Our Guide on How to Use a Compass

Learning how to use a compass is something that many people learn as teenagers. However, some of us never had the chance to attain this skill.

When you’re out for a hike, knowing where you are is critical. There’s nothing worse than walking in circles for hours as darkness approaches. It can be quite scary and actually quite dangerous. With a compass and a map in hand, you’ll never have to worry about getting lost again. Navigation skills, like all skills, need to be practiced. If you learned how to use a compass years ago, it may no longer be fresh in your mind and could leave you stranded with limited supplies.

Losing sight of your trail can happen for a variety of reasons. It may be you are on a path that has not been hiked in a while, or maybe a snow shower will cover the trail. When you’re a master at using a compass, it will not matter if the path is visible.

In today’s technologically advanced world, many hikers rely on their phone’s GPS. This can work in many situations, but it’s not entirely foolproof. Your battery could die, or you may lose service, leaving you with no way to navigate. A compass will never let you down.

Reasons Serious Hikers Swear by Using a Compass

Man with compass in hand

Many people have invested in GPS systems that are not located on their phones. This can be an easy way to navigate. Under clear conditions, they will give you accurate locations, and you don’t need to learn much to use them. This is convenient, for sure, but again it’s not foolproof.

Because GPSs are electronic, they will succumb to the problems all electronic devices face. The batteries will deplete at the most inconvenient time. If you don’t have extra batteries, this can leave you stranded for hours or even days. Additionally, if you’re using an older unit, it may simply fail to function properly. One of the most significant flaws in relying on GPS is that it will only tell you the direction you’re facing as you work your way back to civilization.

Using a compass deletes all of these problems. They are exceptionally durable and reliable. Breaking a compass is very difficult, and you won’t have to worry about batteries or need to update it. The map you’ll be using with your compass is a bit more fragile but can easily be waterproofed to protect it from rain and other elements.

By keeping a compass and a map with you at all times and learning how to use them, you will never have to worry about being lost again. Every journey you decide to take can be tackled with confidence. You may not realize how many new things there are to see in your area, but once you start using a compass, certainly, you will never go back to your old ways of navigation.

Sometimes you may not be lost, but a compass is still useful. Even when you know your location, you may need to check out a map and use your compass to figure out your next destination. So, lost or simply searching for some new sights, a compass is a great companion.

8 Pieces of a Compass

Choice and compass

Getting familiar with the components of your compass will help you better understand how it works. Additionally, it will help you become a master when using it.


The baseplate is a clear backing that will allow you to see the map below it. More often than not, it will have a ruler edge. The ruled side will make taking bearings and triangulation much simpler.

Direction Arrow

This arrow tells you what direction your compass needs to be facing when you are following or taking bearings.

Rotating Bezel

The rotating bezel is also referred to as an azimuth ring. It’s the outer circle of the compass. It has markings from zero to three hundred and sixty degrees.

Index Line

The index line is also the ‘read bearing’ line. It’s just above the bezel. The index line is tells you where to read the bearings.

Orienting Arrow

The orienting arrow is used to help align the bezel with the map’s directions. The outline is shaped to fit the end of the magnetized needle.

Magnetized Needle

The magnetized needle is inside the bezel. It’s essential to realize that it will always point to magnetic north rather than true north. Many people don’t realize that magnetic and true north is a couple of hundred miles away from each other. Typically, this needle will be white or red, making it easy to see.

Declination Scale

On the inside of the bezel, you will notice hash marks. These are used to adjust declination. Declination is a changing angle between true north and magnetic north. There will be variances depending on where you are. As the earth’s tectonic plates shift, the angle will change. If your compass has not been adjusted, it will not give you the correct direction.

If you need to adjust for declination, you will need to check your map. Every map will have diagrams showing declination and the date of revision. The newer your map is, the better off you will be when it comes to accurate declination. If you have an old map, there are sites online that can help you figure out your declination. After figuring out your declination, you will subtract that number from your west bearing and add it to the east.

Orienting Lines

Your compass will have a set of parallel lines that rotate as you rotate the compass. When you align them with the north and south lines on your map, it will align your orienting arrow with the magnetic north.

Finding Your Location Using a Compass

Compass in hand

Once you practice a bit, using a compass is simple. Every time you plan on using a compass, you need to know at least two landmarks around you. Three is even better. Most hikers get familiar with the mountains and bodies of water, where they will be hiking. You will also need always to make declination adjustments.

Using Your Compass:

  • Start by orienting your map. To do this, make sure north on the map is facing toward true north.
  • Ensure that the north to south grid lines on the map are aligned with the fixed grid lines of your compass.
  • Next, align the direction arrow with the landmark and rotate the bezel so that the needle points north. This will give you the bearing of your first landmark.
  • Put the corner of your compass on the landmark on your map and rotate the compass so that the needle aligns with the north on the bezel.
  • Use the straight edge of the compass to draw a line the length of the compass.
  • Follow these steps for the next landmarks that you’re familiar with.
  • Once completed, the lines will intersect near your location.

Taking the time to practice in a familiar location can give you better success when on an unknown trail. Adventures in unfamiliar places will feel much more comfortable once you get the hang of using a compass.

Navigating with a Compass When You Know Your Location

Using compass

There are times you’ll be hiking a familiar path, but you’re uncertain of how to get to a specific landmark. Your compass and map will be your best friend during this type of situation. Here are the steps for using your compass to find your bearings.

  • Start by adjusting your compass for declination.
  • Orient your map so that it’s facing true north.
  • Put the corner of the breastplate on your location.
  • Rotate the compass, so a line is created between you and the landmark you’re searching for
  • The numbers next to the index line are the bearing.
  • Hold the compass in front of you, making sure it is level.
  • Turn yourself until the compass’s needle and the bezel arrow match.
  • The travel arrow is now pointing you to your destination.

Learning to do this takes a bit of practice, but it’s straightforward once you have it. Learning to use a compass correctly is a skill that’s useful no matter what age you are. Many people like to go to familiar territory to get comfortable with a new compass and practice their orienteering skills.


Investing in a compass will not cost you a fortune, and it can make your adventuring life more enjoyable. Additionally, having it with you on all hikes through the wilderness will keep you safer. You will need to make sure you have an area map: the newer the map, the better when it comes to declination and famous landmarks. Once you have a compass and a map of your desired location, you will be able to navigate your way to all the beautiful scenery that nature has to offer.

You can pick up a compass from a sporting goods store or make it easier on yourself and grab one from Amazon. It’s fun to learn how to use a compass. It’s a skill that can be passed down, keeping you and your family from being lost and facing the challenges that come along with that. Running out of food or water because you’re lost doesn’t need to worry you. You will be comfortable knowing that your location or direction is always just a few steps away.

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