One of the most important skills for anyone venturing outdoors is the ability to use a compass.
Even if you’re just going out for a short hike, having a compass is an added security measure. If you’re electronics fail, it can really be helpful tool.
This guide will show you the basics of how to properly use a compass.
While using a compass might seem easy, using it incorrectly can get you into more trouble than not having it.
We’ll cover selecting a compass, training to use it, and getting your bearings in unfamiliar areas.
How To Use A Compass
Learning how to use a compass is not very difficult. We’ll cover this now and it will help you decide what features you need to look for when selecting a compass.
The easiest way to begin is by going to areas that you already know well. When you’re not in actual danger of getting lost. There, you can focus on learning how your compass works.
Most compasses will have a red or black arrow that always points north. This is called the compass needle.
On some compasses it might be red and black on others.
Using this needle you can always find north. But what if you want to travel in a different direction?
For example, let’s say you want to travel West. All you need to do is turn the dial housing so that the W is lined up with the direction of travel.
Then, turn the compass so that the needle is pointing North.
Once you do this, your compass needle is pointing to the N on the dial and the direction of travel is pointing West.
If you have a compass in which the entire dial spins instead of just the needle, it’s even easier.
All you have to do is look at the compass and find the W. Then just walk in that direction.
To test your compass skills, go to a familiar spot and navigate using only your compass. Even urban areas are good places to begin using your compass.
You can compare the compass readings to street signs and other markers that show you directions.
Testing your compass before going somewhere unfamiliar is a good way to gain confidence. This will also give you a sense of how well you’re able to use your compass to find directions and navigate.
The more you use your compass, the more comfortable you will be using it in unfamiliar areas.
How a Compass Works
Compasses show the four cardinal directions. Cardinal directions are the four most basic and important directions. These are north, south, east, and west.
Some compasses may also include markings for ordinal directions. Those directions are northeast, southeast, northwest, and southwest.
On most compasses, the directions will be abbreviated instead of written out.
For instance, north is marked by N, northeast by NE, east by E, southeast by SE, south by S, southwest by SW, west by W and northwest by NW.
The placement of these directions along with degree markers on a compass dial is known as a compass rose.
The most important of these directions is North. Most compasses work magnetically. And North is the direction on Earth with the most magnetic force.
As a result magnetic compasses will point in that direction. And once you know where north is, you can work out your position and then locate other directions.
The needle of a properly functioning magnetic compass will point due north. It’s important to regularly check that your compass is working by making sure it still points north.
How to Select a Compass
All compasses are not created equal. You will want to make sure that you select a compass that best suits your sporting needs.
If you’re going to be using maps for instance, you will want to make sure your compass is easily used with a map.
Many compasses also have an attached plastic or metal plate with an arrow. This will help you set the direction you’re going.
Another great feature on many compasses is a luminescent or glow-in-the-dark dial. This will make it easy to use at night.
For durability, you may want a compass with a metal or plastic shell. While compasses with glass faces feel nice, they can break more easily.
So look for plastic or break resistant glass. It is good to have a compass with a strong housing.
For your first compass, you don’t need to pick something with a lot of fancy features. These may confuse you, and get in the way of the main purpose of using your compass for navigation.
As you get more used to using a compass, you may want to upgrade to something with more features.
To start, focus on getting something durable, waterproof, and usable at night.
A carrying case for your compass can also be handy and help to keep it safe and dry. Some compasses will come with the carrying case included.
It can also be tempting to use a compass app on your smart phone or smart watch. This is fine for convenience.
However, if your device breaks or the battery dies, you lose your compass. You should always have a separate, non-electronic compass available for emergencies.
How to Use a Compass in Unfamiliar Terrain
Compasses are best used when you also have a map that shows you where you are and where you need to navigate. It’s good practice to take a map along with you on any camping or hiking trip. If you don’t have a map, your compass will still help you as long as you know the general direction you need to travel.
If you don’t have a map, a compass is a very inaccurate guide. Most public wilderness areas have maps available at the entrance. Others have maps online you can print before your trip.
Do not rely on an electronic map. You may not have cell signal to access one after you leave. If your device loses battery or gets lost or damaged, you will lose your map.
It is important not to carry anything magnetic or made of iron. If you are, set it aside. It might affect the compass arrow.
If your compass has a housing with an arrow marked on it, you can use it now. Line up the compass needle with the arrow. The end of the compass needle that points north is generally marked in red.
When you are going a direction other than north, line up that direction with the arrow instead. This is called setting your compass heading. The needle itself will still point north.
The needle will always keep track of north, while you can follow the arrow marking for whichever direction you need to go. For instance, if you need to go east, line up your arrow marking with the direction marked E.
When you are setting your compass heading, your compass should be laid flat. Holding it in your palm is the easiest way to make sure it is flat. Angling the compass could move the needle away from your direction.
If your compass does not have a housing with an arrow mark, follow the same steps. You will just line up the needle with your chosen direction on the compass rose instead.
The sun is one of your greatest friends if you’re traveling by day. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. If you are using your compass during the morning or evening, this will help confirm your directions.
Keep your head up and pick a point in the distance to walk to. Check your compass every couple hundred feet to make sure you’re still going in the right direction. It is easy to get off course in the wilderness.
Using a compass will only help if you know of a nearby trail or landmark to move towards. If you are so lost that you don’t know where anything is, it is often better to wait where you are for rescue. You should never go into the wilderness without telling someone else where you are going and when to expect you back.
Using a compass well requires a lot of practice. Carry your compass with you as often as possible to practice wherever you can.