How To Use A Hiking Compass Like A Pro

Rilor Staff
Update: May 23, 2023
Table of Contents

Discover the essential skills necessary to navigate the wilderness with confidence. This comprehensive guide will teach you how to use a hiking compass effectively so that you never become lost on outdoor excursions. Read further and become a navigation master!

A Quick Overview

A hiking compass can be an indispensable asset when exploring the great outdoors, enabling you to navigate unfamiliar terrain safely and remain on track. For instance, in climbing expeditions, these compasses can help adventurists to find their camps and prevent themselves from experiencing unwanted hazards. No matter if you are an experienced or novice hiker, understanding and using a compass are integral to safe wilderness exploration.

A compass is among the essential tools for hiking, or any outdoor adventure that comes to mind. They have the same value as survival knives, flashlights, and first-aid kits, especially during SHTF situations. Being able to utilize these navigational compasses properly can make a difference in your trip.

In this comprehensive guide we will delve into all the complexities associated with using one - giving you all of the skills and knowledge needed for confident navigation - so grab your compass and let's embark on our journey together!

Understanding the Basics: Components of a Hiking Compass

Before diving into the practical aspects of using a hiking compass, it's essential to become acquainted with its key components. A typical hiking compass consists of several parts. A common example includes these:

  • Baseplate: The rectangular-shaped baseplate serves as the foundation for compass use, often featuring rulers or measurement scales to aid map navigation.
  • Rotating Bezel: Also referred to as an azimuth dial, the rotating bezel (also referred to as azimuth) helps determine which direction you need to travel by using degrees ranging from 0-360 on its markings. This helps identify where exactly to go.
  • Magnetic Needle: The magnetic needle is an essential part of a compass, aligning itself with Earth's magnetic field to point toward magnetic north.
  • Orienting Arrow: To ensure accurate navigation, the orienting arrow located beneath the magnetic needle aids you in aligning the compass with a map for accurate navigation.
  • Direction-of-Travel Arrow: This arrow, typically found on the baseplate, indicates your intended travel direction.

Now that we have an understanding of all its components, let's move onto their application in practical use for hiking compass navigation.

How To Use A Hiking Compass

Step 1: Orienting Your Compass

To properly use a hiking compass, the initial step should be orienting it correctly. Follow these steps.

  1. Lay out your map on a flat surface and position the compass so its orienting arrow aligns with its north-south grid lines.
  1. Rotate the bezel until the magnetic needle lines up with the orienting arrow.
  1. Be mindful of the direction-of-travel arrow. Make sure that it points you toward your intended destination.

By correctly aligning your compass, you can establish a reliable source of navigational accuracy.

Step 2: Establish A Bearing

To establish your bearing, follow these steps:

  1. Keep the compass level and stable by holding it firmly in your hand, taking care that its orientation remains even and vertical.
  1. Rotate your body until the magnetic needle aligns with the orienting arrow, with its red end pointing toward magnetic north on your bezel.
  1. As you observe the bezel, make note of any degree markings which correspond with the direction-of-travel arrow. This degree represents your bearing, indicating in which direction to travel.

Step 3: Follow Or Track A Bearing

Once you have identified your bearing, the next step should be following it and remaining on course. Here is how:

  1. Hold the compass flat in front of you, making sure that its direction-of-travel arrow points away from your body.
  1. Rotate your body until the magnetic needle lands directly under the orienting arrow, while keeping its red end aligned with magnetic north marking.
  2. Locate an object or landmark in the distance which coincides with your bearing, and head in its direction.
  1. As you travel along, regularly review and adjust your compass to maintain your bearing. If necessary, adjust accordingly in order to maintain accuracy of direction.

Step 4: Adjusting For Declination

Declination refers to the angle between true north and magnetic north; its value will depend on where your geographical location lies. To ensure accurate navigation, declination must be properly adjusted - follow these steps:

  1. Determine your location's declination value using topographic maps or reliable sources.
  1. Locate the declination adjustment scale on your compass - typically it can be found near its bezel.
  1. Rotate the bezel until its declination value lines up with its respective orientation arrow.
  1. By adjusting for declination, you can better align your compass with true north and achieve more accurate navigation results.

Proper Compass Maintenance And Storage

Aside from learning how to use a hiking compass, it is also essential that you learn proper maintenance for this tool. It is key to the health and longevity of any compass, which, in turn, could prevent you from being lost in the woods. By following these tips, you can keep yours in good shape so it provides accurate readings while adventuring outdoors.

Tip 1: Keep Your Compass Clean and Dry

Regular cleaning of a compass is crucial to its effective functioning, as dirt, dust, and debris build-up may reduce performance significantly. To clean your compass:

  • Utilize a soft, lint-free cloth to gently wipe down the surface of the compass to remove visible dust or dirt particles. For tough stains or grime build-up, dampen the cloth slightly with mild soap or solution specifically formulated for compasses before wiping.
  • Carefully wipe down the compass, making sure no cleaning solution enters its housing or harms any sensitive components. After cleaning, use a dry cloth to wipe away moisture from any remaining spots on the device before storing.

Regular cleaning not only keeps your compass looking its best but also ensures its functionality is uncompromised.

Tip 2: Proper Compass Storage

Proper storage of your compass can protect it from being damaged and ensure its accuracy; for optimal compass maintenance when not in use, follow these guidelines for optimal storage:

  • Store your compass in a dry and secure place, preferably inside a protective pouch to guard against scratches or impacts. 
  • Also avoid extreme temperatures - both hot and cold - as this could impact its accuracy and change its fluid levels, leading to possible compromise of its accuracy.
  • Avoid keeping your compass near moisture to reduce rust or corrosion and ensure its best performance. 
  • Store it away from damp environments or direct contact with water, while direct sunlight can damage materials and affect performance negatively - to keep this at bay, store in an area with shade so as to limit exposure to UV rays.

By following these storage practices, you can ensure your compass remains in excellent condition and ready for its next journey.

Tip 3: Check Your Compass Regularly

Conduct a regular inspection of your compass for damage and calibrate it regularly to maintain accuracy. Here's what to do:

  • Conduct a visual inspection of your compass for signs of damage, such as cracks, scratches or bent parts. If any issues arise, professional repair or replacement should be sought to ensure reliable performance of your instrument.
  • Maintain a regular calibration process to account for magnetic deviations. You can do this by comparing your compass with one known reference point or another reliable compass in an area without magnetic interference.
  • Make sure to follow manufacturer's instructions regarding calibration; different compasses may have specific calibration procedures.

By keeping your compass in good repair and calibrating it as needed, you can rely on its accuracy during outdoor navigation.

Tip 4: Avoid Magnetic Interference

Magnetic interference can somehow mess up with the accuracy of compass readings. To minimize this effect, do the following:

  • Keep your compass away from magnetic objects like smartphones, electronic devices and metal objects when using it - these objects may produce magnetic fields which interfere with its needle's alignment and should be treated as potential sources of interference.
  • When taking bearings or referencing a compass, make sure it is away from your body to reduce magnetic interference from personal magnetic fields. Doing this ensures accurate readings and reliable navigation guidance from your compass.

Tip 5: Learn from Experience and Practice

Like any skill, mastering navigation requires practice in both familiar and unfamiliar environments. Don't pass up every opportunity to hone your navigational abilities! These additional tips for developing and sharpening compass skills:

  • Explore various terrains and weather conditions when practicing compass reading exercises to develop your adaptability. Speak to experienced navigators or enroll in navigation courses to gain advanced techniques and gain invaluable insights.
  • Reflect upon and learn from your experiences, reflecting upon any mistakes or challenges encountered as opportunities to enhance and grow. Each navigation opportunity offers the chance for growth and improvement; by learning from experience and practicing regularly with your compass you'll build up confidence while honing navigational skills.

Frequently Asked Questions About Compasses

Q: How can I locate the North using a compass? 

A: To locate North with a Compass, hold it level and steady while rotating your body so the needle lines up with either the orienting arrow or north marking on the bezel of the compass bezel - this direction corresponds to North.

Q: Can a compass work without a map? 

A: Absolutely, although maps can certainly aid navigation, a compass alone can still provide vital assistance in terms of determining direction, taking bearings, and following specific courses.

Q: Are compasses accurate?

A: Compasses can generally be accurate when used properly, however their accuracy can be affected by magnetic interference from nearby metal objects or electrical devices causing magnetic flux leakage, thus it's essential that regular calibrations of your compass take place to maintain maximum precision.

Q: Can a compass help me navigate in any type of terrain?

A: Absolutely. Compasses are reliable ways of finding direction, taking bearings and finding your destination regardless of terrain type.

Q: When should I calibrate my compass? 

A: Calibration frequency depends on a variety of factors, including the type and environment in which you use your compass. As a general guideline, however, recalibrate it periodically if any readings seem inconsistent, changes, or appear unusual based on geographic changes; additionally recalibrate when moving geographic locations as magnetic declination varies based on location. Always refer to manufacturer instructions for assistance when calibrating a compass.

How Can I Train To Use A Compass Correctly?

In all honesty, it’s difficult to learn how to use a compact without understanding its fundamentals. Utilizing a compass effectively doesn't require extensive training; however, some practice and understanding is helpful for ensuring its proper usage. 

While compasses are user-friendly tools, having the necessary skills can greatly increase navigation skills. Here are a few points worth keeping in mind regarding training for compass usage:

Understand Compass Components

To properly use a compass, it is essential that you familiarize yourself with its components and how they function together. Understanding its baseplate, rotating bezel, magnetic needle and direction-of-travel arrow will establish a solid basis for using it effectively - you can learn this information via instructional resources, tutorials or experienced navigators.

Basic Compass Skills

Acquiring basic compass skills through training or practice sessions is an invaluable way to become adept with using it accurately. Training may include hands-on activities that simulate real world navigation scenarios, like taking bearings, following courses and aligning it with maps - this practice helps build confidence while reinforcing concepts behind compass navigation.

Master Cardinal Directions and Bearings

Training can deepen your understanding of cardinal directions and how to interpret bearings on a compass. Learning how to align it with true north or magnetic north and take accurate bearings accurately will allow for efficient navigation of any location. Training exercises provide invaluable practice that will develop these essential skills allowing for confident navigation of any journey.

Advanced Navigation Techniques

To develop more complex compass navigation skills, advanced training may include more complex techniques. 

This may include topics such as using topographic maps in combination with compass navigation; understanding magnetic declination; triangulation; or using it under challenging terrain or adverse weather conditions. These advanced skills will equip you to tackle more demanding navigation scenarios successfully.

Practical Application and Experience

While training provides a solid foundation, practical application and experience are equally crucial to mastering compass usage. 

Regular practice in different environments and terrains will enhance your ability to adapt to various navigation challenges, while engaging in real-world navigation experiences like hiking, orienteering events or wilderness exploration gives you an opportunity to apply your compass skills directly while learning through firsthand experiences.

While compass navigation can be done without formal training, investing the time in learning and practicing compass skills will greatly enhance your navigational abilities. 

From self-study to attending navigation workshops or seeking guidance from experienced navigators, training provides invaluable insights that will bolster confidence and competence when using a compass effectively.

Remember, with practice comes proficiency; harnessing all its potential becomes second nature over time!


Congratulations! You now possess all of the essential skills required to use a hiking compass effectively! Practice makes perfect, so seize every opportunity to strengthen your navigational abilities and feel secure exploring nature knowing you have the ability to navigate back home should things go astray! So grab your compass, embark on new adventures, and let nature lead the way!

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