How to Use a Compass

By Robert Bennett,

In poor visibility or on featureless ground you need a compass. Are you familiar with your compass and do you understand how to use it? Here we explain one way to use your compass with a map.


Take a look at your azimuth compass. This compass should have degrees (0 to 360) marked around the dial. Quadrant and military compasses are useful, but this article is about using azimuth compasses, which are best suited for outdoor activities.

There are a few features on your compass that you should become familiar with, and they are as follows: (A) The arrow, (B) The dial, (C) The orienting lines, (D) The red magnetic needle, (E) The baseplate edge, (F) Destination Landmark, (G) Position Landmark, and (H) The magnifying glass.

Step 1Open your map and find your current position, and desired destination.
Step 2Place your compass baseplate edge on the map so it connects the distance between your Position Landmark and Destination Landmark.
Step 3Turn the dial so that the orienting lines on the transparent bottom are parallel with the North - South grid lines on the map.
Step 4Turn your compass together with the map until the red needle points to 'N' (North).
Step 5Hike to your destination - it is located in the direction that the compass arrow is pointing.

If you're hiking great distances to a specific location then you will need to consider compass declination.

North & Declination

Grid North: Direction of a grid line which is parallel to the central meridian on a map. Note: Grid North does not match true north because a map is a flat representation of a curved surface.

True North: Direction of a meridian of longitude that converges on the North Pole. Note: This is just a technical way of saying that True North describes a direct line to the North Pole and the Earth's spin axis.

Magnetic North: Direction indicated by a magnetic compass. Note: Magnetic North moves very slowly with a variable rate.

Declination - The vertical angle difference between True North and this year's Magnetic North. The current year's declination is oftentimes marked in degrees on your map. That's one reason why you might need a current map. For many purposes declination can be ignored, especially for leisure purposes.

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