Want to learn how to use a compass?
In this guide, we’re going to teach you how to use a compass. It’s much easier than you might think.
We’ll begin by looking at all the key components of compasses before moving onto what a compass is used for, and then onto the important elements of using a compass. This will include how to check your heading, set your map properly, and follow a bearing so that you can get yourself back on the right track again.
Let’s start with the compass itself and all its fundamental parts.
The Parts of a Compass
Although there is a wide range of compasses available in the modern world, this navigation instrument is usually a simple tool that is composed of six main parts. Let’s have a look at each of them so that you can familiarize yourself with them before you then use your compass when you’re outdoors.
Baseplate: This is, of course, a feature of a baseplate compass. It’s quite simply the plastic, transparent base that may have measuring markings on it, as well as map scales, depending on the type of compass.
Magnetic Needle: The center-point to the compass is the magnetic needle. It will always have a red end and a white end. The red end will always point towards the north, and the white end will always point towards the south.
Orienting Arrow: This one a fixed arrow that will be integrated into the compass. It doesn’t move. It is aligned so that it points towards the north. You will use this when orienting yourself in conjunction with the magnetic needle.
Orienting Lines: These lines will also help you to orient yourself. Each line runs parallel beside each other to the sides of the orienting arrow.
Compass Wheel: The compass wheel, which can be referred to as a compass dial or a degree dial, has markings on it at 2-degree intervals. As it’s circular, then this comes to 360-degrees in total with 180 markings. You can twist and turn this wheel. It will have markings for North, South, East, and West.
Direction of Travel Arrow: This large, red arrow is found on the baseplate. It will point away from the compass.
What is a Compass Used For?
You will use a compass for five main purposes.
The first reason for using a compass is to work out what direction it is that you’re currently moving in. This is referred to as ‘heading’.
You will also use a compass in conjunction with your map so that you can orientate yourself with your surroundings so that you can then follow a route on a map. This is referred to as ‘setting the map’.
If you want to know where an object, building, or other landmark is regarding your current location and what direction it is in, you will use the compass for this process, which is called ‘bearing’.
One other use for a compass is to follow this bearing in a line of travel as the crow flies.
You can also use a compass if you get lost. This is the most complex way of using your compass.
Before we look at how to use a compass for each of these purposes, let’s answer an important question.
What’s the Difference Between True North and Magnetic North?
It might sound peculiar, but there are two different types of north, which are true north and magnetic north.
And every compass user needs to know the difference between true north and magnetic north because your map and compass will show a different north, so you have to ‘declinate’ for the difference between these two norths.
Firstly, magnetic north is the direction that the red end on your magnetized needle will be pointing. This north is dependent on the earth’s magnetic field, which is changeable and alters over time as well as where you are located on the earth.
True north is the north that you find on any map. Imagine a globe – or if you have one go and get it – and see all the lines of longitude. They all go from the south pole to the north pole. Where you find the north pole is also true north, and this is the north that you’ll find on your map too.
There can be quite a major difference between magnetic north and true north, meaning that if you don’t use proper declination for your map and compass, then you could end up way off track. To do this, you must check the declination number before you head out. Declination requires subtracting or adding the declination number from the bearing. There is both east declination and west declination, with a line of zero declination running through the middle.
It’s important to note, however, that declination is only critical over long distances. If you’re simply using the compass to travel a short distance, then you don’t need to worry about declination. A couple of degrees east or degrees west will only take you wildly off your track when trekking a long trail.
Key Tip to Know: For a simple journey, don’t worry about the declination between the magnetic north and the true north. The degrees of difference will not cause a big impact. For longer journeys, keep declination in mind, and consider reading a guide to declination online, so that you don’t find yourself way off track, as can happen without proper declination between magnetic north and true north even when there are only a few degrees west or east difference.
Heading – checking the direction you’re traveling – is a simple process.
Take out your compass.
Hold it flat and in front of your body. Ideally, lay it on your palm. You want the direction of travel arrow to be directed towards the same direction that you are going towards.
Turn the compass wheel. The north on the wheel should then match up with the red arrow of the magnetic needs (which is pointing towards the magnetic north). Then look at the index line. Now you know your heading.
To set the map, you first need to lay it flat. If the ground isn’t muddy or wet, then do so on the ground.
Next, get your compass, and place the compass on the map, so the baseplate rests flat.
All you need to do now is to rotate both the map and your compass. You need to adjust both so the compass’s needle points at the top of the map, with both the compass and map aligned with the north on each of them matching.
Take a Bearing and Following a Bearing
First, take a look around, find a landmark, then locate the landmark on the map.
Now, place the magnetic compass on top of the map. You need to line up the orientation lines so that they’re directed towards the landmark.
Next, turn the rotating bezel, keep an eye on the orienting arrow, and stop moving the bezel when the orienting arrow points north on the map.
Now you want to remove the compass from the map. The direction of travel arrow should be pointing away from your body. You want to move your body and the compass at the same time, making sure you’re holding the compass flat. Keep turning your body until the red needle of the compass points in the same direction as the direction of the travel arrow. You should see that it is pointing at the feature that you located on the map. That’s it. Just keep following the arrow on the baseplate compass until you’re at your destination.
Find Your Location and Bearings When You Get Lost
Using compasses so that you’re able to find your way or discover your location when you’re lost is the most challenging technique that users of compasses will have to learn.
First, look around you. Look for any large feature, whether it’s a hill, mountain, building, or other feature. You want to try to get your bearings and locate your current position, and by finding these three features, then you can do this. You just need to then find the three features on the map.
Point the direction of the traveling arrow at one of the features with the compass lying on top of the map. Turn the bezel so that the end of the magnetic compass’s needle and the direction of travel arrow match up. Turn the map so that true north and the magnetic north on your compass are matched up. Move the compass so you’re able to draw a line from the feature towards where you would estimate your current position to be. You can work this out by looking at where the feature is concerning where you’re stood while looking at it.
Repeat this process with the other two features. You’ll then have three lines. Each line will meet at an x. And that will mark your current location. Now you know where you are.
To discover your way without a map, then make sure to check related articles. Using compasses when you don’t have a map, so you’re able to find your way is a difficult process that requires time to learn.