How to Use a Compass, All You Need to Know!

Using a compass

What started out at as a fun hike in the woods can quickly turn into a nightmare if you get lost. Finding your way back to the starting point may prove to be a challenge if you keep going around in circles. But this doesn’t have to be your fate. Why not be smart about it and pack a compass? But even so, having a compass is awesome, but do you know how to use it?

If not, you’re in luck.  We’re going to teach you all you need to know about using a compass.

Some people may argue that using a GPS device is a smarter and easier option. While that may be so, let’s not forget that GPS devices are made up of electronic components. And it’s no secret that electronic devices can fail especially when you least expect it. Either that or they may run of battery power. How do you eliminate such unfortunate incidences? Learn how to use a compass.

Let’s dive right into it.

What Makes Up a Compass?

Before we explain how to use it, it’s important to know the different parts that make up a compass.

  • Base Plate

As the name suggests, this component is located underneath the compass and its clear back allows you to view the map. This same plate also helps you to take your bearings and aids in triangulation.

  • Travel Arrow​

The travel arrow is an important part of the compass which shows you the direction you must head towards. This arrow is located within the base plate and points away from the compass.

  • Index Line​

The index line is basically an extension of the travel arrow and it shows you where to read the bearings.

  • Rotating Bezel/Degree Dial​​

This is a circular component that’s clearly marked with number degrees from 0 to 360. You can twist this dial in a clockwise direction.

  • Magnetized Bezel/Needle

This is the spinning needle that’s located inside the compass housing but it’s designed to always point to the magnetic north.

  • Orienting Arrow

This is the non-magnetic arrow found inside the compass housing. The purpose of this arrow is to help line up the bezel with the directions on the map.

  • Compass Housing

This is the clear plastic that houses the magnetic and non-magnetic needles.

  • Orienting Lines

These are the lines found inside the compass housing and are designed to run parallel to the orienting arrow.

How to Read a Compass

You want to be able to read the cardinal points on a compass. As you might very well be aware off, a compass has four points; north, west, east and south. One habit you need to get rid of when reading your compass is using “left” and “right.”

If your arrow is between north and east, then your direction is northeast. Similarly, if you see the travel arrow between N and W, it means that you’re facing northwest.

True North vs. Magnetic North

Establishing the difference between true and magnetic north is important when it comes to effectively using a compass. This is where most users find the compass tricky to use because true and magnetic north are miles apart from each other. We explain the two:

  • True North

This is basically the point where all longitudinal lines intersect on the map. And this is referred to as the North Pole.

  • Magnetic North

Here we are referring to the tilt of the magnetic field. And it’s usually approximately 11ᵒ from the tilt of the earth’s axis.

As a result, the distance between the true and magnetic pole is sizeable. The angle between these two is what is referred to as the declination. Note that this declination will vary depending on your current location. And it’s important to always correct the declination to avoid heading towards the wrong direction.

Correcting the declination is a relatively simple task. This is done by either adding or subtracting the declination degrees from your bearing depending on whether you’re using a map or compass.

Now we discuss how to use the compass.

Compass in backpack

How to Hold the Compass Correctly

The first thing you want to do is to hold the compass correctly. Ideally you want to lay the compass flat in the palm of your hand. Then, extend your palm away from your chest. Try and hold the compass approximately halfway between your face and waist.

Be sure to hold the compass steadily in a comfortable arm position. And make sure the travel arrow is pointing straight away from you.

After doing this you must observe the compass to determine the direction that the needle is facing.

Determine the Direction You’re Facing

It’s important to establish the direction you’re currently facing before you can move forward. You do this by observing the direction the magnetic needle is facing. Ideally the needle must swing from one side to the other unless of course you’re already facing north.

Once you notice the swinging needle, the next step is to turn the degree dial up until the orienting arrows are aligned with the magnetic arrow.

To take it a step further, you can observe where the travel arrow is intersecting with the degree dial. Case in point — if the arrow intersects at 28, it therefore means you’re facing 28ᵒ in a particular direction.

How to Find Your Location Using Your Compass

Here you must establish your current location using your compass. And you’ll be happy to know that this is a relatively easy process. But even so, the trick is to first establish at least two well-known landmarks.

To make it easy for you, consider using either mountains or lakes as your go-to landmarks. Just be sure to always adjust your declination to avoid heading towards the wrong direction.

Once you have adjusted the declination, you follow these easy steps:

  • Use your compass to ensure that the travel arrow is pointing towards true north on your map.
  • The next step is to take a bearing of the first landmark that you have identified. You do this by aligning the direction of your travel arrow with the landmark.
  • Rotate the bezel up until the needle is aligned with the north marking.
  • Next up, place the corner of your compass on the identified landmark.
  • Rotate the compass until the needle aligns with the north on the bezel.
  • Draw a line across the edge using a pencil.
  • Repeat the same process for the other two landmarks.

The point where all your lines meet is your approximate location.

Simple, right?

checking your location using a compass

How to Determine Your Bearings Using Your Compass

Once you have determined your current location, it’s easy to travel to any point on your map using your compass. This can easily be done using the north, east, west and south markings. However you can use the degree numbers on the compass to determine your exact location using the bearings.

But be sure to constantly check your bearings just to make sure you’re headed in the right direction. Simply do the following:

  1. Place the corner of the base plate on your approximate location that you’ve identified using the above mentioned steps.
  2. Rotate the compass until the straight edge of your compass aligns with your location as well as your intended destination.
  3. Rotate the bezel until the lines on the base plate are in sync with the lines on your map.
  4. The number next to the index line is what’s referred to as your bearing.
  5. The next step is to hold your compass in front of you and start turning your body until a point where the north arrow aligns with the needle.


At this point your travel arrow should be pointing towards your intended destination. 

How to Continue Moving in the Intended Direction

To ensure you’re moving in the right direction, make sure you continue holding the compass in the correct position as described earlier, and follow the direction of the travel arrow.

Make it a point to continuously check your compass regularly to ensure you’re traveling in the intended direction. Just be sure not to accidentally move the degree dial from its position.

Always Focus on Distant Objects

Here’s a trick you’ll find useful to avoid going off track. Always aim to focus on distant objects during your hike such as trees and use them as guides. Just be sure not to focus on objects that are too far off.

When you reach each object, you look for another one in the same direction.

Types of Compasses

There are different types of compasses at your disposal. And the one you pick is entirely a matter of preference. We list the most common types:

  • Best Plate Compass

This type is hands down the most popular compass and widely used among outdoor enthusiasts. We believe that its popularity is largely owed to its affordability and ease of use. This is thanks to the see-through design of the compass that makes it easy to operate.

  • Lensatic Compass

Lensatic compasses are characterized by a flip-open design. Though not as affordable as the base plate compass, many hikers appreciate this type for its accurate bearings. In addition it’s an extremely durable device. However, it’s not the easiest compass to use as it has a higher learning curve.

  • Mountaineering Compasses

The needle on this compass is designed to always face north. With this compass you’ll need a degree dial to find directions.

Using Your Smartphone as a Compass

If you’re one of the tech savvy outdoor enthusiasts, you can consider using your Smartphone as a compass.

Most Smartphones feature built-in compasses. However you’ll first need to download an app compatible with the mobile device that you’re using. Are you using an iPhone? You can consider downloading the Smart Compass app. If you’re using an Android device, then the Digital Field Compass app is one of the best rated.

The advantage of using your smart mobile device as a compass is that it doesn’t require a GPS signal. These apps work by using your device’s magnometer to lead you towards the right direction.

But as mentioned earlier, you run the risk of your electronic device running out of battery. Our advice? Be sure to pack a power bank or better still, use the conventional compass.

Cellphone compass

A Few Handy Tips

You’re probably wondering just how difficult reading a compass can be, right? While it may appear pretty straightforward, there are few tips you need to keep in mind to ensure an accurate reading. Remember the following:

  • Under no circumstances must you tilt the compass. By tilting the compass, you risk allowing the needle to touch the clear lid. This unfortunately stops the needle from moving correctly thereby pointing in the wrong direction
  • Make sure you’re reading the correct end of the needle
  • Always keep the compass away from metal objects such as knives or key chains as this may cause a false reading



Still on the subject of giving you handy tips, it pays to know a few general facts regarding compass direction in relation to the region you’re hiking in:

  • If you happen to be venturing in Europe or North America, any time you’re hiking towards the sun, you’re heading in a southerly direction.
  • If you’re to the south of the equator, then you’ll be heading in the northerly direction if you’re facing the sun.

Final Words

It’s a basic tool, but if you’ve never used one before, you can find it quite intimidating. Using a compass doesn’t have to be a daunting task. By simply following the above mentioned tips, we’re certain you’ll be headed in the right direction.

Are you ready to venture into the wilderness now?