How To Use a Compass When Camping

Updated: Jun. 11, 2024

Compasses aren't just for survival, they're also fun! Here's how use one.

I like navigating via paper maps. I know that makes me sound old school. But there are actually still a lot of places out there without cell phone service, and those are usually some of the most fun places to hike and camp.

Knowing how to use a compass, along with a topographical map of the area, means you can navigate those remote locations with confidence. It also opens up the world of orienteering, the sport of finding checkpoints and letterboxes filled with notes and knickknacks people have hidden for other compass enthusiasts.

“With a compass, you can find your way anywhere in the world,” says Evan Krueger, camp program and girl experience manager for the Girl Scouts. “If you know how to read a compass, you’ve mastered a smart survival skill that can take you down a nature trail, through a park, into and out of a forest — or even across your own backyard!”

Here’s how to use a compass.

Parts of a Compass

While fitting easily in your pocket, a compass features a lot of components. These include:

  • A magnetized needle floating in fluid so it can spin toward Earth’s magnetic North Pole (not the same as the geographic one).
  • The housing and dial, a round disc marked with cardinal directions (north, south, east, west) and lines of degrees. It contains the needle and spins so you can orient yourself and take a bearing.
  • The orienting arrow painted underneath the housing in red. When taking a bearing, you’ll line it up with the red part of the needle.
  • The baseplate, a rectangular surface that holds the compass housing.
  • The measurement marks on the baseplate, which look like rulers. They help you calculate distances on the map. Sometimes there’s also a scale on the baseplate to measure linear distance on a map.
  • The direction of travel arrow, a triangle or arrow painted on the baseplate that faces away from the compass housing. This is what you point toward the landmark you want to reach; the arrow helps you determine your orientation and bearing. Sometimes there’s also an index line, an extension of the direction of travel arrow.
  • The declination scale, which corrects the difference between magnetic and true north.
  • Some compasses also include a small magnifier to help you see finer details on the map more clearly.

Here’s how to use a compass while camping:

Step 1: Adjust Declination

If your compass features an adjustable declination, start by finding your declination value, the deviation between magnetic north and true north. The best way? Enter your location into the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) website, which is updated regularly because declination changes over time.

Once you have your declination, adjust your compass with your fingers or a tool, depending on the model.

If your compass lacks an adjustable declination, you’ll need to do it manually by adding or subtracting the declination each time you take a bearing.

Step 2: Orient Yourself

Orienting means finding the cardinal directions.

First, hold the compass flat, parallel to the ground at about belly-button height. Make sure there are no strong magnetic fields nearby, like your phone or a car.

Turn the housing so north lines up with the direction of the travel arrow. Turn your body (not just the compass) so the magnetic needle is contained within the orienting arrow. Voilá! You’re now facing north.

If you want to face east instead, turn the housing so the E lines up with the direction of the travel arrow, then turn your body to put the magnetic needle inside the orienting arrow.

Step 3: Orient Your Map

You’ll need to line up your direction with the map. To do that, put your compass on top of the map and rotate the grid lines so they align with your compass needle, which will be magnetic north.

Step 4: Take a Bearing

A bearing is the direction of an object or destination, as measured from your relative location to it. Bearings are measured in degrees, like a circle. North is both 0 and 360 degrees, east is 90 degrees, south 180 and west 270.

To take your bearing, hold the compass flat and point your body and compass at the object or destination you want to navigate to. Turn the dial to put the magnetic needle inside the orienting arrow. See what degree is on your direction of travel arrow; that’s your bearing. It’s a good idea to record your bearing for later reference.

Precautions Before You Go Into the Wilderness

Using a compass isn’t difficult but takes some practice. Before you venture into unknown territory, spend some time learning its basic functions, and practice navigating with it on trail systems you know.

It’s also smart to practice reversing your bearing to return to your departure point. Hint: Add 180 degrees to your bearing if it was less than 180, or subtract 180 degrees if more than 180.