Using a Compass: How to Find your Way in Nature

Being able to navigate outdoors is something any nature enthusiast should be able to do. There’s a reason why this is considered one of the 10 essentials, and it’s certainly not something to gloss over just because you think you’ll be okay. I can think of several times when I used to believe my phone was all I needed to show me where to go, but then lost my way in the Rocky Mountains. So let’s check out a foolproof method for staying on track wherever you are in the world: using a compass.

Why Use a Compass?

compass on a map


You’re probably reading this thinking, “Compasses are so outdated. Why take the time to learn how to use one?”  And while it might be true that they could be categorized as “old school,” that doesn’t mean they aren’t useful, if not essential, for your next outdoor trip.

GPS devices revolutionized the art of navigation, and for good reason, since almost everyone has a phone and it can tell you where you are at any given moment. They’re incredibly convenient for day to day life when you’re trying to get directions while out on the road, but there are a couple major flaws that should concern you next time you want to use it in the wilderness

First, GPS devices are electronic. The thing about electronic devices is that they require a power source, usually in the form of a battery. What happens when you run out of battery life? You have several hundred dollars of dead weight in your hand, and no idea how to get to where you want to go.

The other problem is that the GPS on your phone will only tell you which way you’re going once you’re actually on the move. If you’re at a standstill, the blue dot on your screen might tell you where you are, but not which way you need to start walking. Because of that, you might spend a few minutes walking in the wrong direction until your GPS picks up on where you’re going and can redirect you.

A compass, on the other hand, requires nothing but magnetism to work. No matter where you are, or how long it’s been since you dusted off your compass, you can be sure that it will always work. There are no screens or moving parts to break, and you don’t have to be in motion for it to work. When paired with a topographical map, there’s nothing you have that’s more reliable, if you know what you’re doing.  

Compass Components

Before we get into the basics of using a compass, it’s important to understand all of the different components. Not all compasses are the same, but for our example, we’ll be using an orienteering compass. This type is specifically designed for use with a map, which is likely what you’ll want when you’re out exploring.

Baseplate

This is the “body” of your compass. The material is transparent and has at least one straight edge, so you’ll be able to see the map beneath it and take a bearing. 

Rotating Bezel

Also known as the azimuth ring, which comes from the Arabic word as-sumt, meaning “the direction.” This outer ring rotates, and has 360 degree markings.

Index Line

Also known as the “read bearing here” mark, it’s located directly above the bezel, and marks the bearing that you want to travel along.

Direction of Travel Arrow

An arrow pointing away from the compass, you’ll line this up with a bearing.

Ruler

Used along with the map’s key to determine distance.

Magnetized Needle

Arguably the most recognized part of a compass, this needle is red on one end and black or white on the other. The red side points toward magnetic north.

Orienting Arrow

This outline of an arrow allows you to orient the bezel with the map by correctly accounting for declination. We’ll talk more about this later.

Orienting Lines

Parallel lines that move with the bezel, these are handy when trying to find true north in conjunction with a map.

True North vs Magnetic North

golden compass


It’s frequently believed that all you have to know about a compass is that the red needle points north. Once you figure out where north is, you can check your map and be on your way. However, depending on where you are in the world, this thought process is going to get you lost in a hurry.

A distinction needs to be made between true north and magnetic north. True north is where Santa and his little helpers live, up at the north pole. This is the “north” you’ll find on a map, and ultimately the direction you want to locate.

The magnetic north pole is where your compass is pointing, and it’s a lot more complicated than it sounds. Mostly because…well…it’s always moving. 

Discovered 190 years ago, the magnetic north pole was originally in Canada, just north of Hudson Bay. Moving at a pace of about 9 miles each year, the pole recently came within 240 miles of the true north pole in 2017, before continuing its journey toward Siberia. 

Long story short, the needle on your compass is following a moving target. If that doesn’t spell trouble for your navigation ability, I don’t know what does!

Thankfully it’s possible to adjust for this change. Declination, or the distance between true north and magnetic north, is usually laid out on your local topographical map next to the legend. Since magnetic north is always on the move, make sure your map was updated recently, or it might be providing you with faulty information. 

Adjusting for Declination

So how do you adjust for declination? Thankfully it’s a lot more simple than it sounds. First, check the declination diagram on your map to find the degrees and direction of declination. Examples of this would be something like “16.1° E” or “3.4° W” depending on where you are in the world. Some locations, like Minneapolis and New Orleans are close to the agonic line, which means that true north and magnetic north line up. So if you find yourself close to this line, there’s no extra work to do: your compass is already pointing toward true north. 

Once you’ve found the degree of declination (we’ll say it’s 10° E), all you have to do is move your orienting arrow 10 degrees to the east and line up the magnetic pin inside of it. Once you’ve done that, your direction of travel arrow will be pointing to true north, and you won’t have to touch it again for the rest of your trip. 

Orient your Map

Once you’ve set your declination, using your compass with a map is very simple. Place your compass on one side of the map, so the straight edge of the base plate matches with the edge of the map. Make sure your direction of travel arrow is pointed toward the top of the map, and your bezel is rotated so the N (north) is aligned with the travel arrow. Once you’ve done this, rotate your body (not the compass) until the red needle fits inside the orienting arrow.

Congratulations! Your map is now oriented properly and you can take a look at your surroundings to spot any landmarks. Check your map frequently as you hike, so you’re always aware of where you are. It’s much easier to do this than get lost and try to find yourself again.

Take a Bearing

What is a Bearing?

The time will inevitably come when you’ll have to take a bearing. If you aren’t very familiar with navigation, a “bearing” is just a way to describe a direction in a more precise way. So instead of being told to travel northeast, which leaves a lot of room for error, you might be told to follow a bearing of 45 degrees.

Taking a Bearing from a Map

taking a bearing on a map


Taking a bearing from a map is actually very easy once you’ve adjusted for declination. First, find your current location on the map, as well as the location that you’re trying to reach. Take the straight edge of your baseplate, and line it up between those two points on the map. Make sure the direction of travel arrow is pointing the way that you want to go and not upside down!

Once you’ve done that, rotate the bezel until the N (north) marker is pointing north on the map, and your orienting lines are aligned with the north-south grid on your map.

Now that you’re all lined up, check to see what number your index line is pointing to, and that’s the bearing that you’ll use. From here, hold the compass with the direction of travel arrow pointing away from you, and rotate your body until the needle falls within the orienting arrow. The direction of travel arrow is now pointing toward your destination, and you can be on your way!

Taking a Bearing from a Landmark

devil's tower


This is really handy if you’re lost or “not quite sure” where you are on the trail. Start off by finding a landmark around you that you can also identify on your map. Once you’ve got your landmark in sight, point the direction of travel arrow at it, and rotate the bezel until your magnetized needle falls inside the orienting arrow. Now, pull your map out and lay your compass on it so that one of the straight edges is touching the landmark. Make sure your direction of travel arrow is always pointed in the general direction of the landmark on the map, and rotate your compass until the magnetized needle falls inside the orienting arrow again. Draw a line down the straight edge of your compass until it intersects with the trail you’re on, and that’s where you are!

Avoid False Readings

Now that you know how to use a compass, there are a couple things to look out for to make sure you’re getting an accurate reading. As you probably know, compasses work by picking up the earth’s magnetism at the north and south poles. However, the earth’s magnetism isn’t the only force that compasses are able to pick up. If your compass is too close to certain types of metal, electrical wires, some mirrors, and even thick, metal glasses, you may get an inaccurate reading. There are even certain geological formations and rocks that are magnetic and will affect the accuracy of your compass. Keep these things in mind next time you’re trying to take a bearing or figuring out where you are on a map. 

In Conclusion

Getting lost in the middle of nowhere is not only inconvenient, but potentially dangerous as well. Your phone is adequate up to a point, but there’s nothing more reliable than a map, compass and the know-how needed to use them. Now that you’ve got the tools to read a compass, go out and get one if you’re planning a trip outside. I recommend using one with an adjustable declination, so you can change it depending on where you’re going. They’re a little more expensive, but it’ll save you a lot of headache out in the field. 

Want more tips on how to prepare for your next adventure? Check out our article on How to Go Camping for more helpful insights!

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Spencer Yeomans

Spencer Yeomans

A lover of the outdoors, and especially the mountains, Spencer has always enjoyed pushing people to step outside their comfort zones. His mission is to help others get out of their homes to have fun and stay active in nature.

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