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How to Navigate With a Compass in the Wilderness: A Practical Guide

If you love spending lots of time in the great outdoors, you need to know how to use a compass. Technology has certainly spoiled many of us, and relying on your phone is sometimes a crutch. You won’t always have good cell service in the wild. That’s maybe when navigating with a compass comes in.

It’s safer for you and your travel party if you know how to properly navigate and triangulate your location with a good old-fashioned compass. Start a journey to compass enlightenment now, and make yourself the most capable navigator in the pack. 

What Is a Compass? 

A compass is a handheld device that indicates direction. It has several moving parts that work together to help the user navigate direction, bearing, and distance. 

How to Use a Compass || REI

The parts of a compass include a base plate (with rulers printed on it), a rotating bezel (with degree markings on it), a magnetic needle (always pointing to the magnetic north), a direction of travel arrow, an orienting arrow, and some orienting lines. 

Can You Navigate With Only a Compass?

You can do some basic navigating with only a compass. Some simple compasses don’t have all the bells and whistles mentioned above, but they can still get you to safety should you find yourself lost in the woods. 

Choose a general direction you want to go. If you want to go north, for instance, align the red side of the magnetic needle with the north directional marking. Hold the compass steadily in front of you, and walk in that direction. You will eventually find your way out.

Two women navigating with a compass while hiking
Being able to navigate with a compass is a crucial survival skill to know while hiking and camping.

How Do You Navigate Using a Compass?

The proper method of using a compass is a bit more complicated, but don’t let the initial information dump lead you astray. Once you get the hang of it all, you’ll be navigating in no time. 

You’ll need a map and a compass to really do some technical navigating. Place a dot where your start point is on the map. Place another dot on your desired destination. Connect the dots using the straight edge of your compass base plate. 

Pro Tip: Knowing how to use a compass isn’t the only crucial survival skill you need to know. Make sure you have a grasp on these Basic Survival Skills Everyone Should Know before you hit the trails.

Hand holding compass while navigating
You can do basic navigation with a compass, but you will need a map as well for accuracy.

Navigating With a Compass and a Map

Next, place your compass on top of the map, lining the straight edge of your compass up with the line you drew. Make sure the directional heading arrow is oriented in the direction you wish to go. Turn the bezel to align the orienting lines (and arrow) with the north-south lines on your map. 

It is important to know that the map orients to true north and your compass orientates to magnetic north. The two are different, and you’ll need to know the declination for the area to navigate with a compass properly. Notate the declination on the map you’re using. If it’s not, you can look it up with a quick Google search (ahead of time). 

Adjust the bezel to account for the declination. For instance, if it’s 10 degrees west, you will turn the bezel 10 degrees towards the western marking. Only then is your compass aligned correctly. You can finally pick your compass up off of the map. 

Hiking team using a compass and map while hiking.
You’ll be thankful to have a compass on hand in case of emergency when hiking.

Holding the compass in front of you, turn your body around until the magnetic arrow aligns with the orienting arrow, placing the red end of the needle in the red box. You are now facing the direction of your heading. 

Pick a tree or some notable landmark in the distance, and walk to it. Check your heading on the compass, pick another landmark, and repeat the process until you reach your destination. 

How Do You Find True North on a Compass? 

To find true north on a compass, you have to first align the orienting lines on your compass with the north-south lines on your map. Then find out the declination for where you are located. Turn the bezel to apply the declination to the compass, and your compass will then point you towards true north. 

How Do You Follow a Bearing on a Compass? 

A bearing on a compass is measured in degrees. One might say, “Travel forward at a bearing of 137 degrees.” To travel forward on a bearing of 137 degrees when navigating with a compass, you simply turn the bezel of the compass to a measurement of 137 degrees. Then, align the red side of the magnetic arrow with the red side of the orienting arrow. 

Person using compass when hiking
Navigate big adventures with ease, by knowing the basic ins and outs of reading a compass.

Make sure the direction of the travel arrow is pointing away from your body. Walk forward, keeping the magnetic arrow inside of the orienting arrow, and you’ll be heading on a bearing of 137 degrees. 

Pro Tip: It’s important to pack a compass when camping, but ditch these 10 Overrated Camping Gear Items That You Really Don’t Need.

How Do You Read a Compass Degree and Minutes? 

Not all compasses show the details of degrees and minutes, but you can find some that do. The degrees and minutes will be around the outer rim of the bevel on your compass. The degree and minute markings that align with the direction of the travel arrow (or marker) are the numbers you’ll notate. 

Top 5 Hiking Compasses of 2021

Is It Still Important to Know How to Navigate With a Compass? 

Understanding how to navigate with a compass is a great survival skill to have in your back pocket. Should you ever get caught in a position where the skill would help, you’d certainly be thankful that you know how to use a compass.

Due to the advent of GPS technology, using a compass for wilderness navigation is typically used as a last resort or in orienteering. Orienteering is a sport that combines racing with navigation where participants try to locate waypoints in diverse terrain. Once you get the skill of navigating with a compass down, you may discover that it is actually quite fun to navigate yourself without using smart technology.

Now that you understand some of the basics of how to use a compass, where will you go next?

In addition to a compass, bring along these 10 Hiking Essentials You Should Never Hit the Trail Without.

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About Cait Morton

Co-Founder, Logistics Queen, Business & Content Manager, and Animal Lover

An Upper Peninsula of Michigan native (aka a Yooper), Caitlin is the organization, big-picture, and content strategy queen of our operation. She keeps everything orderly and on track.

With a background in Business Management, she supports and helps channel Tom’s technical prowess into the helpful content our readers and viewers expect. That’s not to say you won’t find her turning wrenches and talking shop – RV life is a team effort. She keeps the business and the blog moving forward with a variety of topics and resources for our audience.

Believe it or not, she is rather camera shy, though she co-hosts the Mortons’ personal videos and The RVers TV show.

Caitlin’s passion lies in outdoor recreation and with animals. Some of her favorite things to do are hiking, biking, and getting out on the water via kayak, SUP, or boat.

She also loves the RV life due to the fact that you can bring your pets along. Sharing information about safely recreating outdoors with your whole family – pets included! – is very important to her. Because of this, Caitlin spearheaded the launch of HypePets in 2023.

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