How To Use A Compass For Navigation

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Modern GPS has allowed a user to determine their location fast and accurately. But there is only one flaw. It will not work in the event it runs out of battery or malfunctions. 


An analog Compass is non-destructive. They do not require batteries or software updates. Clouds and canyons can prevent your GPS to track the satellite. It is one of the 10 Hiking Essentials for Beginners. Compasses can work with or without a map. It is one of the most powerful tools in navigation that can save your life.

Read more: Top 10 Survival Gear


There are a few types of compasses such as the Baseplate compass, Orienteering Compass, and the Lensatic Compass. In this article, we are going to focus on the Baseplate compass. Baseplate compasses are commonly used by backpackers, hikers, and the military as they are very precise and durable. It is a liquid-filled compass that is attached to a flat clear piece of plastic.

Table of Contents

Parts of the compass

Parts of a compass

The Baseplate is clear so that you can put it on top of the map, and see the map right through the baseplate. You will see that there are Ruler Measurements, which you can use with the map scale found on the legend of your map. This way, you can estimate the distance. There is a Travel Arrow, so you know where to point your compass. 


The Rotating Bezel is a big dial that rotates freely, which shows the various degrees from 0 to 360 degrees. This allows a more precise direction. Instead of saying East, you would say “a bearing of 90 degrees”. There is a marker line above the bezel called the Index Line. This shows the index of your bearings. 


The Magnetized Needle points to the magnetic north pole. The magnetic north is different from the Earth’s True North. It is usually off the True North by several degrees. That is where the declination scale comes in. Declination is the angle difference between the True North and the magnetic north.  


Maps are generally oriented towards the true north. So the N on your compass should point to the true north when you orient your compass. There is a Declination Scale found with the number of degrees in the legend of your topographic map. 


Read more: How To Read A Topographic Map


Declination value changes over time, so ensure you get the latest readings. Also, declination readings vary by location. Once you have it, you can calibrate the compass to the appropriate declination settings. 


There is an Orienting Arrow on your compass to orient the bezel. When the magnetic needle and orientation arrow are aligned, your bezel’s north marker will point to your true north.

How to use your compass

How To Find Your Location

Then you can now use your compass with your map. Put your map flat on a flat rock or your knee. Hold your compass level, so it will allow your needle to point north. Never hold it near any metal objects as they will interfere with the magnetic needles. Point the direction of the travel arrow towards the destination.


Use the edge of the baseline compass as a ruler, to connect between your current position and your destination. You can know how far the destination is by looking at the map’s scale.


You can rotate the bezel until the travel arrow is aligned to the top of the map. At the same time, the Orientating Lines should be parallel to the grid lines of the map. Another guide is to use the edge of the map as a reference. Look at the index to read the bearing in degrees. Use the compass to follow the bearing.

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Now, you can remove the compass from the map. Hold the compass in front of you, with the travel arrow pointing away from you. Align the bearings with the travel arrow. Rotate your whole body until the magnetic arrow is inside the orientation arrow pointing north. This is called “Red in the shed”. With the compass correctly positioned and you are ready to walk by following this bearing.


When you are hiking, it is good practice to check your bearings from time to time. This ensures you are going in the right direction. Remember to move the compass in the direction of the travel arrow, and not mistakenly follow the magnetic needle. Unless you are traveling north, be aware that the magnetic needle is usually pointing to another side.


If you think you may be going off track, just rotate your body with the compass on your palm until you get “Red in the Shed”.


To ensure you are going in the direction of the travel arrow, pick a not too distant object like a large rock. Follow the direction until you reach the object and then recheck with your compass to find the next distant guide point.


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How to find your location with your compass

First, identify a stationary landmark like a lake or mountain peak. Then you can transfer the bearing to your map, to know where you are. Point the travel arrow directly at the landmark. Rotate the bezel until the magnetize arrow is in the orientation arrow. Then the bearing is captured and you can transfer it to the map. 


At the map, locate the landmark on your mark and ensure the travel arrow is pointing to the landmark. Rotate the baseplate until the orienting lines are aligned with the edge of the map. Draw a line, along the edge of the baseplate.


To get a more accurate position, choose 3 prominent landmarks. Take another object slightly further away from your previous landmark and repeat the steps. When the lines intersect, it triangulates your position to tell you where your estimated location is. 


You will feel more assured of your safety when going outdoors, knowing that you have mastered the art of navigating with a compass and a map.

What's Next

For responsible travel, you can check out Leave No Trace Seven Principles.

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Jules and Ken

We are outdoor lovers, travelers, and writers all rolled into one. You have seen our posts here reviewing lots of different types of outdoor gear, camping equipment, kayaking to cycling. Our reviews are guided by our years of experience being outdoors. We are happy to share our knowledge with you so that you can make a better choice when you are outdoors.

We hope you enjoyed this article and if you have questions about using the Compass, or want to leave your own personal review, feel free to leave a comment below. We would love to hear from you.

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