April 02, 2021 9 min read

Imagine you’re out exploring the wonders of nature and you veer off your backpacking route just for a moment to capture a gorgeous wildlife photo. After a few perfect snaps, you realize you've wandered too far from the trail. An hour or so goes by, and you're still walking in circles, frantically trying to find your way back to the road that leads to civilization.

It’s in this desperate moment that it dawns on you that adventuring with a compass in hand can actually save your life. That is, if you also know how to use a compass. As long as you have a compass on your backpacking checklist and you learn how to use it, you never have to worry about getting lost in the wilderness when nature robs your sense of direction.  

Once you have your compass in hand, get the navigational know-how to use it by reading our comprehensive guide.

To ensure you have the full rundown of how to use a compass, here's what we'll cover:

Why Should I Learn to Use a Compass?

In an era when we all rely on technology to navigate through cities and remote areas, it's easy to dismiss the importance of a compass. Here are a few reasons why a you shouldn't rely solely on technology when out in the wild and why a compass should always be a mainstay of your backpacking essentials:

  • Digital navigational devices use batteries that can fail at any time: It's really nice to have an icon on a screen or a voice that tells you when to turn right or left. But there is a catch. Smartphones and hiking GPS gadgets use batteries that eventually run out.
  • A poor signal may render your digital navigational device useless: When you wander off the beaten path, you can't always rely on your cell phone's signal to get you out of the woods.
  • GPS gadgets do break down easily: Most tech devices tend to break down when dropped, come into contact with water, or are exposed to extreme heat or cold. Since they are unreliable in the outdoors, you have to protect them with a case and bring a backup option. Otherwise, you’ll be in big trouble if they break.  
  • A compass is a passport to explore new lands: When you want to explore unchartered lands that few have stepped foot on before, bringing a compass and a map with you is the safest bet so you can trek those exciting locations without worrying about getting lost.
  • A compass is constructed for rough use: A well-made compass is strong and durable. It won't let you down when you get it wet when crossing a stream, and you also don't have to deal with the low signal or battery issues that come with mechanical devices.

TAKEAWAY: A compass may seem old-fashioned, but it’s the best navigational tool money can buy. 


The Anatomy of a Compass

Now you know why a compass is indispensable. But there is little point bringing it on your backpacking trips if you can’t use it properly. So, before we learn how to operate it, let’s first look at the makeup of a compass.

Basic Parts

  • Baseplate: This is where all the compass elements are located. It’s usually made of tough and clear acrylic plastic that allows you to see your map below. It also has straight sides that you can use as a ruler to draw lines.
  • Direction of Travel Arrow: An arrow on the baseplate that shows you the direction to point your compass when taking a bearing.
  • Index Line: An extension of the direction-of-travel arrow. It marks where you’ll read the bearing and also lets you confirm your declination.
  • Compass Housing: The liquid-filled plastic circle that houses the magnetized needle. 
  • Rotating Bezel: Also known as the azimuth ring, it’s the twistable dial surrounding the compass housing marked with number degrees.
  • Magnetic Needle: The free-floating arrow that is located inside the bezel. In a baseplate compass, red denotes magnetic north.
  • Orienting Arrow: A big non-magnetic arrow marked on the base of the compass housing. It's the arrow you want to place the needle into.
  • Orienting or Grid Lines: Parallel lines that rotate with the bezel. They allow you to align your compass with map grid lines to nail down your direction.

Different Types of Compasses

Let’s take a look at the types of compasses that are best suited for the outdoors.

  • Baseplate Compass: Made of transparent plastic, this is the most popular outdoor compass. It's easy-to-use, lightweight, and takes up less space, making it perfect for backpacking. And when you want to pack light, don't forget the importance of investing in light sleeping pads and ultralight synthetic sleeping bags.
  • Lensatic Compass: Also known as a sighting compass, this compass has a glass lens and a sight wire in the cover that helps set highly accurate bearings. It allows the user to read the compass bearings while making direct eye contact with the target object.
  • Thumb Compass: This compass is small enough to fit around your thumb, and it allows the map and compass to be held together in one hand. 
thumb compass
Image Source: Amazon.com

Essential Compass Vocabulary

Let’s briefly go through some common navigation terms.

  • True North: Refers to the physical North Pole of the earth.
  • Magnetic North: The magnet needle points to the magnetic north, following the Earth’s magnetic field, which is constantly changing.
  • Grid North: Refers to the top of your map, but instead of being a single point, it’s a line.
  • Declination: The number of degrees between true north and magnetic north and whether they’re to the east or west of true north. The angle varies depending on your location and changes gradually as the earth's tectonic plates move. 
  • Bearing: A bearing is the direction of something else (campsite, peak, or your final destination) relative to your current position. Bearings are given in degrees between 0 (north) back around through 360 degrees to north again.

TIP: When using a compass, put away any metal objects as they could alter the magnetic needle’s behavior.

Adjusting for Declination

As we mentioned above, the difference between the true (geographic) north and magnetic north is called magnetic declination. Since the magnetic north changes slightly every year, you need to account for the difference between the two norths—a process known as adjusting for declination. 

Otherwise, you’ll end up steering off-course. (For tips on how to increase your odds of survival when you’re totally stranded in the woods, check out these 7 backpacking survival skills.)

Correcting declination is easy—you just need to add or subtract your given declination degree from the bearing, and you're good to go. Each map displays the declination value for the area it covers, but if it's several years old, you'll need to calculate how much declination has changed and adjust your compass accordingly. 

Thankfully, you can quickly find the accurate declination of your backpacking destination by using an online declination calculator.  

true north compass

Using a Compass Without a Map

Ok, so armed with your knowledge of compass vocabulary and your new (or old) compass, let’s now learn how to use a compass without a map.

  • First, determine where you want to go—preferably a visible landmark in the distance. 
  • Hold the compass level in the palm and be sure the direction-of-travel arrow points straight at the landmark. Holding it level ensures it provides an accurate reading.
  • Next, while still holding the compass, check the needle to see which way the red point is pointing to—that’s the magnetic north.
  • Slowly rotate the bezel until you have the orienting arrow directly underneath the compass needle's red end—(a step known as "putting the red in the shed").
  • Note the bearing number on the index line. This is the bearing between your current location and the landmark in the distance.
  • Now walk in the direction of your bearing. For more precision, repeat these steps every several hundred meters. 

Using a Compass to Find Your Location on a Map

Use the following steps to figure out your location on a map:

  • Step 1: Have the supplies you need—a compass, a pencil, and an updated map of the area you want to go backpacking.
  • Step 2: Look around the landscape; find at least two easily identifiable landmarks and then locate them on your map. Label them as P1 and P2. For accuracy, pick landmarks that are at least 20 degrees away from each other.
  • Step 3: Find a flat surface in the ground to lay your map down on and place the compass on top of your map. Using your compass, position your map so that the direction-of-travel arrow points toward the top of the map. Then twist the bezel until the north (N) marker aligns with the direction-of-travel arrow. 
  • Note:  The grid lines on your compass should align with the north-south grid lines on the map.
  • Step 4: Hold the compass level on your palm in front of your chest with the direction-of-travel-arrow pointing straight toward landmark P1. Turn the bezel until north (N or 0 degrees) aligns with the red part of the needle. The number next to the index line is your bearing.
  • Step 5: Place your compass on the map with the straightedge corner touching P1. Turn the whole compass until its north and south markings line up with north and south on the map. Using your pencil, draw a line along the edge of the compass, starting from the landmark going backward. 
  • Step 6: Repeat steps 3 and 4 using P2 instead of P1. Your approximate location is around where the two lines cross.

Using a Compass With a Map if You Have a Location and Destination

If you already know your current location and you want to get to your favorite backpacking destination on your map, use these steps.

  • Step 1: Position the edge of your compass baseplate on your current location. Turn the whole compass until its straight side makes a line between your current position and destination. Make sure the orienting arrow points away from where you are and towards your destination.
  • Step 2: Twist the bezel until the grid lines on the compass align with north and south on the map. 
  • Step 3: Read the degree marking at the top of the compass right under the index line—that’s your bearing.
  • Step 4: Hold the compass on your palm in front of your chest and turn your body until the compass’s needle lines up with 0 degrees on the compass or red is in the shed. Your direction of travel arrow now points towards your destination. 
Lensatic Compass

How to Use a Lensatic Compass

While lensatic compasses are mostly used by the military, they can also be helpful to outdoor enthusiasts. As we mentioned before, this compass is designed quite differently from a baseplate compass, and it has some sophisticated features.

Basically, it comprises a metallic cover, a base, and a lens bracket. The cover protects the compass and also contains a wire stretched from top to bottom—the sight line. The base houses the floating dial, bezel ring, and a curved wire thumb loop. The lens bracket, which also folds out, covers the compass and contains the reading lens.

Below, we will walk you through the most precise method of using a lensatic compass.

  • Step 1: Unfold the compass and hold it in your preferred hand. The cover should stand at a 90-degree angle and the lens at 30-degrees.
  • Step 2: Pull the thumb ring halfway, put your thumb through it, and position the index finger on the body of the compass to steady it. Wrap the other fingers around your thumb for support.
  • Step 3: For better stability, take the other hand and grab the hand holding the compass. Now raise the compass to eye level. It should look like you are aiming with a handgun.
  • Step 4: Make sure the compass is level with the ground, then locate a landmark by looking through the sighting wire while rotating your entire body to align with it.
  • Step 5: Center the sighting wire on your target, look through the magnifying lens, and read the numbers on the inner dial. Now you've found your bearings.
  • Step 6: To set course, turn the bezel until the line etched into the compass glass gets in line with the north direction arrow. In case your target is obscured when trekking, you'll always know that when the north arrow is lined up with this line, the sight wire will always point you to your destination. 

Pack Your Compass and Hit the Trails Like a Pro

While using a compass isn't as straightforward as using a GPS application on your phone, it’s a far safer and reliable option. Polishing up your compass navigation skills will give you peace of mind when exploring new frontiers and keep you safe by helping you pinpoint your location and destination when you stray off trail.

But before setting off, make sure your trusty compass works perfectly and is free of any damage. 

Do you have some experience using a compass? Have a question or a helpful tip? Feel free to drop it in the comment section below. We'd sure appreciate your thoughts!

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