How to Use a Compass Like a Pro

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Here’s the thing: If you consider yourself a true outdoorsman (or outdoorswoman), and you don’t know how to use a compass, it’s a little bit like being a football player who doesn’t know how to pass. When it comes to survival (or even just backcountry hiking or camping), it’s pretty much a fundamental and essential skill you simply need to learn.

While I have nothing against using GPS to get around (I use one myself), I still think that everyone – starting in childhood – should become good at compass navigation. Why? Because you never know when you’ll be lost in a survival situation with nothing but a compass and a map. Whether you’re 17 or 77, it’s never too late (or early) to learn about compass reading. In this article, I’ll do my best to teach you the ins and outs of how it works.

Compass Reading 101

To begin, there are four cardinal points on a compass- North, South, East, and West. Between each cardinal point, you’ll find intercardinal points. For example, halfway between North and East is referred to as “North East”. Likewise, halfway between South and West is referred to as “South West”. This is fairly intuitive to learn. No matter what compass you own, the end of the needle will always point North.

How to Use a Compass

Here’s how to read your compass:

Step 1: Hold your compass steady and level.
Step 2: See where the needle points.
Step 3: North is wherever the RED needle is pointing.
Most compasses (at least all the ones I’ve seen) have red needles that point north. Okay, so it isn’t rocket science. But to travel to a specific location, you’ll need to learn how to use a compass in conjunction with a map. This is what we call “Taking a bearing”. Below we’ll talk more about how that works

Compass Navigation Using a Map

Here’s a common scenario that happens to people while camping:

You head about 100 yards off your designated trail to setup camp. The next morning, you wake up and you’re completely surrounded by fog, making it impossible to make out any landmarks. However, you know your location on a map, so all you need to do is find your bearing so that you can get back to the trail.

What exactly does that mean? Here’s a handy video that explains it very well:

Common Compass Reading Mistakes

While learning how to use a compass is relatively straightforward, there are some mistakes you want to watch out for. The biggest mistake people make is not holding the compass level. This can skew the reading and cause you to walk in the wrong direction.

Also, use some common sense- if you’re in North America or Europe, walking towards the sun means you aren’t heading North, North East, or North West. Likewise, if you’re hiking in the South of the equator and are facing the sun, then the opposite is true- you are walking towards the North. Finally, compass navigation won’t work if you have it near metal objects (flashlights, knives, etc.) or magnets.

Buying a Good Compass – The Basics

With today’s technology dominated by GPS-assisted navigation, campers and hikers might not see compass navigation as useful. But it’s important that your GPS receiver shouldn’t replace compasses and maps. For one, compasses and maps don’t rely on batteries or satellite signals to operate. This means that you can use them no matter where you are in the world. With a GPS system, there’s always the possibility that something could go wrong, leaving you stranded. Let’s talk about the different types of compasses and how to buy the right one.

SE Military Prismatic Sighting Compass

Types of Floating-Needle Compass

A floating-needle compass is a compass that uses a magnetized needle to distinguish the North from the South. The good ones are filled with a liquid that helps stabilize the needle, allowing you to get a better reading. We can break down floating-needle compasses into three main types:

Basic Compasses:

For backpackers and hikers who stick to trails, these are a good and inexpensive option to consider. They contain the bare essentials, and lack some of the “extras” that you might find in advanced compasses. Compass reading with basic compasses is exactly the same as compass reading with advanced compasses (Example: Coleman Pocket Compass).

Advanced Compasses:

Although you’ll pay a little more, advanced compasses come with bonus features that can make navigation easier and more accurate. These “extras” might include mirrors, magnifiers, and a few other things. If you’re someone who regularly veers off designated trails, you should consider buying an advanced compass (Example: Suunto MC-2 Compass).

Accessory Compasses:

These compasses that are found on watches or keyrings. They’re typically very small, but can still point you towards the North. They are designed more for fun than anything else. By that, I mean that I wouldn’t buy an accessory compass for a deep trek into the wilderness. Instead, I might buy it for someone as a small gift (Example: Techion Key Chain Compass).

If you’re someone who always stays on the designated trail, then a basic compass might be okay for you. However, if you regularly hike away from designated trails, consider buying an advanced compass. Accessory compasses are better reserved as fun gifts or memorabilia, but that’s about all. To buy a model that will make compass navigation easier, you should understand a few more features of compasses.

Compass Features – What to Look For

Most serious backpackers use what we call an “orienting” or “base plate” compass. Here are some common features of compasses:

Magnetized Needle:

As I said earlier, the RED part of the needle will be the one that faces North. I’ve never seen a compass where this wasn’t the case.

Simply hold the compass level and the red needle will automatically orient itself towards the North.

Liquid-Filled Capsule:

Sometimes the “housing” (where the needle sits) will be filled with a special fluid that will help stabilize the needle. This nonfreezing fluid will prevent jiggling that could throw you off. It makes compass navigation much easier.
Rotating Bezel: Also known as an “Azimuth Ring’, this is a ring that is marked with degrees from 0 to 360. It can be found on the outer edge of your compass capsule, and is useful for when you’re trying to take an accurate bearing.

Base Plate and Ruler:

When learning how to use a compass, having a base plate and ruler can make it easier to measure distances on a map. Make sure you buy a compass that comes with the scales that you’re familiar/comfortable using.
Technically, the magnetized needle is the only feature you’ll need to differentiate the North from the South. But to making compass reading more reliable, you should buy a compass that comes with bonus features.

Digital Compasses

Bushnell Backtrack Digital Compass

Digital compasses give you the same basic information as a floating-needle compass. The only difference is that the reading is in digital format, making it easier to read. In general, I would recommend learning how to use a compass with a floating-needle model.

Battery-powered devices require batteries and calibration, two things that can fail. If you decide to buy a digital compass, still bring a traditional compass with you (just in case it fails). A good digital compass is the Bushnell Backtrack Digital Compass. It’s well-reviewed (4 out of 5 stars), relatively cheap (about $35), and is intuitive enough for beginners to use. This is a model I’ve personally field tested and can say with confidence that it works.

Bushnell Backtrack Digital Compass

What If You Don’t Have a Compass?

What if you lose your compass or forget to bring it with you? Don’t worry- there are ways to navigate the wilderness without one. One way is to use an analog watch. Here’s how it works: hold your analog watch level with the hour hand facing the sun. South will be about midway between the hour hand and the 12. This means that North will be 180-degrees in the opposite direction. This is a really useful way to orient yourself when compass navigation isn’t an option. Take a look:

Another thing you can do is navigate using the moon. If you see a crescent moon before the sun goes down, it means that the illuminated side of the moon is facing West. Likewise, if you see the moon after midnight, then the illuminated side of the moon is going to be facing East. Again, this is a simple and fairly way to orient yourself when compass reading isn’t available. Always use it as a backup through, and have your compass and map as a primary source for navigation.

How to Use a Compass – Bottom Line

Whether you’re a casual hiker or someone who takes survival very seriously, there’s no doubt that learning how to use a compass is a good skill to have. Getting lost in the wild is a lot easier than you think, especially if you regularly venture off the beaten path. All it takes is one wrong turn to find yourself completely lost with no bearings on where you are. But if you know how to use a compass, you can find your way back to civilization.

I recommend buying a floating-needle compass since those are more reliable, but there’s nothing wrong with having a digital compass as long as you have a floating-needle model with you as a backup.

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