How to Use A Compass [The Easy Way]

Every survivalist knows the extreme importance of owning and knowing how to use a compass. And everyone should own a physical compass on top of a digital one. There’s nothing more reliable than a device that does not need electricity to function.

Whenever you go out hiking, camping or sightseeing, a physical compass is a must to have. Your phone will work for a while to guide you, but if something unpredictable happens, and the hike turns to be longer than you planned, the phone won’t be able to help.

Having such a tool on hand is vital as it will help you navigate your way into and out of a location. You will always be able to find your bearings with this simple, but effective little device.

I’ll show you in a few easy steps how to use and read a compass. If you want to make sure you get yourself a good one, check my tips on how to choose the best compass.

How to Use A Compass

Having a compass is only half the job. Using one is what your survival depends on. I’ll teach you step by step what you have to do to learn how to use a compass and read it, so you don’t get stuck in the wilderness with no way home.

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.

Baseplate Compass

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.

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.

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.

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 Parts


The 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.


An 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 Marks

You can use this in order to help in finding identifiable declinations and is inside of the dial on the compass.


The dial is the circular plate that goes outside the perimeter of the round compass.

Degree Dial

This 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 Travel

The “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.


The housing of the unit is made of a transparent plastic material: Inside of this is where the magnetized compass needle is located.

Index Pointer

If 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 Needle

This 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.


Some compasses add a magnifier for convenience as it makes reading maps easier.


Some 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 Arrow

An 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 Line

There 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.


Different scales might appear along the side of the compass that can help you in working with different maps.


Some compasses have a sight included so you can aim the device at objects at a distance.

Magnetic North versus True North – Learn the Difference

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.

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. 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.

Declinations Make All The Difference

Compass declination

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 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.

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. You can read more tips on how to adjust a compass declination here.

Your Bearings and Mapping It Out

When using the compass, place your focus on an object or landmark in the distance. Look along the arrow of direction inside the compass and follow it outward toward your chosen landmark.

Focus about 100 feet out, but not 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 another landscape.

This process is relatively easy, but what happens when conditions make visibility low or limited?

If you have someone with you, you can ask them to step ahead about 40 to 50 feet, or as much as the current visibility conditions will allow. You can then use them as a reference point.

If you can wait it out and to let visibility improve, say to let the fog lift or rain let up, then, it is best you do so.

Once you know 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. 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, then 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 to make a line, to ensure a straight trajectory when drawing the line. If you stay along the same path as you move away from the current location, you should be on the line that you placed on the map.

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.

Map and Compass

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 the East or West declination by subtracting or adding degrees accordingly.


Learning about how to use a compass, how to identify where you are and how to orient the direction of travel, is not everything.

Once you know where all the parts are and how they work, you’ll become a pro at reading a compass. Knowing the anatomy of a compass is critical to understanding how to use the device.

But, practice makes perfect. So go on and exercise your compass reading skills, 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. Let me know how long it took you.


6 thoughts on “How to Use A Compass [The Easy Way]”

  1. 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!

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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?

  6. 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.


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