How to Use a Compass Easily


A compass is top of a list of essential navigation equipment every hiker should own. Because it doesn’t need batteries and pairs nicely with a map, it’s pretty reliable.

For a first-time user, how to use a compass can seem pretty confusing. But, if you give it time and learn the basics, a compass can be a trusty navigation partner on camping trips and other adventures.

The first detail you should know is that a compass has a magnetized floating needle. Typically, the floating needle has a red end that’s always pointing to magnetic north—regardless of what direction you turn your compass. The second detail to keep in mind is that magnetic north isn’t the same as true north.

So, why does the floating needle on a compass point to magnetic north? And how can you use a compass for navigation if the needle isn’t pointing to true north? Keep reading for answers to all your questions on using a compass.

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Parts of a Compass

You can’t figure out how to use a compass if you don’t understand how it works. Below are some of the common components of the average compass.

Direction Arrow

This arrow points in the direction you’re traveling in while using the compass. It’s useful because it indicates where to point the compass when finding a bearing.

Index Line

The index line extends the direction arrow. It makes it easier to read and take bearings while using a compass.


The baseplate allows you to see a map underneath the compass. Typically, the baseplate has a ruled edge that assists with finding your bearings and triangulation.

Rotating Bezel

The rotating bezel is circular with markings from zero to 360 degrees.

Magnetic Needle

Usually present inside the rotating bezel, the magnetic needle always points to magnetic north.

Orientation Arrow

Some prefer to call it the orienting arrow. It helps users line up the rotating bezel with map directions.

Declination Scale

This scale is in the form of hash marks present inside the rotating bezel. The scale is essential to help users adjust for declination.

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How to Use a Compass: Declination and Magnetic North

The hardest part of how to use a compass is correcting for declination. Since true north and magnetic north aren’t the same, declination is the angle between the two points.

Declination changes depending on your exact location. It also changes with time, thanks to shifts in the Earth’s tectonic plates. Therefore, there’s always a need to adjust your compass for the angle of declination.

The fastest way to correct for declination is with your map. Accurate maps will have declination diagrams along with a date. Because the angle of declination changes with time, you need newer maps with accurate figures.

If you’re using an old map, you can use online services that use your GPS location to calculate the declination angle.

The info you need to correct for declination will be in the form of a direction and a specific angle. For instance, it can be seven degrees east.

Now that you have the declination angle, you can account for it by following two simple steps. Simply subtract it from the compass bearing for the west and add it to that of the east.

How to Use a Compass and a Map: A Step-by-Step Guide

Now that you understand what declination is, you can start to use your compass.

Step 1: Start by Lining Up Your Points

You need to figure out where on your map you are. We’ll refer to that as point A. You also need to identify your intended destination on the map. That’s point B.

Start by laying the map flat on a surface. Then, line up points A and B with the edge of your compass. You want to make sure the direction arrow is pointing in the direction you’re looking to go (point B).

For now, you don’t have to worry about magnetic north or true north. Simply focus on lining up your points.

Step 2: Align the Rotating Bezel to Grid North

Without moving the compass, slowly turn the rotating bezel. Turn the bezel until the “N” symbol and the orientation arrow are both pointing to the grid north.

Grid north is the top of your map. A hack to help you achieve this is making sure the orienteering lines on your compass line up with easting lines present on your map.

While you’re rotating the bezel, the compass needle might be doing a lot of flickering. Ignore it and focus on getting the “N” symbol to point toward the grid north.

Step 3: Adjust for Declination

If you don’t adjust your compass to account for the difference between true and magnetic north, you’ll get the wrong bearings.

You can find the angle of declination on the map. Most mapmakers place it in the map key. The angle of declination can be a positive or negative figure.

If it’s positive, you’ll turn your compass bezel in an anti-clockwise direction to account for magnetic variation. A negative declination angle means you’ll be turning the compass clockwise.

Usually, compasses have markers on the inside of the bezel to help you adjust for magnetic variation.

Say your compass has a marker for every degree and the angle of inclination is minus four. Then, you’ll turn your compass back in a clockwise direction until you reach the fourth marker.

Step 4: Line Yourself in the Right Direction

Stow the map, making sure not to move the rotating bezel while you’re at it. Now, hold the compass close to your body, making sure the direction arrow points straight ahead.

Then, turn your body (and the compass) until the red end of the magnetic needle is in line with the orientation arrow.

Through this maneuver, the direction of travel arrow should still be straight ahead. Wherever it points to, that’s where you’re going. To make sure you don’t lose your orientation, you can use a distant object in the same direction as a marker. A mountain or a tree will suffice.

One of the mistakes most beginners make while learning how to use a compass is moving the bezel. Once you start moving along with the direction of travel arrow, you shouldn’t move the bezel.

Another tip is to remove metals and magnetic materials while using the compass. Remove metal belts, mobile phones, and magnetic buttons. These materials can make the compass inaccurate by deflecting the needle.

compass and map
Photo by Daniil Silantev on Unsplash

Finding Your Precise Location Using a Compass

Part of how to use a compass is using it to find your location on a map. The first step is to find two notable landmarks in your immediate location. We recommend lakes and mountains.

Step 1: Orient Your Map

With the compass as a guide, move the map until the north end is pointing in the same direction as the true north. A helpful tip is to ensure the north-south grid lines present on your map align with your compass’ fixed grid markings.

Step 2: Use the First Landmark to Find a Bearing

Move the compass until the direction arrow lines up perfectly with the first landmark. Then, move the rotating bezel until the compass needle is in line with the north. The bearing is the number right beside your compass index line.

Step 3: Rotate the Compass

Place the edge of your compass right next to the landmark’s position on the map. Then, slowly rotate the compass until the needle is in the same direction as “N” on the rotating bezel. Finally, use a level to draw a straight line across your compass edge.

Repeat the Steps

Repeat steps two and three for the second landmark. The lines will intersect at a point — that point is your location on the map.

How to Quickly Get Your Bearings Using a Compass

If you can find your location on a map, you can use your compass to get you to specific points on the map. Start by adjusting for declination as we have described above.

With your map in the direction of true north, follow these simple steps:

  1. Place the edge of your compass baseplate on your current location.
  2. Rotate the compass until the straight edge is now a line between your destination and current location.
  3. Now, move the bezel until there’s a line up between grid lines on the map and the base plate.
  4. The number beside the compass index line is the right bearing.
  5. With the compass in front of your body, turn until the “N” arrow matches your compass needle.
  6. At this point, the direction arrow should point in the direction of your destination; follow it.

Final Thoughts

Learning how to use a compass is a lesson in precision, patience, and navigation. But, when you perfect the skill, it’ll become like second nature.

Above, we’ve described the different components of a compass and what parts they play in navigation. Follow the stepwise guide above to use a compass on your next camping trip. Good luck!


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