At this modern age, it seems like everything is easy because of the advanced technology. Just like how we navigate directions, we have GPS. But never underestimate the skill of reading a map and a compass. It’s a great and useful life skill.

Knowing how to use a compass enables you to navigate accurately and safely along terrains even without following the trail. If you’re able to read a map, you can further enhance your navigation skills by learning how to use a compass.

In this article, we’ll teach you how to use a map in case you’re lost in the middle of nowhere while traveling. Let’s learn the basics about the compass.

A compass consists of four cardinal points: North, South, East, and West. There are four intercardinal points (the middle of two cardinal points): Southeast, Northeast, Northwest, and Southwest. A compass also has secondary intercardinal points which are the middle of a cardinal and intercardinal point. For example, North-Northeast, South-Southeast, etc.

Types of Compasses:

  •   Orienteering/Mountaineering/Baseplate compass – it has a needle that points north at all times. To find directions using this compass, you need to move a dial.
  •   Card Compass – you can usually see this compass in cars or toy compasses. It doesn’t have a noticeable needle. Instead, there’s a magnetic piece that looks like a needle. This is good for general directions but not when using a map.

Parts of a Compass

  • Orienting Arrow – the orienting arrow rotates together with the housing when you move the dial.
  • Compass Needle – this is a magnetized needle with the end painted with red as a north indication. It’s positioned in an almost frictionless fine point so it can easily rotate when the compass is held on a fair, steady level.
  • Direction of Travel-Arrow – this arrow is placed on the baseplate and faces away from the compass.
  • Compass Housing – round and clear plastic that houses the compass needle.
  • Orienting Lines – these are series of lines on the floor of the compass housing that runs parallel to the orienting arrow.
  • Degree Dial – this is the ring around the compass housing engraved with degree markings. It displays all the 360 degrees of a circle.

Differentiating the ‘True North’ from the ‘Magnetic North’

True North, often called as grid north or map north is the point where longitudinal lines meet on the map. It’s always on the top of the map. Your compass won’t point to ‘True North’ because of the slight variations of the magnetic field. Instead, it’ll point to the ‘magnetic north.’

Magnetic North is the tilt of the magnetic field. Usually, it’s about eleven degrees from the Earth’s axis’ tilt. Depending on your location, you’ll have to rely on the ‘magnetic north’ to get an accurate reading.

How a Compass Works

Our planet earth has a vast magnetic field around it, but it’s not strong. The magnetic needle of the compass is designed to align with the earth’s magnetic field.

Basics of Compass Reading

  • Hold the compass correctly

You can hold the compass directly and place it flat on your palm just right in front of your chest, or halfway between your face and waist. This is the proper compass position when you use it for traveling.

  • Determine the point you’re facing

When you find the comfortable position in holding the compass properly, look at the compass’ magnetic needle. It’s probably swinging from one side to the other except you’re facing north.

*Turn the degree dial – turn the dial until the orienting arrow is lined up with the magnetic arrow. They’re now pointing north. Look for the direction you’re facing by observing the direction-of-travel-arrow. If the travel arrow is between North and West, you’re now facing Northwest.

*Direction of travel arrow and degree dial intersection – to find the accurate reading of the direction you’re facing, look at the degree markers on the compass. If it intersects at 310, you’re facing 310 degrees northwest.

How to Use a Compass when Traveling

One: Take a Bearing

To find out the bearing, you need to understand the degree markings surrounding the compass. Checking the bearing periodically assures that you’re going in the direction you intend. To check your bearing, move the compass until the course of the travel arrow points to the direction you’re traveling.

  • Twist the degree dial upward until the orienting arrow is parallel with the magnetic needle’s north end. If these are aligned, you can tell where the direction of the travel arrow is pointing.

Two: Continue Moving in that Direction

Hold the compass correctly in its proper stance, then turn your body until the magnetic needle’s north end aligns with the orienting needle. Then, follow the direction of the travel arrow. Check your compass frequently without twisting the degree dial.

Three: Focus on Points from a Distance

To follow the direction of travel arrow accurately, look at the arrow and focus on an object from a distance, for example, a tree. Use the distant object as a guide. When you reach the focus point, use your compass to find another location to reach.

How to Use a Compass with a Map

One: Line up Your Points

  • Know your point (point A) and the end where you want to go (point B).
  • On a flat surface, properly place the map. You can also put it above your knee if there are no flat surfaces.
  • Position the compass on the map, so the orienting arrow points to true north on the map.
  • If you know your present location on the map, slide your compass around the map so that the edge passes through your current area. Make sure that the orienting arrow stays pointing at north.
  • Line up down the compass edge and through your present position. If the bearing is maintained, the path from your present position will be down the line you drew on the map.

Two: Align to Grid North

  • Hold the compass in a steady position.
  • Twist the compass housing bezel so that the N on the bezel as well as the orienteering arrow points to grid north. See to it that the orienteering lines are aligned with the easting lines on the map.

Three: Magnetic Variation Adjustment

Every country varies in the adjustment, but you can find it on your map with its guide or key. Look for the magnetic north. Pick up your compass and twist the compass housing bezel counterclockwise to add the magnetic variation.

Four: Use the Compass like the Directions Above (How to Use a Compass when Traveling)

Tips for Compass Reading

  • Don’t tilt the compass when you’re holding it as it may not move correctly.
  • Read the exact end of the needle.
  • Keep the compass away from metal objects as it may cause false readings.
  • See to it that the direction of travel arrow is aligned to the direction you’re traveling (it isn’t called the direction of travel arrow for anything).
  • Make sure at all times that the orienting arrow is pointing grid north.
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