How to Use a Compass: Orienteering Basics

Whenever you venture out into the wilderness, there are a handful of essential items that should be in your backpack. Snacks, water, and extra layers are on that list, but something a lot of people overlook or take for granted is a reliable navigation tool.

Perhaps we have become too dependent on cell phones or have simply lost the art of map and compass navigation. When it comes to traveling and surviving in the wild, a basic compass cannot be replaced. Reliable and intuitive, a map and compass should always be on your bucket list.

But before you add a map and compass to your gear list, learn how to use them properly.

How to use a compass and map
Photo credit: virtualtitus

Parts of a compass

Compasses are relatively simple pieces of technology that have been around in one form or another for thousands of years. To use a modern compass correctly, familiarize yourself with a few common parts.

Base plate

All compasses are mounted on a base plate. These should be transparent so you can see your card underneath. Additionally, the straight edge of the baseplate will help you take bearings to transfer to your map and navigate.

Direction of travel arrow

This arrow indicates where you should point the compass when taking or following a bearing.

Rotating bezel

The rotating bezel is the circular area marked with degrees from 0 to 360 and also known as the “azimuth ring”.

Index line

The index line sits above the bezel and indicates where to read the bearings. This is an extension of the direction of the move arrow described above.

Magnetic needle

Indispensable for navigation, the magnetic needle is located inside the bezel and is generally red or white. This needle always points to magnetic north, not true north.

orientation arrow

This arrow helps orient the bezel with the map and is often designed to match the magnetic needle.

Orientation lines

These are the parallel lines that move with the telescope and will help define your north bearing arrow on the map.

Declination scale

The hash marks inside the bezel are known as the declination scale and are there to be used when setting the declination.


One of the most common mistakes made when navigating with a map and compass is not adjusting for declination. True north and magnetic north are not the same, and for accurate navigation you need to correct for this difference.

Depending on where you are in the world, the deviation between true north and magnetic north can range from a few degrees to over 20 degrees, which can cause you to deviate a few hundred feet or even miles.

Each region has a different declination, and the respected topographic map of the region you are traveling in will indicate this value. Even so, these values ​​vary over time, so check the map’s publication date or cross-check the NOAA Magnetic Declination website for the most recent readings.

Once you have confirmed the declination value (expressed in several degrees), you can translate it into your actual navigation. Simply subtract this value from your compass bearing if the value is X degrees West and add this value if the given declination is X degrees East.

How to use a compass

Maps, bearings, navigation: how to use your compass

To navigate properly with a map and compass, you need to orient your map with the surrounding landscape. Setting the declination is the first step. From there, you can easily assemble the rest:

  • First, place your compass on the map with the direction of travel arrow pointing up.
  • Second, rotate your scope to match the direction of travel arrow with north on the compass. Move the compass so that the edge of the baseplate is on the left or right side of your map, with the direction of travel arrow still pointing up.
  • Rotate your body with the map and compass in hand, so that the magnetic needle lands within the outline of the orienting arrow. These steps should give you the proper orientation, and you can check this by comparing the landscape to what you see on the map.
  • Bearings are entirely dependent on a specific location; think of them as a numerical way of describing the direction of travel. In other words, due south equals 180 degrees. It is crucial to remember that following the same numerical bearing from different locations will not lead you to the same location. Setting a bearing using your map and compass is quite simple.
  • Place your compass on your map so that the right edge of the baseplate is between your current position and where you want to go.
  • Check that the arrow indicating the direction of travel points in the direction in which you want to move!
  • Rotate the telescope so that the orientation lines match the north/south lines on your map.
  • Check the index line on your compass and record the bearing it indicates to start moving forward.
  • To move to your destination, hold your compass and make sure the direction of travel arrow is pointing outward. Still holding the compass, move your body until the magnetic needle lines up inside the orienting arrow. By doing this, the direction of travel arrow will now face the bearing you took on your map. Follow its direction to the desired destination.

These are the basics of map and compass navigation. As you become familiar with the process and the equipment, you can go back and use a bearing to identify where you are on a map.

After assembling all the parts and spending quite a bit of time familiarizing and practicing, you will soon be able to travel off-road in the great outdoors with ease!

Use a compass

Dino J. Dotson