How to Use A Compass: Fundamentals of Orienteering

How to Use A Compass: Fundamentals of Orienteering

If you are a man who practices outdoor activities and who frequently makes excursions and adventures in nature, it is likely that your knowledge of preparation and survival is based largely on these conditions, and that is intelligent. While city bugs must be more concerned with alternative routes and home security, those of us who spend more time outdoors and live in rural areas need to focus on the essentials.

The use of the compass is one of those basic foundations, and one that has largely been left on the road. In the wake of high-tech navigation systems and GPS technology, most of us can hardly read a map these days, much less use a compass. But the reality is that the batteries run out, the circuits are fried, and you can not always count on these tools to be there, especially on the tough exterior. The ability to use a compass and read a map should always come before your ability to press buttons and install software.

How to Use A Compass: Fundamentals of Orienteering

Although this is a wide-ranging topic, and the practice in the field will outweigh any education you can get online, here we will discuss some of the basic concepts of how these tools work and how to use one to find your way home.

How a compass works

Compasses are one of the most simple and effective navigation tools in the world, but also one of the oldest. They were used for the first time in the 11th century in China, and arrived in Europe in the 13th century. Over the past several hundred years, several innovations have been made in this simple device, but the basic functions remain the same. Understanding how these tools work will help you understand how to read your compass.

The compasses of today with which most of us are familiar are the compasses of plastic orientation. These are filled with liquid and sit on top of a motherboard, with marks around the edges to help with reading the map (scales and a small ruler). There is also usually a magnifying glass built into the motherboard to help read maps. The arrow pointing outward from the compass along the base plate is its direction of the travel arrow, and is used to guide it.

How to Use A Compass: Fundamentals of Orienteering

Many compasses also have what is known as a compass to indicate direction and help establish the degree of angle for a heading. Artistic and ornate, this design dates back centuries, to the arrival of the European-style compass. Although they are not an integral part of their function, they are, nevertheless, a useful visual aid and a beautiful characteristic, especially in the ancient compasses.

Inside the compass housing, a magnetic needle floats on the liquid above the lines that are meant to help you use it with the lines of latitude and longitude on a map. A declination scale and an orientation arrow are also marked under the needle. Around the casing there is a revolving sphere marked with degrees to measure its exact direction, with 0 starting from the north and 90 towards the east, and so on. The declination scale is used to take magnetic interference into account.

Most traditional compasses work outside the earth’s magnetic field. The thin arrow naturally moves towards the magnetic north pole of the earth, which gives you an idea of ​​which direction it is traveling. However, because they work out of magnetic fields, when approaching the North Pole, you are likely to see a lot more interference and you will have to compensate more and more for the increase in magnetic power that distorts the direction of the compass direction .

Be careful not to carry things about you that could interfere with the function of the compass, especially iron or electronic devices. Some compasses that have magnetic needles without water to facilitate friction can get stuck with particularly strong interference, definitely a point of sale for compasses filled with liquid.

That is practically all for the mechanics of a compass, although there is little to do to ensure that they work properly, except to use it correctly and try not to create magnetic interference.

Type of measures

The earliest compasses were actually made with magnetized stone, but the technology advanced rapidly after the principles behind this new invention were better understood. Since then, human innovation has made manual compass seem obsolete to many. However, we are preparers and we all worry about safety boxes against failures. Here are some different types of compasses, for when the GPS looks like it can not get a signal.


This is the first type of compass ever made, and is essentially a piece of magnetized material.

How to Use A Compass: Fundamentals of Orienteering

Suspended in a way that keeps the friction to a minimum so that it can move freely with the magnetic north direction.


The design of these compasses is a bit more complex and involves some laws of engineering and physics that I do not have the knowledge to explain adequately. However, these are the compasses that are seen to be spherical in shape, typically constructed as a round sphere that moves freely, suspended in liquid, under a transparent cover so that the directions can be seen.

How to Use A Compass: Fundamentals of Orienteering

It was invented for sailors, since it is able to accurately give an indication of the true north, a necessity for those who travel by vast and implacable oceans.

Astro Compass

This may be one you’ve never seen before. This type, similar to a microscope rather than a conventional compass, is used for those traveling at the extreme north or south of the Earth, where the magnetic interference of the poles is too severe for the use of a magnetic compass.

How to Use A Compass: Fundamentals of Orienteering

It requires a lot of information, such as longitudes and latitudes, but it generally uses the positions of the celestial bodies to give directional information.

Motherboard compass

Also known as the compass of orientation, this is one of the most used manual compasses today, and is the one that I will use to explain the way to use a compass in this article. It receives its name from the rectangular plate on which the compass housing sits.

How to Use A Compass: Fundamentals of Orienteering

This place is usually clear and has several brands and measurement tools to help the user, particularly with the map application.

Dry compass

This is a type of magnetic compass, which is generally used in older designs. Basically, it only indicates that the space where the needle is suspended is not filled with water. In well-made compasses, the needles usually rest on a finely crafted gem base that allows minimal friction, even when approaching the poles.

Wet compass

This term simply indicates that the magnetic needle is suspended in liquid for minimal friction. These compasses, like their dry counterparts, can have any shape and size, but are generally more reliable in terms of the needle not getting stuck.

How to read a compass

The reading of a compass can vary a bit depending on the type you have, but the basic fundamentals are the same. The most important thing to remember is that the arrow that floats in the center always points north. Whether you have a travel address or not, if your arrow points 90 degrees to your right, then you are looking west.

Visualize the rose of the winds, with the various degree points around the circle, and you can get at least one general heading. For more advanced and modern compasses, functions can do more to complicate the process, but they also provide more information and tools to travel more accurately.

How to Use A Compass: Fundamentals of Orienteering

To begin, keep the compass flat in the palm of your hand at chest level. If you are using an orientation compass, align the floating magnetic needle with the orientation arrow by turning the dial. This will give you an image of your directional environment. To determine your heading, or the direction you are looking at, look at where the travel direction arrow intersects the degrees on the dial. And there they are, they have a precise course, like a sophisticated explorer.

But the fun does not stop there. As you probably already know, there are two different types of north. There is a true north, which points directly to 0 degrees and follows the long lines on the map. Then there is the magnetic north, which falls at an angle to the axis of the earth. To stay on the right track with your map, you will want to compensate for this difference, since the needle of your compass will always point to magnetic north, not true north.

To get a more accurate reading of your compass, use the declination scale on your orientation compass. With this scale, you can adjust to true north, but to know the angle of adjustment you will need, you must study a magnetic declination map. These maps are marked with lines that show you the amount of angle you will need to adjust your north reading, depending on where you are.

In the USA UU., The line extends from north to south through the Midwest, roughly between Wisconsin and Illinois. Those located east of that line will have to adjust their compass a few degrees to the west, and those on the west side of the line will have to do the opposite. However, the farther you are from the poles (the closer you are to the equator), the less an adjustment is needed.

If you use the compass on a map, particularly with compasses of orientation, you can simply place them on the map and use the long lines placed on the compass to get an accurate reading, which brings us to the next topic.

The basics of reading maps.

If you have both a compass and a map, you do not have just a directional heading, but you can map a route based on geographic features, find specific locations, and generally have a better idea of ​​where you are.

However, reading a map is not as simple as looking at it, there are many special symbols and measurement systems that you should know how to use them. It may seem tedious and unnecessary, but understanding how to read a map accurately will help you with more than just understanding proximity, but calculating distances and selecting the fastest and safest route to a location.

There are several different types of maps: topographical, political, embossed and, sometimes, combinations of these as well. All offer different views of the same space, so the image is not too complicated and difficult to read. Let’s review some of the basic parts of a map that will help you use your compass in one.

  • Latitude and longitude lines – These are the lines that run horizontally and vertically on a map, and are used to give exact locations in the coordinates. This is the system used by GPS technology for triangulation.
  • Scale Since the images on a map are set to a certain scale, and that scale will differ according to the size of the map itself, the scales are useful for estimating distances. Most guidance compasses come with a small rule for this exact purpose. Usually, an inch or a centimeter will be set to an equivalent mileage, and by measuring the distance between two points, we can calculate a fairly accurate distance.
  • Key – Various symbols and markers are used on maps, and these can differ greatly from one to the other. A map key will tell you what the blue lines indicate versus the green ones, which means a small black triangle, etc.
  • Contour lines – Sometimes, these are included in topographic maps, but there is always a part of the maps in relief. Level curves are used to indicate elevation changes, and are absolutely crucial to understanding the navigation process. In general, the contour lines follow a constant level of elevation, so if I had to walk on that line, I would not ascend or descend on the elevation.
    The most important thing to remember when examining the contour lines on a map is that the closer the lines are, the steeper the slope. Knowing this can save you from planning a route that places you at the base of a steep cliff. Many times, maps also have index markers on every fifth or more contour lines, to give you an idea of ​​how much elevation is changing.

Understanding these basic basics of map reading will prepare you to use your compass along with one and make you a competent traveler.

How to use a compass and a map together

By understanding how compasses work and how to read a map, it’s time to combine that knowledge. Keep in mind that almost all maps are arranged from north to up and from south to down (if you are not sure of the orientation of the map, there is often a compass on the map somewhere to indicate the direction).

How to Use A Compass: Fundamentals of Orienteering

To begin, find a flat, level surface to work with and place your map on it, with the compass on top. Once you know which direction is north, align the map so that it and the compass are synchronized with their directions.

From here, the way to proceed depends largely on the characteristics of the compass. If yours has a rule at the end, use it to calculate distances. If you are familiar with areas of magnetic declination, or better yet, have a map of where those lines are located, you can use it along with your other map to adjust your compass to compensate for magnetic north. Although this can only cause a variation of a few degrees, over several miles you can divert it from its course.

If you can compensate for the decline, do it, especially if you travel long distances and are far from the equator.

The important thing about being able to read a compass.

It is a sad reality that in today’s age, very few people know how to use a compass. The saddest thing is that a surprising number of us do not even know how to use or read a map! While electronic navigation has simplified our travel plans (and has undoubtedly brought us out of some difficult situations), it has also created a society that depends entirely on them.

How to Use A Compass: Fundamentals of Orienteering

The problem with this is that the technologies fail all the time. The servers are dropped, the phones are broken, the GPS signals are lost, and without these devices or any guidance knowledge, we are completely in the dark. Being able to use a compass and read a map should not only be an interesting pastime, or something that you take as seriously as Sudoku, but a survival skill that you practice actively and regularly. The more you do it, the more familiar you will be with it, and who knows, one day you might feel comfortable enough to leave the TomTom at home.


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