How to Use a Compass to Determine Direction
This article explains how to use a handheld compass for land navigation on foot or horseback. Different types of compasses (see How to Choose a Compass) work in slightly different ways to show you which direction you are facing. Here I explain how to read a baseplate compass (also called orienteering, or protractor compass), because it is the most commonly used compass for outdoor recreation.
- Hold the Compass Properly: Keep the compass flat and level, so that you are looking down at it. Keep the direction of travel indicator at the top of the compass. A good way to remember how to hold the compass is to dangle it from your neck by the lanyard. When you lift the compass and hold it flat, it will be facing the correct direction—with the direction of travel indicator facing away from you.
- Learn What the Magnetic Needle Does: The red end of the needle ALWAYS POINTS NORTH. It actually points toward the magnetic north pole which is different from the geographic or “true” north pole that maps use, but the distinction is only important if you are using a map with your compass (see Understanding Magnetic Declination for details).
- Set the Compass: Face toward the way you would like to determine the direction for, whether it is toward a landscape feature like a hill or just a path you plan to hike. Holding the compass still, twist the dial until the hollow orientation arrow lines up beneath the needle. When the needle is “boxed” in this manner, the compass is set.
- Read the Compass: With the compass set, read the bearing at the direction of travel indicator located at the top (front) of the compass dial. This is your direction of travel and it can be expressed in a number of ways including the quadrant or azimuth method (see Compass Directions).