How to Use A Compass: The Basics of Compass Operation

How to use a compass
Mark Foster
Written by Mark Foster

Every survivalist knows the extreme importance of owning and knowing how to use a compass. Bear in mind, when discussing compasses in this article, we are not talking about the digital app downloads you can add to a cellular device.

While the digital compass is, indeed, convenient, that doesn’t mean you will be able to count on it in a survival situation. All you have to do is imagine the cellphone battery dying and you having no way to charge the device, to realize the futility of a digital compass in the wilderness.

For hiking, camping, outdoor adventure, and survival situations, experts recommend a hands-on physical compass.

Having such a tool on hand is vital as it will help you navigate your way into and out of a location and you will always be able to find your bearings with this simple, but effective tool. To that end, it takes just a bit of skill to use the compass and to couple it with other navigation solutions like maps.

Compass Parts

Before mastering how to read a compass, you need to know the various parts. Compasses tend to vary in design, but they do have some of the same basic working components. It is important to familiarize yourself with the basic compass layout.

Compass on a map

In your ability to identify the different parts of a compass, you can then begin to understand the instructions for the device’s operation. The fundamental components of a field compass are as follows:

Compass PartFunction
BaseplateThe manufacturer of the compass embeds the compass in or on a transparent plate. The plate is transparent and made out of plastic: This is the compass’ baseplate. This plate will feature a ruled edge so then you can utilize the compass with the maps of your choosing. The straight edge of the baseplate makes it convenient when attempting to draw straight lines from one point to another on a map as well.
BubbleAn air bubble is sometimes in the housing of the compass and you can use this feature just as you would use a level tool.
Declination MarksYou can use this in order to help in finding identifiable declinations and is inside of the dial on the compass.
DialThe dial is the circular plate that goes outside the perimeter of the round compass.
Degree DialThis circular dial appears around the compass. The dial twists and has 360 degrees appearing on it. To move the dial you must hold on to it and then rotate the compass’ housing.
Direction of TravelThe “Direction of Travel” is a reference to the arrow inside of the baseplate aiming in the direction away from the compass where you are heading.
HousingThe housing of the unit is made of a transparent plastic material: Inside of this is where the magnetized compass needle is located.
Index PointerIf the compass features an index pointer this feature appears on the circular dial of the compass right at the edge and butt of the direction of travel pointer.
Magnetic NeedleThis is a metal needle in the center of the compass. One end of the magnetic needle is red in color: This represents the cardinal direction of magnetic North. When you hold the compass steady and level the needle can move freely around in 360 degrees.
MagnifierSome compasses add a magnifier for convenience as it makes reading maps easier.
MirrorSome compasses are equipped with a mirror. This allows the user to see things at a distance while making use of the compass simultaneously. It also serves as a good emergency tool for signaling.
Orienting arrowAn arrow inside the compass and embedded on the housing: If you move the dial the arrow moves with the housing: This is for making the compass work with the use of a map.
Orienting lineThere are several orienting lines inside the compass and embedded on the housing, as well as the baseplate of the unit. The lines are parallel to one another.
ScalesDifferent scales might appear along the side of the compass that can help you in working with different maps.
SightSome compasses have a sight included so you can aim the device at objects at a distance.

Magnetic North versus True North – What Is The Big Deal?

When learning how to use a compass and map, the user must be able to identify the difference between two “North” references: True and magnetic.

The difference between the two types of identifications for the Northern cardinal direction is an important piece of information for the compass user. In having a full understanding of the distinct differences between magnetic and true North, the user of the compass can use the device with considerable confidence knowing you are using it properly.

Magnetic North versus True North

The reference of “True North” is indicative of the North Pole on a map: the literal meeting point of all of the map’s longitudinal lines. The Earth’s magnetic field influences a compass’ ability to point its arrow at what is known as “True North,” and this is why such devices will actually point to what is referenced as “Magnetic North.”

The Earth’s axis is tilted and there is an eleven to twenty-degree tilt of the Earth’s magnetic field that is responsible for the discrepancy for True North and what we know as Magnetic North.

The amount of degrees difference has to be accounted for; in other words, the magnetic shift makes a difference when it comes to the accuracy of any compass.

At first, you may question how just a few degrees makes any difference at all in identifying the Northern direction. Yet, if we consider that every single degree that is not accounted for along the stretch of a mile will result in the fact that you are some 30.5 meters or 100 feet off from your desired location, it becomes possible to see the importance of making up for the true and magnetic North discrepancies.

Using The Compass

Step 1: If you are using a small round compass without a base plate, you can hold the compass in your hand. You should place it flat on the palm as best as you are able to do so. If you are coupling the use of your compass with a map, you can place the compass right on the map or table surface.

The use of a compass featuring a baseplate will help in ensuring the compass remains stable while resting on a level surface. To check whether the surface you are using is level, you can check the bubble level if you have one as part of your compass’ feature set.

Step 2: Before you can determine what direction to move, you have to take the time to determine where you already are: In other words, orient yourself. If you are already in a position where you have magnetic North in front of you, the read portion of the arrow will align with the cardinal direction. If not, the plain metal part of the needle will move the left or right of the compass’ North point.

Compass Basics

Step 3: Before you can determine your direction of travel you have to manipulate the dial of the compass. The magnetic arrow has to be aligned with the orienting arrow and both need to point in the direction of Cardinal North. Once you align the latter features you will have a general direction of travel.

Note the cardinal points the arrow points to or between. For instance, if you are facing the Northwest direction, the arrow point will fall between the North and West points: Thus, Northwest is your direction of travel.

Step 4: For a far more accurate reading of the direction of travel, make sure you note the degrees indicated on the dial that fits around the circumference of the compass. For example, if the dial reads 30 degrees, your direction of travel is then 30 degrees northwest.

Declinations Make All The Difference

The difference between North as it appears on your compass and the difference as to where it appears on a map: this is what is called declination. The cause for the difference, as is identified in the discrepancy between true North and magnetic North, is due to the magnetic field surrounding the Earth.

To simplify the use of any compass, simply subtract or add the numerical amount of the identified declination from the degrees in your bearings. The latter formula is, however, dependent on if you are deriving bearings from the map or the compass you are using, and if you are West or East declination. If you are in the Eastern area declination, you subtract the declination amount, and if in the West, you add it. However, why?

Compass in the wild

When viewing a map of the United States you can find that the zero declination point runs straight through the states of Wisconsin, Illinois, and Alabama, albeit in a direction that is diagonal. Viewing in the eastern direction of this declination line, the orientation of the declination is west so it results in having Magnetic North a few degrees West from True North.

If we view the line in the Western direction then this is vice versa and the Magnetic North ends up being a few degrees West of the True North.

Your Bearings and Mapping it Out

When using the compass, you want to place your focus on some objects or landmarks that are a bit of a distance from your physical location. Use your eyes to run along the arrow of direction inside the compass and follow it outward toward a telephone pole, large rock, tree, or other large landscape elements. Focus about 100 feet out and do not attempt to focus on a mountain range, as this will diminish the navigation accuracy.

After you get to the guide point you initially choose, repeat the process and choose yet another landscape hallmark. The use of objects to serve as guideposts is relatively easy, but what happens when conditions make visibility low or limited?

If you have someone with you, you can ask that individual to step ahead about 40 to 50 feet or as much as the current visibility conditions will allow. You can then use the individual as a guidepost instead. Alternatively, if you have to opportunity to wait it out and to let visibility improve, say to let the fog lift or rain let up, then, by all means, do so.

Your Bearings and Mapping it Out

Once you have figured out the direction of travel it is time to mark it on the map you are using: Make sure you place the map on a flat surface first. Then put the compass on the topographic/geographic map you have selected with the orienting arrow directed toward the point known as “True North.”

Allow your compass’ edge to pass through the point on the map where you are situated currently, and let the orienting arrow point in the Northern direction. Take up a pencil or pen and make a line that runs through the present point of location.

Use the edge of the baseplate of the compass as you do, so to ensure a straight trajectory when designing the line. If you stay along the same path as you move away from the current location you will be moving along the direction of travel line and the line that you placed on the map in ink.

Maps and Your Bearings

You can also use a map first to find out what your bearings are and what direction you should be headed in to reach a desired locale. Put the compass down on your present location and have it aiming where you plan to travel. The edge of the compass should pass through where you are and point to the location of interest.

Now manipulate the compass’ degree dial until it forces the orienting arrow on the compass to line up with “True North.” You will find this maneuver also forces the orienting arrow to automatically line up with the north and south map lines.

After you have the orienting line in position, you no longer need the map. Remember to correct for the differences caused by and East or West declination by subtracting and adding degrees accordingly.

The Anatomy of A Compass…

As you examine the different directions on how to use a compass to find Magnetic and True North, how to identify where you are and how to orient the direction of travel, you will soon realize that knowing the anatomy of a compass is critical to understanding how to use the device. Once you know where all the parts are and how they work, mastering compass use becomes a far easier endeavor.

Compass using

It is best to practice your compass reading skills long before you find yourself in an outdoor adventure or survival situation.  Being able to read a map and to use a compass in order to know where you are and where you are heading is vital to outdoor survival!

Mark Foster
Mark Foster

Mark Foster loves to push his limits when it comes to survival in the wilderness. He might go for a 30-days adventure without any food or equipment except for a survival kit and a knife. We should mention that his survival kit has 122 items in it, so he know what he is doing. Mark is working on his book to share with the world all his experience gained during those brave adventures.

  • Jake Bryan

    Whilst I’ve not yet had to use my compass, I’m keen to learn more in case I have to! I know the basics but ideally I’d like to be able to go off-trail and off-route and be able to find my way back to a trail too. I don’t ever imagine I’ll use it too often but better safe than sorry. Don’t want to be walking around with a compass but not knowing how to use it. Useless otherwise!

  • Mark Foster

    My father used to say that there are basic survival skills that we have to learn: compass reading, map reading, starting a fire from scratch and filtering water using ordinary nature elements. When we are about to go camping, I remembered practicing for weeks on basic survival skills. That way, onsite, it was second nature to me. Learn and practice – your life may depend on these skills someday.

  • Natalie Green

    When you really know how to correctly use a compass and a map, its quite a feat to end up actually getting lost. My uncle taught me some of these skills years ago, and I still enjoy making a point to use them from time to time instead of other more modern way that are often available. Also I always love reading about true and magnetic North, but I think that’s just the science nerd in me.

  • Mark Foster

    Hi Natalie! When we were kids, my parents taught us basic survival skills to equip us. We have to practice a lot of map reading even before a trip. Our dad made us familiarize ourselves with the route and the map. GPS tracking was not yet used by then so its the good ole’ paper map and compass combo. Those were the days when you really have to know the skills, since there were no technology like we have today that can make trekking and camping easier.

  • Rebecca Jones

    I actually have no idea how to use a compass and I don’t think I’ve ever even held one. This article was very in-depth and thorough. Are there different brands of a compass or are they all the same? Where would I need to go to get a very good compass?

  • Mark Foster

    There are standard compasses available online like in Amazon or in any brick and mortar store. You’ve got to practice compass reading prior to your trip. That’s what I did growing up with my Dad. He taught us a lot about basic survival skills.