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How to Use a Compass [Beginners’ Guide]

Whether you are new to compass or have never seen one, you can learn to use a compass and map for navigation easily.

By Cody | @Cody

Updated on Aug 05, 2019

In theory, GPS signals will not be affected by bad weather condition, but in reality, it is easy to notice that it takes longer to get a GPS fix/lock on a cloudy, foggy, snowy, or rainy day. On some really bad condition, GPS devices may not even work. That’s why a compass is often considered a essentials gear for hiking beginners. It is also important to know how to use a compass when moving out through the wilderness.

How to Use Compass

A compass is a precision instrument. It tells you which direction magnetic north and gives you the ability to determine degrees of change or difference described in mils or degrees.

Getting to Know the Important Parts of a Compass

Most of the compass has a magnetic north seeking arrow, direction of travel arrow, index line, rotating bezel ring, orienting arrow, and base plate and straight edge. Some compass has a magnifying mirror that can be used to make a fire.

Important Parts of a Compass

The magnetic north seeking arrow is usually red and also called the magnetic needle. As it is name suggested, it spins around to point to the magnetic north, which is not the real north.

The direction of travel arrow is a fixed line or arrow that is outside the compass compartment.

The rotating bezel ring is around the magnetic needle that has the degree numbers from 0 to 360.

The stationary index line is a thin line that points in the same direction as the direction of travel line. It marks where you'll read your bearings inside the bezel.

The orienting arrow points to whatever you spin the bezel, which helps you orient the bezel. The space inside the arrow is the “shed”.

The base plate and straight edge are for taking measurements on your map, which will be addressed later in the article.

Magnetic North and True North

As mentioned, a compass always points to to the Magnetic North Pole instead of the True North (the North Pole). If you don't adjust your compass to account for the difference between magnetic north and true north, it can really mess up your navigation depending on where you are in the country.

Magnetic North and True North

The angle difference between true north and magnetic north is called declination. The declination will be a certain number of degrees to either the west or the east. You can find the declination on your maps along with the date. The declination degree changes every year. If your map hasn't been updated for several years, it's worth looking up. You can check the magnetic declination estimated value online.  

How to Adjust Declination

Once you know the declination for your region, you can refer to the steps below to adjust declination on your compass. Different brands of compass have different ways of setting the declination.

Adjust Declination on a Suunto Compass

Suunto compass comes with an adjustment key that can be used to easily adjust declination, but if you lose it, you can find a similar tool with a tiny blade-end to do the trick. With the adjustment key ready, turn the compass over, insert the metal key into the screw, and turn the key according to the declination degrees.

Adjust Declination Suunto

Adjust Declination on a Brunton Compass

A Brunton compass does not require a tool to adjust the declination. You just hold the center hub of the compass tightly and use the other hand to turn the bezel ring until the declination indicator is the correct number of degrees.

Adjust Declination Brunton

If you have a compass without adjustable declination, it is necessary to take into account the influence of the magnetic declination. The size of the impact varies depending on the location. Keep in mind that east declination is a positive number while a west declination is a negative number.

How to Use a Compass to Find the Right Direction

When you use the compass for navigation, don’t put any metal object near the compass. As you know, the north seeking arrow it's always going to point towards magnetic north. If you get anything that's metal around your compass, the north seeking arrow will follow that metal all the way around.

Find the Right Direction

To make sure you are walking in the correct direction, make the travel arrow point straight to your destination direction. For example, you already know that you should walk toward 40 degrees west, then you just rotate the bezel ring until 40 degrees west is over the stationary index line. Then turn the whole compass until red magnetic needle is in the shed. When that’s set, you can follow the direction of travel arrow to make sure you are already in the right course. Once you start moving all you have to do is just take your glance down and make sure that the magnetic needle in the shed.

You can also pick an object that is easy to see and rotate the bezel ring to let the travel arrow point to that object. When you reach the object by following your compass, pick another object in the path and do it again.

How to Use a Compass on a Map

Once you’ve set your declination, map orientation is simple. Let’s you are in point A and want to go to point B in the map. Follow the steps below to find the right path toward your destination.

Place your compass on the map with the direction of travel arrow pointing toward the top of the map.

Step 1. Open the Compass, and place it flat on the map.

Step 2. If you have a pencil, you can draw a line from point A to point B. Place your compass edge up against that line

Compass on Map

Step 3. Rotate the bezel until Orient orienteering arrows line is lined up with the North and South reference line on the map.

4. Read the number next to the index line, which is your bearing.

Step 5. Hold your compass and turn your body until you see the north arrow in the shed. Now your compass travel arrow should be pointing to your destination.

A GPS Tracker That Works in Serious Condition

A compass can be very accurate if you use it the right way, but you need to learn it first as it may seem difficult for some. In addition, it is not convenient to use a compass and map in rainy days. Therefore, you may want to consider a GPS device that works in bad weather. That’s when GoFindMe GPS Tracker comes into play.

Navigation and Communication Device

GoFindMe has built-in GPS and offline maps, which can help you find your way when there is no cell service. With 3 proof protection, it allows you to use in severe weather conditions. It provides real-time location tracking, so you can easily find your location and your friends location. What’s more, it also allows you to communicate with others GoFindMe users thanks to the LoRa Technology. If you do not want to learn how to use a compass, then you should bring something like GoFindMe as an alternative.


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