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Survival Skill - How To Use A Compass

Survival Skill - How To Use A Compass

Author Erik Abrams

A compass is a vital instrument to carry with you at all times when hiking or camping. Taking time to familiarize yourself with the compass and learning how to use it correctly gives you peace of mind when out in the wild and could even save your life.

The Basics

All compasses have a magnetic needle which is normally painted red. It spins freely and is drawn to the North by the magnetic field of the earth,

The compass housing is the clear plastic circle in which the needle is housed.

Field compasses have a baseplate into which the actual compass is embedded. The baseplate has a direction of travel arrow which points away from the compass.

The degree dial which surrounds the compass shows the 360-degrees of the circle and can be rotated.

The orienting arrow is the non-magnetic arrow within the housing.

The orienting lines are lines marked on the compass housing which run parallel to the orienting arrow.

Holding the compass

Put the compass on the flat of your palm, with your hand as level as possible in front of your chest. Or, if using with a map, place both on a flat surface.

Using the compass

Basic orientation

  • Stand, holding the compass correctly
  • Turn the degree dial so that the orienting arrow is lying in the same direction as the magnetic needle ie: North.
  • The direction of travel arrow indicates the direction in which you are facing. If it shows between S and W, then you are facing southwest.
  • For more accuracy, look carefully where the direction of travel arrow intersects the degree dial. This will indicate the exact number of degrees southwest that you are facing.

Getting your bearings

The magnetic north indicated by your compass is unfortunately not exactly the same as the true north which is indicated on your map. You should investigate what is the difference, known as declination, in the area where you are traveling and take this into account in your calculations. Detailed maps will have the declination located near the legend.

If you are in an area with a West declination you will need to add the listed number of degrees to you degree dial reading. If you are in an East declination you will need to subtract.


  • In order to keep traveling in a certain direction simply set up your compass as above and keep following the direction of travel arrow, checking your progress at regular intervals.
  • Observe the direction of travel arrow then look up and focus on a distant object. Use this as a guide to keep you in the right direction.

Using with a map

  • Place your compass on top of the map on a flat surface.
  • Align the edge of the compass with where you are to where you want to go.
  • Align the orienting arrow to the true north of the map.
  • Hold the compass in your hand, align the north end of the magnetic needle with the orienting needle and follow the direction of travel arrow.

In an emergency

  • Locate three prominent landmarks on your map that you can see from where you are
  • Point the direction of travel arrow towards the first landmark.
  • Line up the orienting line with the magnetic needle by twisting the degree dial.
  • Correct this figure for the declination.
  • Transpose this direction onto your map, by sliding the compass so that one edge passes through the landmark while keeping the orienting arrow pointing north.
  • Mark a line on the map along the compass edge.
  • Repeat the procedure for the other two landmarks.
  • Your position is where these three lines intersect.

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