January 15


How To Use A Compass: 5 Easy Steps for a Hiking Beginner

By Jonathan

January 15, 2023

A compass is a vital navigation tool for a hiker because it is reliable and easy to operate. There is loads of information on how to use a compass for hiking beginners. A compass does not need batteries and can work with or without a map

As a hiker having map and a compass will help you pre-determine any looming challenges such as spring snow field areas. With this information, you will prepare for the hike adequately and avoid unnecessary injuries and illnesses.

When buying a compass, the only thing to look out for is the direction of the floating needle. It should always point toward the magnetic north. This needle should remain in that position irrespective of your direction.

You should, however, note that the magnetic north is different from the true north. The declination concept will come in handy when reconciling the two Norths. Declination refers to the angle between a particular location’s magnetic north and the True North.

The declination angle changes over time; hence you need to use a reasonably new map when navigating the hiking trails. Using a compass is not rocket science, but a small mistake can lead you to a different destination.

Types of Compasses

Compasses can be classified into two broad categories: Magnetic Compasses and non-Magnetic compasses.

Magnetic compass

Antique magnetic compass
Antique magnetic compass

Magnetic compass is the most commonly used compass and shows the direction of the magnetic north. The arrow pointing towards the magnetic north is usually marked red at the tip, and all other directions are determined from its position.

A magnetic compass is made by positioning a piece of magnetized metal set on low friction to move freely. There are four main types of magnetic compasses, and they are as follows:

  • Base plate compass – The base plate compass is the most commonly used compass and also the most affordable (Buy here). It has a rectangular base made from clear plastic. It also comes with a magnifying lens to assist you in reading the map.

The characters and pointers are luminous so that you can read the compass even in the dark. The base plate compass also contains different scales, making it useful in all parts of the world.

  • Card Compass – The card compass is primarily used in the marine and uses a fixed pointer on a moving card. The card absorbs the motion created by the moving boat or ship, allowing the compass to give accurate and real-time directions.
  • Thumb Compass – This is also known as a competition compass since it is used mainly by bikers or canoe riders. You attach the compass on your thumb, which means you can have the map and the compass in one hand while navigating with the other (Buy here).
  • Prismatic Compass – A prismatic compass is more sophisticated and mainly used by professional navigators. It uses a prism arrangement which allows you to read the compass directions while sighting objects at a distance.

Non–Magnetic Compass

GPS app on mobile phone
GPS app on mobile phone

Non–magnetic compass uses a navigational point of view instead of magnetism to establish the true north. They use sensors to pin the coordinates and consequently show direction. The most commonly used non-magnetic compasses include:

  • Astrocompass – the astrocompass uses the location of celestial bodies to find the true north. It is mainly used in the farthest end of the North and South poles, where magnetic compasses are bound to fail.
  • Gyro Compass – A gyro compass is the most accurate tool for determining the true north. It uses the principle of conservation of angular momentum and the earth’s axis spinning to tell the location of the true north.
  • GPS compass – A GPS compass is rapidly gaining popularity among hikers because it is relatively accurate. It uses satellite technology to pick the current location and the intended destination. The only issue is that GPS devices are battery-powered and can go low in the middle of nowhere.
  • Solid state compass – this compass is also gaining popularity because of its high level of accuracy. It uses electromagnetic sensors to determine the direction that the compass is pointing.

How to Use a Compass on the Hiking Trail

It is one thing to have a compass and another to know how to use it effectively. Before you use your compass, you need to identify at least two landmarks from which you will peg your direction. The landmarks can be a mountain or a lake.

As a beginner, once you’ve got the correct type of compass (preferably magnetic), here are some steps to use the compass effectively.

Adjust for Declination

A hiker learning how to use a compass
A hiker learning how to use a compass

The first step to using a compass is to adjust the compass for declination. Note that the value changes over time and with a location change. Most topographic maps indicate the declination angle, but you must get the latest version to have the right value.

The declination value will help you set your compass accurately. Most compasses have an instruction manual that contains information on how to set the compass, and in case you cannot trace the manual, you can always search on the manufacturer’s website.

Some compasses do not have the option of adjusting for declination. If this is your case, remember to add or subtract the declination value from the bearings to get accurate positioning.

Map Orientation

Compass on map ready for use
Compass on map ready for use

The Second step when using a compass is orienting the map, which you can do by putting your compass on the map with the direction of the travel arrow pointing to the top side of the map. You then rotate the bezel until N is aligned with the direction of travel pointer.

Next, you place the compass’s base plate so that it is aligned with either the map’s left or right edges. Ensure the arrow pointing towards the direction of travel is directed to the top of the map. Once the compass is well-placed on the map, rotate your body while holding the map and compass until the magnetic needle is in line with the orienting arrow.

And that is how you get the compass and map ready to use.

Find your location and bearing on the map.

A hiker finding their bearing on the map
A hiker finding their bearing on the map

To find your location and bearing on the map, you must learn how to use a compass. At this point, the destination of travel arrow is pointing toward your destination. Now position the compass on the map so that the straight edge aligns with your current location and your intended destination.

Turn the bezel until the orienting grids are aligned with the map’s north and south grid lines, and read the bearing.

The next step is to remove the compass from the map and position it so that the direction of the travel arrow is far away from you. Turn your body until the magnetic pointer is aligned with the orienting arrow.

In that position, the direction of the travel arrow will be pointing to where you are headed.

If you need to find your location, start by identifying a landmark that is visible on the map. Hold the compass such that the direction of the travel arrow is facing away from you towards the landmark.

Turn the bezel until the magnetic needle is aligned with the orienting arrow. Check where the index on the rotating bezel falls and position the compass accordingly.

Turn the base plate until the orienting grids are aligned with the map’s north, and south grid line and the North pointer on the bezel are pointing toward the true north. Draw a line along the straight edge of the compass, and your current position on the map will be where the line crosses your trail.


I am confident this information will help you buy the right compass when shopping for hiking tools. You should also be able to use both the map and compass effectively to navigate through your hiking trail. While you may know your way through the trail, hiking without a compass and map, especially during winter can be catastrophic.

I look forward to your thoughts about this subject in the comment section.

I also invite you to like, subscribe and share this fantastic content.

About the author

My name is Jonathan J. Williams, a 36-year-old male, and hiking is my oxygen. It is my source of life. I hike on good days and bad days for relaxation and exercise. Backpacking and camping go hand in hand with camping; the three define my life. The trails and mountains keep calling at me.

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