showing direction while compass in another hand

How To Use A Compass – The Beginner’s Guide

We all love Google Maps and GPS. Many of us believe that if we have Google Maps and GPS, we don’t need a compass. Compass is an outdated thing to many. Even if some of us understand its importance, we don’t know how to use it accurately.

Visualize, you are hiking with your friends in the wilderness. You decide to divide into small groups and leave in different directions. You, along with one or two more friends, end up in an isolated place you have no idea of. All of a sudden, you figure out that you don’t know where you’re.  You’re not getting any network signal or your GPS runs out of battery completely. You aren’t also carrying a map or compass.

Most of us might have gone through such a situation at some point or another. I am no exception. In one of my early hiking, I had found myself in such trouble. It took us hours before we had come back to our camp. We spent these hours in cold and dark in our effort to locate our campsite. We were totally exhausted. All of our friends were already in the campground. 

The above incident made me realize how important it is to carry a conventional map and a compass in the trail. I had decided there only that I would learn how to use a compass & never go to a campsite without a compass.

Table of Contents

Importance of Compass

With the emergence of smart mobile phones and sophisticated GPS technology, the compass has become outdated. Everyone is so used to the comfort of their smartphone’s GPS that hardly anyone intends to use a compass or learn how to use it. After all, GPS is fast and more accurate in finding out the location and need no expertise.

But every technology has its own limitation. The reputation of the battery of these high-tech gadgets like smartphones, GPS, etc. is not very encouraging. A portable power bank may help you get your GPS’ battery sustained for longer, but your state-of-the-art GPS may not get signal in the wilderness. In such a scenario, a compass can come very handy for you to find your current location and route to your destination.

You’re quite likely to crash or misplace your phone during hiking. A lot of people, therefore, avoid carrying their phones. It’s wise not to entirely depend on the phone.

These are the reasons we have included the compass in our “Ultimate Backpacking Checklist.” Moreover, a compass is capable of functioning autonomously. It can work without even a map. On top of everything, it doesn’t need a battery to operate. 

Know Your Compass

Before you learn how to use a compass, you need to get yourself acquainted with the components of a compass.


The baseplate is basically the base of the compass, made of plastic and rectangular in size. You can see the map as it’s see-through. It gives you precise reading and helps you draw the straight lines on the map.  It has straight edges, at least on one side, for measuring the distance on a map correctly.


It’s the part of the baseplate. The unit of the ruler is generally in either inches or centimeters. You have to understand the link between rulers of a compass and a map if you want to learn how to use a compass.    


Direction-of-travel-arrow is one of the most significant components of the compass. You can find it at the edge of the baseplate. You have to start by pointing this arrow towards the direction you intend to travel. You will use it as an index line while following a bearing.  

components of the compass

Rotating Bezel

You can find rotating bezel or compass housing inside the compass elements. Some people call it ‘azimuth’ ring. The function of the rotating bezel is to spin around the compass needle. This outside circle of the compass is marked with 0 to 360 degrees to orient a map. It gives you accurate bearings of direction. It is also marked with cardinal points – N, NE, E, SE, S, SW, W, and NW.

Index Line

You can find the index line just above the rotating bezel, which is the continuation of the direction-of-travel-arrow. Some people call it ‘read bearing here.’ It may be red or black in color. You’ll use it to read the degree of the location or compass bearing.   

Magnetized Needle

The magnetized needle, as the name suggests, is a magnetized metal. It always points to the magnetic pole, which is north. It’s mostly not the true north. The needle is usually colored, either red or white. It’ll help you orient yourself in different directions.

Orienting Arrow

It’s clearly drawn inside the compass housing. If you turn the dial of the compass, it’ll rotate.  You have to align it with the magnetic needle of the compass while taking a compass bearing. It ensures that the needle always points towards the north.

Orienting Lines

These are the string of lines located parallelly inside the compass housing. You got to align these lines with the horizontal lines drawn on the map. Doing so, you can align the north and south lines with the map accurately.

Understand The Declination

The magnetized needle of the compass points to the magnetic north, and maps are drawn based on ‘true north.’ In most of the locations, the magnetic north will differ a bit from the true north. This difference between true north on the map & magnetic north in the compass is known as “declination.” 

The difference is generally 15-20 degrees. In some cases, it might be just a few degrees depending on the locations. But, a small oversight in calculating this difference may lead you in the wrong direction. This is why you must adjust your compass correctly for declination.


Before you start adjusting for declination, you need to know declination value in the area you intend to travel to. Most of the maps should have the declination value, which changes from time to time. Therefore, it becomes imperative to check the date the map updated last. It’s wise to visit the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) website or ask them to provide you the consultation. Their website also has a calculator to find out the declination of a particular location. 

Now that you found out the declination values, time to adjust your compass. Every compass has a different method for adjusting the declination. You need to refer to the manual of the manufacturer of the compass. Besides, in most compasses, you need to push the bezel softly to rotate it to adjust the difference.

Orient Your Map

Orienting a map is a skill that helps you associate the map to what you find in your surroundings. It may appear convoluted to many people from the phrase itself, but trust me, it’s not that complicated.  

You’ll use your compass for orienting the map to get the direction. You must adjust the declination in your compass before you start orienting your map.

  • First of all, you have to lay your map on an even surface or table so that the map’s locations are spread out correctly. You may miss out on some places if your map is wrinkled or creased.

  • Now, put your compass on the map. Make sure that the ‘direction-of-travel-arrow’ points towards the top of the map.

  • Turn the ‘bezel’ until the north is aligned with the ‘direction-of-travel-arrow.’ It means both should now be pointing towards the top of the map.

  • While the arrows are still pointing to the top of the map, start moving the baseplate slowly until one of the straight edges of the compass is placed in alignment with one of your map’s sides.

  • Lastly, start rotating yourself, holding both the map and compass. Continue with the rotation until the ‘magnetized needle’ is aligned with ‘orienting arrow.’   

Now that you have oriented your map accurately, you should not have any issue using it with your compass.

Learn to take a bearing

Bearing helps you understand where you are and towards what direction you have to move forward. Bearings are taken based on your starting point, not the destination. You and your friend may not reach the same location from a different starting point, even if both of you follow the same bearing.

You can take the bearing by two different methods – ‘Bearing from a Map’ and ‘Bearing in the Field.’   

Bearing from a Map

  • Place your map on the even surface or camp table.

  • Now mark your current location and the location of your destination. Make a straight line between the two.

  • Align the baseplate’s edge on this line to ensure that the ‘direction-of-travel-arrow’ is pointing towards your destination’s direction.

  • Now turn the bezel until the orienting lines are parallel to the north-south lines on your map. Note that the magnetized needle must point towards the north during the process.
  • Find your index line and check the number it’s aligned with. That’s your bearing. You can use this bearing to reach your destination.

  • Now rotate your body holding the compass. Make sure that the ‘direction-of-travel-arrow’ is pointing away from you. Continue turning slowly until the ‘magnetized needle’ is aligned with the ‘orienting arrow.’

  • The ‘direction-of-travel-arrow’ should now be in line with the bearing number you just have taken. Follow it to reach your destination.

Bearing in the Field

You may want to know your location amid a trail. It’s possible to figure out where you are by using the bearing.  

  • First of all, you have to find a landmark like mountains, lakes, etc. in the area. You should be able to locate the same on your map as well.

  • Now hold your compass horizontally and point the ‘direction-of-travel-arrow’ towards the landmark.

  • Start spinning the bezel slowly until the ‘magnetized needle’ is aligned with the ‘orienting arrow.’

  • Check the index line to find out the bearing you just have taken.
  • Now it’s time to take out the map. Place one corner of the compass’ straight edge on the landmark. Rotate the whole compass (baseplate, not the bezel) until ‘N’ on the bezel pointing towards north on the map, and the ‘orienting lines’ are aligned with north and south lines on the map.

  • Keep ‘direction-of-travel-arrow’ to the direction of the landmark while you are doing this.

  • Draw a line from the landmark towards the ‘orienting arrow’ along the edge of the compass. The point where the line from the landmark crosses the trail on the map is your location.
compass pointed towards a mountain for taking the bearing


If you are not on a straight location like a trail, you may find it difficult to locate yourself on the map using just one landmark. In such a scenario, you have to use multiple landmarks. This process of figuring out the point where two or more bearings captured from different locations meet is called ‘Triangulation.’    

You need to follow the same steps as mentioned above with the other landmarks. These landmarks should at least be 20-60 degrees away from each other.

The lines do not always meet at a single point. In most instances, these three lines will create a little triangle. Your location should be in and around this small area. 

Learn to Deal with Hindrances

More often than not, you may find yourself in trouble on the trail despite having the best preparation. You may come across a fallen tree or a muddy area or a field covered with a massive chunk of ice. You don’t need to get frightened if you know how to play around with your compass.

  • Give a break to your hiking as soon as you find any such hindrances on your trail. Take a new bearing with or without a map.

  • Do an addition or subtraction of 90-degrees from your original bearing. Set the bearing to one of the directions that appear smooth to you. If you had the bearing of 150-degrees, your new bearing should be 60-degrees or 240 degrees.

  • You can now start hiking following the new bearing. Continue walking until you cross the hindrances. Don’t forget to keep a count of the distances you just have covered. One of the easiest ways to do so is to keep the count of your steps. Try to maintain the steps equal to get the count as accurate as possible.

  • Return to your previous bearing as soon as you clear the hindrance and move forward until you cross it on the same line

  • Now do the addition or subtraction of 90-degrees from your original bearing. But it should be reversed this time. For instance, if you made the changes to your original bearing 150-degree to 60-degrees earlier by subtracting 90-degree, you have to change it to 240-degree now by adding 90-degree. If you changed your initial bearing to 240-degree by adding 90-degree before, you need to change it to 60-degree now by subtracting 90-degree.

  • Hike the same number of steps you did in step 3 following the latest bearing you just have taken. This should take you back to your original trail.

  • Cheers! You have now overcome the hindrance on your trail with the help of just a compass.

Types of Compass

There are various types of compasses available in the market. I’ll try to give you a brief idea of these compasses here. 

Basic compass

A basic compass comes with a magnetized needle and a static 360-degree dial. Even though it can detect North, South, East, and West, but it’s not capable enough to give you the right direction. You can carry it as a backup to use in an emergency. It’s not very expensive. It’s small in size, which is why it doesn’t take much space.

Baseplate or Orienteering Compass

The most popular and extensively used compass is the baseplate compass. It’s user-friendly, dependable, and full of features. Moreover, it’s light in weight and doesn’t occupy much space. It comes with very few components, very sturdy, and doesn’t slip from the hand.

Hikers use this compass mostly for orienteering. It’s specially designed to use with the map. You can also use it without a map.

It has got a transparent quadrilateral base made of plastic. You can see the map through it. There is a ruler to calculate the distances on the map. A magnifying glass attached to it help you read the fine print and topographical features. You may find some baseplate compasses with the luminous feature for using it in the night comfortably.

It’s ideal for finding out where you are and taking the bearing from a map. You may find it challenging to use while following the bearing as it doesn’t have the detection apparatus.

Sighting or Lensatic or Military Compass

It’s more like a baseplate compass except that it comes with a viewer or mirror that helps you take the more accurate bearings. You can detect your destination or campsite more efficiently by viewing it through the viewer. It’s widely used in the military and forest officers for its meticulousness.

It’s perfect for capturing the bearing in the field but may not be suitable for use with the map as it does not have a straight edge.

It’s more than what needed for most of the hikers. It’s a bit heavier and not user-friendly. You need to do some practice before taking it to the trail. It may appear a bit expensive to some.

Thumb Compass

When you are in a hurry, you would hate to take out your compass and take the bearings using both hands. Most of the compasses need to figure out the north very quickly. That’s precisely when the thump compass comes in the picture.

It’s ubiquitous in Europe. You can call it a minimalist baseplate compass. The size of it is almost half of the most popular compasses. It’s tiny enough to ring in your thump.   

It looks very uncomplicated but may turn out to be perplexing to the novices. Start with a baseplate compass to learn how to take the bearing properly, and later you can use thumb compass.         

Pocket Compass

Pocket compass has been there for long. It’s small in size. It comes with a flip cover over the dial. As the name indicates, you can fit it easily in your pocket. It doesn’t work as efficiently as the other compasses but inexpensive. It may work to some extent for taking a bearing but not very compatible with the map.

Button Compass

Button compass is very low-priced and very tiny in size. You may find them in bracelets or keychains even and can lose it quickly. It doesn’t give a precise reading and may even break anytime.  It’s highly advisable not to use it as a navigation tool during hiking. You can use it as a toy or novelty.

Features A Compass Should Have

Take the following into consideration before buying a compass.


A compass you are carrying with you in the wilderness should not be much complicated. It should be easy to use, uncomplicated & straightforward.


If your compass costs you an arm and a leg, you shouldn’t buy it. You must pick up a compass which is not just user-friendly but cost-effective as well.


Buying a cost-effective and easy-to-use compass doesn’t necessarily mean that you would buy a compass that you can’t rely on when you lose the direction in the trail. You should buy the compass of a reputed brand, not the ones available at 5$ online.

Adjustable Declination

You must have known by now how crucial the ‘declination adjustment.’ Try to buy a compass with the feature of ‘declination adjustment’ as it would help you adjust the declination fast and easy. You may not feel the need for this feature if you don’t travel outside the locality you live in. But you’ll love this feature if you are a regular hiker in different areas.   

Magnifying Glass

Magnifying Glass is one of the features you would love to have in your compass. It helps you see the things on the map clearly. You may easily spot a mountain or river in the map but may find it challenging to locate swamps, borderline, and other tiny components on the map.  


The feature like luminous may look trivial to you as long as you are hiking in the day only. You will realize the importance of it if you have to refer to your compass and map in the night. 


The clinometer feature helps you assess the height of the tall things.

Smartphone as a Compass

Will there be anything left that our smartphone won’t be able to do for us? Literally, it’s doing almost everything for us already. Your smartphone doing the work of a compass won’t make anyone astonished.

You need to install the correct app for your smartphone to work as a compass without any GPS. You can try one of the following apps –

The apps use your smartphone’s inbuilt magnetometer. You just need to do an easy calibration process before it starts working as a compass for you. It can even tell you if you lose your way.  

As mentioned in the very beginning that you can’t wholly rely on any electronic gadget. Your smartphone can’t work if the battery gets drained while you are in the middle of a trail. So, stick to the old-fashioned way of using compass during hiking.


Compass may appear to be a bit complex tool to many people, but it’s not as intricate as it seems to be if you learn it. Trust me, it’s worth learning. There is no other tool as crucial as a compass during your trail in the wilderness. You will never lose your way if you know how to use a compass. You will never have to worry about the batteries going down in the trail.

Compass will always be the part of any backpacking regardless of whether you are a new or seasoned backpacker.     

You must be confident about how to use a compass by now. What are you waiting for? Go & hit the trails!


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