How to Use a Compass Correctly and Never Get Lost (Hopefully)

How to Use a Compass Correctly and Never Get Lost

Hiking and camping provide some of the best adventures you are likely to have. However, it can be easy to get lost in the wilderness. As a result, it is important that you know how to use a compass. You may think you don’t need one as you have your phone, but there are areas with no signal, and you always run the risk of your battery running out. Not enough people know how to use a compass correctly, and so I have put this guide together to show you exactly how to use it so that you (hopefully) won’t get lost.

The Basics of a Compass

It’s important to at least know the basic features that a compass possesses. Generally speaking, you will want to invest in a standard field compass which has the following features:

  • Baseplate. Clear, plastic, plate on which the compass is mounted.
  • Direction of travel arrow. This is on the baseplate pointing away from the compass
  • Compass housing. The clear circle that keep the compass needle safe
  • Degree dial. Twistable dial that displays all 360-degrees of the circle
  • Magnetic needle. The spinning needle in the compass housing
  • Orienting arrow. Non-magnetic arrow inside the compass housing
  • Orienting lines. Lines in compass housing that run parallel to orienting arrow
how to use a compass

Holding the Compass

When you go to hold your compass, it should be placed flat on your palm and held in front of your chest. This is the correct stance to hold when you are travelling. When using a map, you should place the map on a flat surface and then put the compass on the map for a more accurate reading.

Next, you need to find where you are facing. To do this, you should look at the magnetic needle. If you are facing anywhere except north, it should start swinging from one side to the other. Here are the two steps to take to figure out where you are facing:

Step One: turn the degree dial. Do this until the orienting arrow lines up with the magnetic one, thus pointing them both north. Next, find the direction you are facing by taking a close look at the position of the travel arrow.

Step Two: a more accurate look. To do this, you need to take a very close look at the degree markers on the compass, and which one the direction arrow is pointing to. For example, if the arrow intersects at 22 between south and east, you are facing 22-degrees south-east.​

Correcting for Declination

What this refers to is the amount by which north on your map and compass differ at any given point. This is due to the Earth’s magnetic field. You are able to correct for declination yourself by adding or subtracting the declination amount from your bearing degrees. This also depends on whether you are taking a bearing from a map or from your compass, as well as whether or not you are in an area with east or west declination.

True North and Magnetic North

There is actually a difference between these, even though it may seem as though there is not. After all, travelling just one degree off can result in you coming off track by about 30 metres for every mile it is altered. After a few miles, this will make a significant impact on your journey. Take a look at each of these norths below.

True North. This is also known as Map North. It refers to the point at which all longitudinal lines meet – the North Pole. All maps are laid out in the same way, with True North at the top of the map. However, due to variation in sight, your compass will only point to Magnetic North.

Magnetic North. This refers to the tilt of the Earth’s magnetic field, and the different between the two north’s can be as much as 20-degrees in some locations as a result. Depending on where you are, you will need to account for this magnetic shift.

using compass

Tips and Tricks

Here are a few quick tips for when you are using your compass for your next hiking or camping trip.

#1 Look into the Distance

When you are following the arrow of your compass, look at the arrow and then directly ahead to points in the distance – things like trees or telephone poles. You will be able to use this as a guide to make sure you are headed in the right direction. Every time you reach one point, choose another and follow that. Just make sure they aren’t too distant, or it becomes inaccurate.

#2 Take Your Bearings

Place the map on a flat surface, and the compass on top of it. Use the edge of the compass as a ruler between your current position and the place you would like to go. Now rotate the degree dial until the orienting arrow points to True North on the map. This will also help the compass to become aligned. Once the degree dial is in place, you can put the map away and use the new bearing to navigate.

Don’t forget to calculate declination of necessary!

#3 Using the New Bearing

Hold the compass in the standard and accepted manner with the travel arrow pointing away from you. Then, turn your body slowly until the magnetic and orienting needles are aligned. This will allow you to be properly oriented to your destination. It’s very quick and easy to achieve.

If You Get Lost

Of course, we hope that you don’t end up lost at any point after reading this guide, but it can happen from time to time. Should this be the case, the important thing to do is triangulate your position. To do this, you first need to find three prominent landmarks on your map that are in your surrounding area and circle them.

Then, use the direction arrow on your compass and point it to the first landmark on the map. Unless the landmark is north of you, the magnetic needle will spin. Adjust the orienting needle until they align, and correct for declination as required. This will tell you where your direction arrow is pointing.

Now place the map on a horizontal surface with the compass on top. Use this to transpose your position onto the map by placing the compass so that the orienting arrow faces True North. Move the compass around and so that its edge passes through the landmark while the orienting arrow continues to point to True North.

Following this, you should draw a line along the edge of the compass on the map, and thus through your approximate position. Repeat this process with the other two landmarks to form a triangle around where you are. You will then be able to use this to exit the triangle and get back on track.​

To Conclude

Hopefully, you have found my guide on how to use a compass correctly useful. With this information, your next trip into the wilderness should be a much more pleasant one – without anyone ending up lost. It’s important to know how a compass should be used and read, especially since we are so reliant on technology. The latest tech is great, but you never know when it will give out on you. So always have a compass to hand and know how to use it.

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