How to use a compass: basics of orienteering
Whenever you venture out into the wild, there are a handful of essentials that should be in your backpack. Snacks, water, and extra layers make this list, but what many people forget or take for granted is a reliable navigation tool.
Perhaps we have become too dependent on cell phones or 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 make your wilderness packing list.
But before you add a map and compass to your gear list, learn how to use them properly.
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 properly use a modern compass, familiarize yourself with a few common areas.
All compasses are mounted on a base plate. These should be transparent so that you can see your map below. Plus, the right edge of the baseplate will help you take bearings to transfer to your map and navigate forward.
Direction of travel arrow
This arrow indicates where you should point the compass when taking or following a bearing.
The rotating bezel is the circular area marked with degrees from 0 to 360 and also called the “azimuth ring”.
The index line sits above the bezel and indicates where to read the bearings. It is an extension of the direction of the travel arrow described above.
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.
This arrow allows you to orient the bezel with the map and is often designed to match the magnetic needle.
Orient the lines
These are the parallel lines that move with the telescope and will help you define your north facing arrow on the map.
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 when navigating with a map and compass is not adjusting the declination. True north and magnetic north are not the same, and for accurate navigation you must correct this difference.
Depending on where you are in the world, the gap between true north and magnetic north could range from a few degrees to over 20 degrees, which could cause you to deviate a few hundred feet – or even miles – away. of your journey.
Each region has a different declination, and the respected topographic map of the region you are traveling to will show that value. Even so, these values vary over time, so check the map’s release date or cross-reference NOAA magnetic variation website for the most recent readings.
Once you’ve confirmed the declination value (expressed in several degrees), you can translate it into your real-world navigation. Simply subtract this value from your compass bearing if the value is X degrees west, and add that value if the declination shown is X degrees east.
Maps, bearings, navigation: how to use your compass
To navigate properly with a map and compass, you must orient your map with the surrounding landscape. Defining the declination is the first step. From there, you can easily piece the rest together:
- First, place your compass on the map with the direction of travel arrow pointing up.
- Next, rotate your telescope 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 in the outline of the orienting arrow. These steps should leave you oriented appropriately, and you can double-check this by comparing the landscape to what you see on the map.
- Bearings depend entirely on a specific location; think of them as a digital way of describing the direction of travel. In other words, due south equals 180 degrees. It is essential to remember that following the same digital bearing from different locations will not get you to the same location. Defining a bearing using your map and compass is pretty straightforward.
- Place your compass on your map so that the right edge of the baseplate is between your current location and where you want to travel.
- Double check that the travel direction arrow is pointing in the direction you want to travel!
- Rotate the bezel so that the orientation lines inside match the north / south lines on your map.
- Check the index line on your compass and note the bearing it indicates to start moving forward.
- To get closer 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 travel direction 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 more familiar with the process and the equipment, you can step back that process and use a bearing to identify where you are on a map.
After getting all the pieces together and spending a fair amount of time familiarizing and practicing, you’ll soon be able to travel off the beaten path into the great outdoors with ease!