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How To Use A Compass When Hiking – The Basics For Beginners

If you want to go out in the woods today, don’t be in for a big surprise! Learn How To Use A Compass – Basics For Beginners is the first in a series of articles that will show you the absolute basics in using a compass. It is for the uninitiated and will get you to a point where you are comfortable to use a compass for basic navigation.

It is not rocket science and when you have finished this article, you will have a far better understanding which you should put into practice to ensure that you are comfortable with what you have learned.

Before we get into it, watch this How To Use A Compass video and get a quick overview of how it all works.

OK, So lets start at the beginning.

What Is A Compass

There are seven different types of compasses used for different purposes:-

  1. Gyrocompass
  2. GPS Receiver Used As A Compass
  3. Magnetic Compass
  4. Thumb compass
  5. Solid state compasses ( Magnetometer)
  6. Specialty Compasses ( e.g. Qibla compass)
  7. Optical or prismatic hand-bearing compass

A compass is used for navigation and orientation. It shows direction north, south, east, and west on the compass face as abbreviated initials N, S, E, W.

We will be paying attention to the Prismatic Compass which is commonly used for navigation by hikers. It is light and see through so you can place it on an exact spot on the map and take bearings.

Lets Get Started – The 4 Compass Points4 Compass Points

Most of us were taught the North, South, East, and West points of the compass. We know the sun comes up in the East and sets in the West and we probably know how we fit into the Northern or Southern Hemisphere.

Hemi’ means ‘half’ in the Greek language and Sphere means a round object so a hemisphere is half of a round object. The Earth, a round object, was divided in half by the geographers at the equator. This gives us the Northern hemisphere with the north Pole and the Southern Hemisphere with the South Pole. The earth spins on its axis between the North and south Poles.

True North vs Magnetic NorthMagnetic Declination Globe

The north and south poles are regarded as true north and south. Compasses however do not point to true north. They point to Magnetic North. The difference between the true north and the magnetic north is called the magnetic declination but don’t worry too much about this right now. It will come into play in the next lesson.

Right now, we want to learn how to use a compass. Magnetic declination comes into play when we start orientating maps later. So now we are only going to concentrate on magnetic north.

The Compass

For our purposes we are going to use a prism compass. These compasses come in many forms and range from a simple compass to more complex compasses with siting mechanisms etc. For our purpose, the basic transparent prism compass is the best.

Below is a picture with all the parts of the compass identified.

Prism Compass

The 4 main things you need to pay attention to right now are:-

  1. The Needle
  2. The Orienting arrow
  3. The Dial
  4. The Direction Of Travel Arrow

The Needle

The Needle is on a spindle that allows it to spin freely. Being magnetised, the needle’s red arrow always points to magnetic north. We will use this needle every time we use the compass, whether we want to go North, South, East or West, or any other direction.

The Orienting ArrowOrienting Arrow

The Orienting arrow in this compass is the red arrow the appears under the needle. It can be rotated to any direction by turning the dial. The Orienting Arrow is used to set a specific direction for travel. It can also be used to take a bearing on a mountain, bridge or anything that you can see from your position.

The Dial

The dial turns to place the orienting arrow under the needle or to set a specific bearing on the dial to the index pointer. This is useful when following a predetermined route or finding bearings.

The Direction Of Travel Arrow

The Direction Of Travel Arrow is just that. I point in the direction that you need to travel on a specific bearing or it can be used to establish the bearing of a target from your current position.

How To Set Your Compass To A Direction

A compass is used to determine what your position is and to follow a predetermined route. In this exercise, We will be learning to follow a predetermined route.

The first thing that you need to do is to ensure that you have no ferrous metal near your compass as this will affect your results.

Let’s presume that your next bearing is north, i.e. 000 degrees.

  1. Hold you compass level.North Compass
  2. turn the dial until the 0 or 360 degree is at the index pointer.
  3. turn slowly, holding the compass steady and level until the needle is in the Orienting arrow
  4. note where the direction of travel arrow points and choose a land mark on that direction of travel.

Let’s try another bearing, say 90 degrees;

  1. Hold your compass level (away from any metals)
  2. Dial in the bearing…90 degrees
  3. turn slowly holding the compass steady and level until the needle is in the orienting arrow
  4. note the direction and choose a landmark in that direction of travel and….that’s it.

That’s It – Now Practice

Those are the very basics of using a compass. It does get far more involved so practice this until it is second nature. You now know the basics of the compass and it’s components. In the next lesson we will start with the orienteering and map work with the compass. This is a little more in depth and you should have these basic under your belt before we go on.

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If you have any questions or suggestions regarding using a compass, please leave them in the comments below.

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8 thoughts on “How To Use A Compass When Hiking – The Basics For Beginners

  1. Wooow. And here i was thinking that i knew how to use a compas when all my world revolved around the magnetic compass. The article was very informative i just feel that more work could have been done in explaining what the purpose of having a magnetic and true poles. Using the magnetic pole alone didnt give me the true poles alone any importance. Alternatively a subsequent article could explain the significance and uses of both poles magnetic and true north and south.

    1. Hi Idara, 

      I am Pleased that you found the article helpful.

      This is the first in a series, as I mentioned in a post. It is aimed at beginners and as such, I do not want to overload them with too much info. I will be adding new skills with each post.

      All the best


  2. Thanks for writing out this lovely article and I must say its a must for everyone to read and digest. I have never thought of using compass before stumbling on your article, you really gave a full explanation on the usage. I would practice how to make use of this during my next hiking. Thanks for the informative review, best regards 

    1. Hi Alice,  Glad you found this article useful. I is aimed at the beginner and more and more compass and mapping skills will be included with each article in the series.

      All the best


  3. Wow! Very insightful post. The times I’ve seen a compass has been limited and I never truly imagine its usage could be this simple. My first impression about it was that it requires professionalism to navigate through the use of compass. I love hiking a lot and I do go for it at least once a month. Through this post, I’m already feeling like I’m on top of the world because it would be more easier for me to navigate through the woods.

    1. Hi Darrick, 

      This series of articles on how to use a compass is designed to take a person from beginner to intermediate. By the end of this series, you should be able to plan a hike from a map and then follow the compass trail on the hike.

      Enjoy the trail


  4. Tons of value to be found on this post on how to use a compass when hiking

    This is a great and simple to follow guide. You laid it all out clearly and showed series of examples that helped emphasize your various points. This guide will be very useful for me because i have always wanted to know how to make use of compass. This is indeed an eye opener for me. Thanks for sharing 

    1. Hi Tracy, I am pleased that you found this article beneficial. There will be more articles in the series to improve compass skills. Keep a look out for them.

      All the Best


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