How To Use a Compass


How To Use a Compass

Continuing our series on land navigation. Now that someone has their bearings using a TOPO map, how would that person follow the compass? Looking at the map and saying we need to go in a certain direction is one thing. Getting into the woods and following the compass is a different story.

For this example, we are going to use a basic Plain Jane map compass. Expensive compasses have a sight glass for shooting a more accurate azimuth. For what we are doing with this example, a $10 map compass will do just fine.


  • Compass must be held flat to work properly.
  • Iron and electronics must be kept away from the compass. Even a wrist watch can affect the compass if the two get within a few inches of each other.
  • Understand magnetic declination, and factor it into your compass settings.  Some compasses have a way to adjust them for magnetic declination, some do not.

How to follow a map compass

On the compass will be a direction of travel line.  This will usually be in the middle of the compass and have an arrow at the end of the line.  Turn the dial until you have the degree you want travel aligned with the direction of travel line.

Turn the compass so the needle points to north on the dial.

Now follow the direction of travel line.

Follow The Compass

Rather than keeping the head down and only looking at the compass, use the compass to pick out an object in the direction of travel. Let’s say there is a large oak tree a hundred yards away, and is near the path the compass is pointing. Walk to the oak tree, then look at the compass again. While standing at the oak tree, pick out another target. Then walk to that next target.

Every so often break out the TOPOmap, check your location, adjust the compass bearing if needed, then continue to follow the compass.


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