easy to do and it will stay in place until you change it. We highly recommend you pick a compass with this very important feature.

Declination adjustment on the Suunto MC-2

Draw lines on your map

With a long ruler draw lines on your map that correspond to the magnetic north on the declination marker on the map. Then is you use those lines to line up your compass. This way is doing the declination adjustment on your map rather than on your compass.

Skill 3: Orient your map

Once you have figured out how to compensate for declination it is time to orient your map. To begin with, we are going to align it so your map and compass are facing north.

1. Align the orientation lines on the compass over the lines facing north-south on the map with the direction of travel arrow pointing to the top of the map.

2. Rotate the bezel until the “N” for the north is pointing to the top of the map. This will be zero degrees

3. Rotate the map and compass until the needle is in the dog house. If you have dialed in your declination you will be facing true north with the top of the map facing that direction.

Skill 4: Take a bearing from a map to orient your path

Once you have your map oriented correctly you can then take a bearing to figure out the direction you want to go. This is assuming you know where you are on the map.

  1. Lay the edge of the base plate of the compass between where you are on the map and a point you want to get to.
  2. Rotate the bezel until the needle is back in the dog house. Read the degrees on the top of the bezel along the direction of travel line.
  3. Remove the compass from the map and hold it level in front of you at a height you can read it. When the needle is in the dog house you will be pointing in the direction you need to travel to get to your target.
Here is a bearing of 352 degrees !

Skill 5: Find where you are on a map, using the triangulation method

If you don’t know exactly where you are on the map you can pinpoint your location by triangulation. This will only work in open terrain with visible landmarks such as mountains or lakes. Getting to a high point with a view can help with this method.

  1. Orient your map facing north
  2. Find two landmarks on your map that you can see
  3. Take a bearing reading off the first landmark by pointing the compass at it. If you have a mirrored compass, hold it up and use the notched side to get a more accurate reading. Rotate the bezel until the needle is in the dog house.
  4. Place the compass on your map and line the edge of the compass with the landmark. Making sure the needle is in the dog house, draw a line along the edge from the point you’ve identified.
  5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 for the second landmark. Where the two lines come together is where you are.
  6. Now that you know where you are you can then plot a bearing on the map to get where you want to be.
Where the lines are crossing: this is where you are!

Bonus: Fun games to get familiar with bearings

The Code

This is go-to skill builder as has people work on taking bearings and map reading.

You need to find a local park or woods with good maps available that have the scale indicated. You can often print off maps from open sources on the internet such as OpenStreetMap.org or Caltopo.com.

Once you’ve got your map then go through and place some trail tape on a tree or other visible place. Try to choose your spots off of trails so it isn’t just a case of following the trails.  With a sharpie marker, I will write a code on the tape. Accurately mark this spot on the map. I will usually place 5-10 markers depending on the time we have. Mark each on the map.

Have the group meet at a marked point on the map and give them a copy of the map.

From here it will be a competition to see who can find all the points with each code written down the fastest.

They will have to take a bearing from the map and navigate to the first point. From here it is repeated until they have all of the codes and have returned to the starting point.

The Clue

A game you can play with more advanced people: The Clue. Similar to the board game of the same name, you have to solve the mystery by following the clues.

Like the first game, you will need to place markers in the forest but in this game, you only mark the first one on the map. At each point will be a marker with a bearing and distance to the next one written on it.

In this game, they have to mark on the map where each marker is when they find it. The winner is the person or team who marks their map correctly, with the fastest time. I score accuracy over speed but you can adapt it however suits your needs.

The Bottom line

This article will get you started on your way to navigating with a map and compass but it is a skill that needs to be practiced. A good way to do this is to find a local orienteering club as that sport is all about finding things with your map and compass. Bringing a compass with you is a good habit, and that’s we included it in our backpacking checklist and hiking checklist.

These skills are perishable so practice regularly so you don’t have to relearn them every time you go on a trip. And if get good at navigation, you will impress your friends who are stuck trying to find their way with an iPhone.

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