How to Read a Compass

Hiking Tips

Knowing how to read a compass is a key skill that every serious hiker should be full aware of. These tips will certainly give you the basics to make those hiking adventures safer and more fulfilling

Develop Your Compass Reading Skills For Safer and More Fulfilling Hiking Adventures

Anyone going on long day hikes and, especially, on overnight backpacking trips needs a compass. That’s not an exaggeration. Even the most experienced hikers can get lost in the backcountry. 

And it’s exactly those experts who’ll tell you that a compass is an essential part of your hiking gear. A compass is, after all, one of the 10 Essentials for hiking and camping trips.

Reading a compass, however, requires some skill. In this post, we’ll tell you all about how to read a compass with a map and without a map.

Compass Components

First of all, just like with fitting and packing a backpack, it’s important to know all the components of your gear. As far as compasses go, there are several different types on the market, from simple ones with just a compass needle to those equipped with actual orientation tools. The former are basically useless for navigating in the backcountry, so we’ll focus on the quality hiking compasses here.

  • Baseplate: the see-through baseplate contains all the important parts of a compass.
  • Ruler: can be used to take measurements on a map and calculate distances.
  • Compass needle: a magnetized needle with a usually red end that always points to the magnetic north pole.
  • Azimuth ring: also called rotating bezel, this ring has marking from 0 to 360 degrees, contains the four directions (N, E, S, W), and rotates around the compass needle.
  • Orienting lines: fixed markings on the azimuth ring used to align the compass with a map.
  • Orienting arrow: located in the middle of the north-south orienting lines, this arrow rotates with the azimuth ring and has a shape that fits the north-pointing end of the compass needle.
  • Index line: positioned above the azimuth ring, this marking is essential when you take a compass bearing.
  • Direction-of-travel arrow: an arrow on the baseplate that indicates where to point your compass while following or taking a compass bearing.

How to Read a Map With a Compass: 4 Steps

How to use a compass is not a complicated learning process. It does, however, require some attention to detail and practice. The following four steps will teach you how to read a compass, from finding north to setting a direction on a map (and without a map).

1. Figure Out Where North Is

Finding north is the easiest step in the compass reading process. It’s the only thing your compass will do automatically. On most compasses, the red end of the magnetic needle will indicate where the magnetic north is.

As easy as this step is, it does have its own complexity, too. You see, your compass needle points to the magnetic north, while the direction north on a topographic map points to true north.

This difference in angle, called declination, varies depending on where in the world you are. You can find much more information about adjusting the declination of your compass here. Don’t skip this part—it’s important!

2. Point Your Map to the North

Once you’ve found the magnetic north and adjusted your compass for declination (which you should do before you leave on your trip), you can correctly orient your map. When learning how to map read using a compass, this is a critical step. It’s super-easy, though.

First, place your compass on your map in such a way that the direction-of-travel arrow points to the top of the map. This usually means that the long sides of the baseplate parallel the vertical edge of your map. Now, rotate the azimuth ring until N(orth) lines up with the direction-of-travel arrow.

Lastly, keep your compass in place on your map and rotate until the north-pointing (red) end of the compass needle falls within the outlines of the orienting arrow. Your map will now point northward.

3. Take a Bearing

Now, it’s time to learn how to take a bearing with a compass. Taking a bearing is nothing more than setting a precise direction by degrees, rather than using direction like northwest, east or south southwest.

a. How to Take a Compass Bearing With a Map

By taking a bearing with a compass and a map, you can get to any location as long as you know where you are on the map. Follow these steps to do that:

  • Place your compass on your map in such a way that a side of the baseplate lines up with the straight line between you and your intended destination. Ensure the direction-of-travel arrow points in the direction you want to go.
  • Next, rotate the azimuth ring until its orienting lines align with the vertical grid lines (or edge) of the map. Ensure N(orth) on the azimuth ring points to the north on the map, too.
  • The index line will now show the bearing (in degrees).
  • Take your compass off the map and hold it in front of you. As explained above, rotate until the compass needle falls within the outline of the orienting arrow.
  • The direction-of-travel arrow now faces the direction of your intended destination.
b. How to Take a Compass Bearing Without a Map

While compasses really prove their worth in combination with a topographic map, you could find yourself lost without a map. If that’s the case, it’s comforting to know how to read a compass bearing without a map. There are two ways to do that. The first is setting a direction toward a visible landmark.

  • Point the direction-of-travel arrow toward the landmark or location you’d like to go to.
  • Rotate the azimuth ring until the north-pointing end of the compass needle is within the outline of the orienting arrow.

The second way is setting an actual direction—as in north, east, south, west or anything in between. You can do that when you have a sense of where you are and a general direction of the location of roads, towns and other points of interest.

  • Turn the azimuth ring until your preferred direction (N, S, E, W,…) lines up with the direction-of-travel arrow.
  • Turn around until the compass needle overlaps with the orienting arrow.
  • The direction-of-travel-arrow will now point in your intended direction.

4. How to Follow a Compass Bearing

Once you’ve found a compass bearing, whether with or without a map, following it is a piece of cake. Make sure, however, to remember the degrees, the “bearing”, indicated by the index line just in case your compass settings get messed up.

To head in your chosen direction, simply make sure that the compass needle always stays within the outline of the orienting arrow. This way, the direction-of-travel arrow will always point toward your goal.

How to Read a Compass Video

One of the leading outdoor gear companies, REI has a fantastic video on how to read a compass on YouTube. In this video, they explain everything I’ve talked about above.

About the Author

Hi, I'm Gavin — I’ve been fortunate enough to travel fairly extensively throughout my life but it was only in 2017 that Didem and I decided to start blogging about our travel experiences, focusing on hiking. We aim to inspire you to go hiking and enjoy the vast array of benefits that hiking offers. We hope you enjoy the journey!

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2 Comments

    1. Hi Ryan, thanks for getting in touch. I must admit that I pretty much always use my mobile phone if I require guidance while hiking. My personal favourite hiking App is Viewranger which is just great and works even without an internet connection. I do find that it’s heavy on my phone’s battery which is why I always carry a power pack with me. That said, I always carry a traditional compass just in case all my wonderful technology heads south on me! I do not use a GPS watch or any other handheld GPS device or digital compass. I find that my phone does a perfectly good job but as I said, I always have the trusted traditional backup compass for emergencies.

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