How To Use A Compass While Camping | The Definitive Guide!

With GPS tracking on our phones, you may wonder if you need to take a compass camping anymore. The answer is yes, compasses are essential gear, and you don’t want to leave home without one. Perhaps using a compass appears confusing? Enough with the excuses already! Let this article guide you through how to use a compass.

Hold the compass flat, recognize true and magnetic North, and take declination into account. Next, you need to find the direction you’re heading, rotate yourself and your compass, pinpoint a location in front, transpose this onto your map, and navigate to your destination.

It’s as easy as we’re making it out to be! But before we get to the how, you’ve got to understand a compass and its features. Next, we’ll talk you through the fun bit, describing how to use a compass. Finally, we’ve got some handy tips for how to use your compass if you get lost!

Compass Basics and Why Do You Really Need One For Camping

The Ancient Greeks understood the power of magnetism in determining the direction of North and South.

Alongside this, we had Chinese scientists magnetizing needles around 2000 years ago to work out geographical maps. From this, the compass was developed.

A compass is a navigational instrument used to find or set a direction. A compass usually consists of a magnetized needle, a compass rose, or a compass card that will point to magnetic North.

Campers, geographers, hikers, miners, and the military use compasses to define a path or route.

While taking a compass camping may not feel necessary, it takes getting lost just once to realize how valuable this device is.

If you are interested in backcountry camping, you should know that it usually demands some navigation to reach the campground.

If you’re hiking through forest or snow, your direction may not be clear, and getting lost could be easy. A compass makes it simple to determine which direction you should be heading in.

Compass Component Guide

While there are many different types of compass, the most common and basic version is a magnetic field compass.

To understand how to use a compass, you must first understand the basic design and what the features of your compass are for. Keep reading to find out what’s on a compass.

1. Baseplate

The base plate is usually a clear rectangular base where the markings below are located. It is rectangular to allow the navigator to take a bearing and transpose it straight onto a map.

The base plate is color-coded so the navigator can see the map below.


2. Direction of Travel

The direction of travel arrow is most commonly the biggest red arrow on the compass. It informs you which way to turn the compass when you’re taking or following a bearing. 

3. Index Line

The index or indicator line is on the base plate below the turning dial. It should line up with your direction of travel arrow. It is used to set the compass for a bearing.

4. Magnetic Needle

The magnetic needle floats inside the compass housing. The Earth’s magnetic field guides the magnetic needle. It usually has a red or white needle that signifies the direction of the north magnetic pole. 

5. Rotating Bezel

The rotating bezel, also named azimuth ring, is the rotating ring that is labeled with 360-degree markings. This is twistable to determine a location or find a bearing.

6. Declination Scale

A declination scale is located within the turning dial. It helps the navigator orient themselves in an area with known declination. It is also used to easily add or subtract declinations in an area.

7. Orienting Arrow

Found inside the turning dial, the orienting arrow is used to orient the bezel. It is usually an outline of the magnetic needle and is not magnetic.

8. Orienting Line

The orienting lines are found within the turning dial and run parallel to the orienting arrow.

They rotate with the bezel and, when aligned correctly on a map (with the north and south lines), point the orienting arrow in the direction of North.

Orienting Line

9. Ruler

A ruler along the longer edges of the rectangular baseplate allows the navigator to gauge distance and transpose this onto a map.

There may be two rulers on a compass to allow the navigator to choose what measurement of the distance to take.

10. Housing

The housing is the compass’s circular part attached to the base plate. It is usually filled with a liquid and has a magnetic needle resting inside.

It’s helpful to have an air bubble in the housing, as this assists the navigator in keeping the baseplate flat. 

How To Use A Compass While Camping?

Now that you’re sure of all the features on your compass, it’s time to teach you how to use them!

This section goes step by step on how to set up your compass correctly by talking through how to hold it, identify true and magnetic North, and take in declination.

We then give you clear instructions on how to use it.

1. Hold the Compass Correctly

First, to guarantee you get an accurate reading, you must hold the compass correctly. Hold the compass on your flat palm, pointing outwards, close to your chest.

This stance guarantees you won’t take a wrong bearing. If you hold the compass directly up, it may tell you to start walking to the moon!

As mentioned above, you can use the air bubble inside the housing to check if the compass is flat.

2. Identify True North and Magnetic North

It’s extremely important to understand the difference between true North and magnetic North when using a compass. True North lies in the direction of the north pole.

This point marks the center of the northern hemisphere. Whereas magnetic North is the direction in which the compass’s needle turns to align with the Earth’s magnetic field.

These poles are not fixed points and will shift depending on where you are on the planet.

You need to consider the difference between these two norths, as an error could lead you a mile off locating your campground.

3. Declination

The declination must also be accounted for when using a compass. Declination refers to the difference between the North on your map and the magnetic North.

To compensate for declination, you need to add or subtract the number of degrees difference between your map north and magnetic north.

You can find how many degrees to adjust by looking at your map, which should have a small declination diagram at the bottom.

The angle listed is the difference in degrees you’ll need to follow. If the diagram’s magnetic north line is on the right of your map’s North, you adjust the degrees to the East.

If it’s on the left, you adjust to the West. Always check the date your map was printed and use the most up-to-date map to work out the declination.


4. Find Out Which Direction You’re Headed

You can work out the direction you’re heading by locating yourself on your map and marking your destination.

You must then place your compass between these points so that the longer edge connects you and where you want to be.

You want to ensure your direction of travel arrow is pointing to your destination. You can twist the rotating bezel so that the orienting lines match your map’s grid lines.

You can now see the index line indicates your bearing. If your map indicates declination, work out how many degrees you need to compensate for here.

5. Rotate Yourself

Once you have your bearing, you want to rotate your body and compass. Remember to have the compass flat on your palm.

You want the magnetic needle and orienting arrow to line up with each other, so rotate until they align. You then have the direction you want to travel.

6. Pinpoint a Location in Front

It’s a good idea to pick a landmark or a point in the distance (like a telephone) you can walk towards. This makes it easier than checking your compass every couple of steps.

Make sure your landmark is not too distant, as you may struggle to accurately navigate to or around it. Once you reach a landmark, you can find another.

7. Note Down Bearings

If your visibility is poor or your route is complex (involving obstacles or rivers), then noting down your bearings and how many paces between landmarks is good practice.

This ensures that if you get lost, you can easily return to your last noted location.

8. Navigate to your Destination

Once you’ve followed points 4 to 6, you should feel confident navigating to your destination.

Before you use a compass while camping, a great way to build confidence with compass reading is to use it on walks you’re familiar with.

What To Do When You’re Lost?

Compass reading is an extremely helpful skill to have, especially if you become lost. With a compass, there’s no need to panic because you can be sure you’ll be able to navigate your way back.

1. Identify Three Landmarks

You first want to identify three landmarks you can see and then locate them on your map.

You want the landmarks to be as spread out as possible (not grouped), making it easier to pinpoint your exact location on a map.

Identify Three Landmarks

2. Aim Direction Arrow at First Landmark

Now you want to aim your direction of the travel arrow at the first landmark.

It could be that your magnetic needle is already facing north and lines up with the index line; in this case, you won’t need to move the dial.

However, if your magnetic needle is pointing elsewhere, line your orienting arrows up with the north end of the magnetic needle. This will then tell you where your direction of travel arrow is pointing.

3. Transpose this Direction Onto Your Map

Next, you need to transpose the direction of the travel arrow onto your map. Make sure your map is flat, and place your compass onto the map.

Point your compass so that the orienting arrow points to true North on the map. With your orienting arrow aligned to true North on the map, slide it over the first landmark.

Draw a line alongside the compass edge through the first landmark. 

4. Triangulate Position

You must then repeat steps 2 and 3 for the other two landmarks. This will create a triangle on your map. Inside the triangle is your position.

The more accurate your bearings, the more accurate your position will be and the smaller the triangle you’ll see on your map. 

No Landmarks? No Problem!

There may be times that you are still lost, which can be due to factors such as visibility or changing weather conditions like snow.

When you cannot see landmarks to estimate your location, there are other ways you can find your way back to civilization.

1. Leapfrog

If navigating with another person, you can try ‘leapfrogging’ to help navigate in poor visibility. Imagine it’s getting dark and how far you can see is limited.

You may be struggling to walk on the bearing you have. You can ask a buddy to walk straight ahead (according to your bearing) until they are nearly out of your sight.

You can then use your buddy as a marker to set your bearing.

2. The Five D’s

The five D’s are used to navigate complex or low-visibility terrain. They help you to structure each leg of your journey and identify if you get lost.

The five D’s stand for:

  • direction,
  • duration,
  • distance,
  • description, and
  • destination.

Direction is about recognizing what direction you are going in. For distance, you want to calculate how far it is between where you are and your destination.

You can use the ruler part of your compass to work it out. Duration relates to how long you think it will take you to walk a distance.

This should be simple if you’ve been keeping track of your bearings and pace before losing visibility. A description is about how your surroundings should look.

Are you expecting an incline, stream, or maybe a forest? It’s a good idea to identify key details on your trip that tell you what stage of your journey.

Finally is the destination. What do you expect to see at your destination, is the campground in a valley? Perhaps it’s near several roads?

3. Still Lost?

There is no magical answer to following your compass North. If you’re still lost, we would recommend, in most terrain, hiking downhill.

Most roads and buildings are found in valleys instead of at the top of a hill. Although it might not be the fastest method, it could be the safest.

You are also more likely to find water at the bottom of a valley, which is crucial if you’ve been lost for a while.

Still Lost

Final Thoughts

Hopefully, after reading this guide, you’re ready to pack your compass with your camping gear and get outside! This guide is structured to make you feel confident about camping and navigating together.

Our final word to reiterate is practice makes perfect. The more you practice with your map and compass, the better navigator you will be.

Shailen Vandeyar

A proud Indian origin Kiwi who loves to plant trees and play with his pet bunny when not out in the woods, exploring the infinite beauty of mother nature.

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