Unlock Your Inner Explorer: How to Use a Compass Like a Pro

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How to use a compass - map, compass

As an avid outdoor enthusiast, having a reliable means of navigation in your arsenal is a must. By knowing how to use a compass, you can confidently venture into the unknown, explore new destinations, and find your way back home. Whether hiking in the wilderness, camping in the backcountry, or on your favourite hiking trail, a basic understanding of how to use a compass can significantly enhance your navigation skills and give you the peace of mind to fully immerse yourself in your surroundings. 

Get to Know Your Compass

Unlock a world of navigational possibilities by familiarizing yourself with the intricate details of your trusty compass.

How to use a compass. compass, clear

Base plate – The flat, clear plastic part of the compass used to lay on the map.
Ruler – a straight edge found on a compass’s baseplate that helps draw straight lines on a map. It can also be used to measure distances on a map.
Compass housing – The outer casing of the compass that holds the magnetic needle and other internal components.
Magnetic needle – The part of the compass that indicates magnetic north.
Orienting arrow – The small arrow inside the compass housing that is used to align the magnetic needle and determine the direction of travel (sometimes referred to as a shed or a dog house).
Direction of travel arrow – Typically marked on the compass’s base plate and is used to indicate the direction of travel.
Rotating bezel – The outer ring of the compass that rotates and is used to set the heading or direction of travel.
Degree markings – Allow the user to determine precise headings and directions.
Declination adjustment – A mechanism for adjusting the difference between magnetic north and true north.
Index Line – A mark or line on the compass housing indicates the current reading on the bezel. 
Orienting Lines – used to align the compass with the map so that the lines match the corresponding north-south and east-west grid lines on the map.

True North vs. Magnetic North

How to use a compass - true north, magnetic north

Understanding the difference and significance of each direction is an essential step towards becoming a skilled compass user and confident outdoors adventurer.

True north is a fixed point on the Earth’s surface and represents the geographic North Pole. It is where all lines of longitude converge and is the standard mapmakers use when creating maps. It is an essential reference point in geography and is used to define the location of places on the Earth’s surface.

Magnetic north is the direction that a compass needle points towards. It is created by the Earth’s magnetic. It is not a fixed point but wanders due to the ever-shifting nature of the Earth’s magnetic field. The distance between true north and magnetic north is 1200 miles.

The difference between true north and magnetic north is called declination. Understanding declination is vital for accurate navigation when using a compass because it can significantly affect your reading. For example, if you have a 1-degree offset in your bearings for a 1-mile hike, you will be about 100 feet off course. This may seem like a slight difference, but it can quickly add up and put you in risky territory if you’re in a remote area.

It is, therefore, consequential to always check the declination in your area and adjust your compass accordingly before setting off on your adventure. One way to do this is to look for the declination diagram on your map. Make sure the map you’re using is relatively recent to have the most up-to-date information. You can also easily find declination information online.

One of the easiest ways to account for declination is by following the declination diagram on your map. To account for declination, follow these simple steps:

  1. Locate the declination diagram on your map: Most maps have a declination diagram indicating the difference between True North and Magnetic North for a specific location.
  2. Determine the declination angle: Typically measured in degrees.
  3. Set your compass: Adjust your compass by rotating the bezel until the declination angle matches the angle indicated on the map.

Once you set your compass to account for declination, you can orient your map correctly. 

Orienting Your Map for Better Navigation

Orienting your map with a compass is a crucial step in navigation, allowing you to align the map with the actual terrain in front of you. 

Once you’ve set your map for declination, simply follow these easy steps to ensure your map is oriented correctly:

  1. Start by placing your map flat on a surface and identifying the north symbol on it. Most maps have a compass rose that shows the four cardinal directions.
  2. Next, grab your compass and place it on top of the map so that the straight edge of the base plate lines up with the north-south meridian on the map. 
  3. Rotate the map and compass together until the magnetic needle is inside the orienting arrow (red in the shed).  

Done! Now that your map is oriented, you’re ready to plan your route. 

Steering Your Way Through the Wild: The Basics of Bearings

Bearings refer to the direction of travel to a specific location (your campsite, parking lot… etc.) relative to your location.

Here’s how to find your bearings with a compass:

  1. Determine your location on the map: This will serve as the starting point of your journey. If you’re unsure of where you are on the map, don’t worry – we’ll delve deeper into how to determine your position on a map in the next section. 
  2. Identify your destination: This is the end goal of your navigation.
  3. Place the compass on the map: Place the compass on the map so that the straight edge of the baseplate aligns with the starting and ending points. The direction of travel arrow should be pointing toward the destination.
  4. Adjust the compass: Turn the bezel until the “N” on the bezel is aligned with the north on the map. Use the orienting lines on the compass to help in this step. Then adjust for declination. 
  5. Hold the compass: Pick up and hold it flat in front of you. Make sure the direction of travel arrow is pointing straight ahead.
  6. Turn your body: While keeping the compass in front of you, turn your body until the magnetic needle is aligned with the orienting arrow (red in the shed).
  7. Read the bearing: The direction of travel arrow should now be pointing directly towards your destination. Read the bearing from the index line, which is the line marking the direction of travel.
  8. Follow the bearing: Look in the direction of the arrow and find a landmark that stands out. Hike to that landmark, and repeat the process until you arrive at your destination. 

By following these steps, you’ll be able to find your bearings with a compass, making navigation in the wilderness much easier and safer.

How to Use A Compass to Find Your Location on A Map

You can find yourself on a map by using a simple process called triangulation. This involves taking two or more bearings and seeing where they intersect on your map. 

Here are the steps to follow:

  1. Identify two or more visible landmarks that you can find on your map, such as mountain peaks or man-made structures at least 60 degrees apart. 
  2. Using your compass, determine the bearing of each landmark by aligning the direction of travel arrow with the landmark and reading the bearing from the bezel.
  3. Plot the bearing on your map by drawing a line that starts at the identified landmark and extends to the direction of the bearing. You are somewhere along that line.
  4. Repeat the process for each landmark.
  5. The point where the lines intersect is your approximate location on the map.

Using triangulation, you can quickly and accurately determine your location, even if you’re unsure where you started. Make sure to practice and become familiar with the process to apply it when needed.

From Theory to Reality: Using Your Compass in the Field

The most important aspect of using a compass is practice. It is only through repeated use that you will fully grasp the concepts and become comfortable with your navigation abilities. Also, check out the backpacker checklist to ensure you are prepared for your journey. 

Stay safe and happy exploring!


What is declination, and why is it important?

Declination is the difference between true north and magnetic north. Knowing declination is essential to adjust your compass readings accordingly and navigate accurately.

How do I adjust for declination on my compass?

Consult a map or online resources to determine the declination in your area. Adjust your compass by rotating the dial to align the declination adjustment arrow with the degree marking that matches the declination.

How do I take a bearing?

To take a bearing, hold the compass level and point the direction of travel arrow toward your destination. Rotate the bezel until the North end of the magnetic needle is aligned with the North end of the orienting arrow. Read the bearing from the bezel.

How do I follow a bearing?

To follow a bearing, hold the compass level and point the direction of travel arrow toward your destination. Turn your body until the magnetic needle aligns with the orienting arrow. Follow the direction of travel arrow.

How do I navigate without a map?

To navigate without a map, take a bearing towards a recognizable landmark or feature and use that as a reference point to navigate from.

How do I care for my compass?

Store the compass in a dry place away from magnetic objects. Avoid exposing it to extreme temperatures or impact. Clean the compass regularly with a soft cloth and mild detergent.

Photo of author


Meet AJ Yarwood, the outdoor enthusiast and the Creative Director of OpenAirAdvisor.com, dedicated to sharing unforgettable outdoor experiences with a twinkle in his eye and a spring in his step. Join him as he navigates the wonders of nature, from towering peaks to hidden trails, sharing a treasure trove of tips and tricks along the way!