How To Read & Use A Compass w/ Map & Landmarks

I’ve been camping for years but it wasn’t until I became interested in backpacking that I started bringing my own compass with me. When you’re in the middle of the outdoors with no internet there isn’t a smart phone in the world that can lower your fears when you get lost. Learning how to read and use a compass with a map and landmarks around you is an invaluable skill to getting back to your site safely. Find out how to triangulate your location and orient yourself in the article below.

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Learning Parts Of A Compass

Before you start triangulating your position (we’ll get to that later in this article) you’ll need to learn the different parts of your compass and what they do. 

diagram of compass parts

Baseplate

The baseplate is the base of your compass and is almost always see-through so that you can view your map while also looking at your bearings. 

The baseplate will often have at least one straight side so that you can draw lines when you gather bearings and start using them on your map.

Direction of Travel Arrow

This arrow is the only one on your compass that doesn’t change its direction. It’s stuck right at the top and you’re going to point it right at your destination when you start getting more advanced in navigating.

Degree Dial/Azimuth Ring/Rotating Bezel

You’ll be moving this around quite frequently when you get the hang of your compass and using it in conjunction with your map. It has 360-degree marks on it and rotates so that you can measure bearings. 

Magnetic Needle

This is the arrow that is constantly moving in your compass. It is magnetized and usually has a black end and a red end. The red end will always follow north. This needle works in combination with the orienting arrow when navigating to help guide your way. Keep away any metal object near the magnetic needle while using it because it will manipulate the direction.

Orienting Arrow

The orienting arrow is a fixed arrow that you can adjust manually with your bezel ring. This arrow will align with your magnetic needle when navigating so that you know you’re always headed in the right direction.

Orienting lines

These will help you identify your cardinal directions when looking at a map. They are straight lines that run parallel or perpendicular to each other and you can easily adjust with the bezel.

Index Line

The index line is at the top of the bezel facing the same direction as the direction of travel arrow. You’ll be using the index line when it’s time to get your bearings.

True North Vs Magnetic North & Declination

train station with two tracks showing

When looking at your compass the magnetic needle that constantly moves is being pulled to the north no matter where you are facing. 

But that isn’t actually True North. That’s because magnetic north (where your compass points) and True North are actually two different points in the world. I know, weird.

Magnetic north is not a single point but is always moving based on magnetic fields within the earth’s core. So when you’re trying to align your compass and map you have to account for the slight difference in the direction from True North and magnetic north.

We call this difference declination and it can be as much as 20 degrees east when you’re in Washington State and 20 degrees west when you’re in New York.

And because one degree off when navigating by a compass could cause up to a 100-foot difference when you’re outdoors, it’s incredibly important to account for declination.

But because magnetic north is always moving you need to know the year your map was revised to have the most up to date info on exactly how off magnetic north is from True North. Topographic maps will usually list your declination on the map itself.

To make it easier on yourself, find the latitude and longitude of the location of where you’ll be going and plug your information into this declination tool before you head out.

Depending on the type of compass you have it will require different ways to set your declination. But it will involve moving your orienting arrow and keeping it set in the same place for the remainder of your trip.

hand holding compass in winter woods

When using your compass you’ll want to hold it as horizontal as possible. This is because the floating magnetic needle can get stuck when you’re moving if the compass is tilted too much.

The same goes for when you’re using your compass with a map. Hold both on a level, horizontal surface if possible.

If you’re standing and using a compass, try to hold it horizontally as close to your chest as you can so that it is secure and holds roughly in the same spot. Any shaking could cause you to misread your compass.

Just remember that there can’t be any metal object in a shirt or jacket pocket because it will cause the compass to become manipulated.

How To Use A Map And Compass

compass and other objects on map

After getting your declination all set then you’re ready to start using your compass with your map.

Place the compass and map down on a horizontal surface and make sure your direction of travel arrow is pointing to the top of the map. 

Now take your compass and move the straight edge of the baseplate parallel to the edge of the map. 

Rotate your bezel so that your “N” or north is aligned with your direction of travel arrow.

Once everything is set up rotate your body, map, and compass all at once so that the red side of the magnetic needle is inside of your orienting arrow. In the navigating world they call this “red in the shed.”

This means that you have now oriented yourself with the map and have accounted for declination. Now you can look at the features on the map and relate them to what you see when looking around your site.

This step is best to do right when you get to your starting point. Learning how to read your map and identifying landmarks is crucial to becoming a better navigator. 

And before you start backpacking you’ll want to mark your campsite location on your map so you can always reference it. 

PRO TIP: If you’re just starting out, use your compass and map on a trail you’ve been to before so that you can keep referencing the map and looking at the features to get more confident in your abilities.

Creating Compass Bearings From Your Map

people drawing on a map

When more seasoned navigators talk about bearings it’s really just a more specific way to talk about direction.

Instead of saying you’re headed northeast, you would say you are following a bearing of 45 degrees.

But bearings depend on your specific situation so just because you are following a bearing of 45 degrees and another person is also following a bearing of 45 degrees it won’t necessarily mean that you both are headed northwest. 

You’ll understand more once you figure out how to get your own bearings below.

Let’s say you went hiking and now you are trying to figure out how to get back to your campsite. 

As long as you know where you are on a map (if you don’t I’ll cover that below) you can figure out the exact direction you should be heading to get back home.

Take out your map and place it horizontally on a flat surface and put your compass on top.

Make a line with your compass straightedge from your current location to your campsite. You’ll want to make sure that the direction of travel arrow is pointing from your current direction towards your campsite. 

Rotate your bezel till the “N” is facing the top of the map and this is where you’ll get your bearing.

Look at your index line which is below the direction of travel arrow. Right underneath the index line is a specific degree that will become your bearing. Make note of this degree just in case your bezel moves for any reason.

Now stand with your compass and place it horizontally to your chest with your direction of travel arrow facing away from you. 

Rotate your body so that red is in the shed and your magnetized needle is inside your orienting arrow. 

Now, as long as you head towards your direction of travel arrow you’ll always be getting closer and closer to your campsite. 

How To Use A Compass Without A Map

compass in front of natural houses

Knowing how to take a bearing from your map is a natural transition to learning how to do the same with a landmark.

Creating a bearing from a landmark is a great way to understand exactly where you are on your map.

You start by looking at a landmark in nature that you can also easily identify on your map. Hold your compass horizontally close to your chest as you normally would with your direction of travel arrow towards the landmark.

Now rotate your bezel until the red is in the shed and your magnetized needle is inside the orienting needle. 

Once the two are aligned read the degree marker that is beneath your index line.

Place your map down on a flat, horizontal surface and your compass on top. Put the corner of the straightedge on your compass and align it with the landmark on your map. Making sure that your direction of travel arrow is pointing in the same general direction of your landmark.

Now, you’ll want to rotate the entire baseplate (not the bezel) so that your “N” is facing toward the top of the map.

Using the straight edge of your compass start to draw a line from the landmark on the map to the trail you are currently on. Wherever the line intersects with your trail is going to be where you are on the map. 

Triangulating Your Position

man in open field sitting with map

Once you’ve got declination adjusted, know how to orient yourself on a map, and have figured out how to grab bearings not only from your map but also from a landmark you’re ready for triangulation.

And it isn’t nearly as difficult to figure out as the movies have made it seem using fancy technology and cell towers.

All you need is to use the same steps you did when you created a bearing from a landmark and do the same for two other landmarks.

The trick is to make sure that your other two landmarks are at least 60 degrees away from the original landmark. 

Draw your straight line from your first landmark like you did in the previous section. Now draw two other lines from the two other landmarks you’ve picked.

If you’re lucky all the lines will meet in the exact same position and this is where you are on the map.

But most of the time the lines aren’t going to meet exactly and they will form a small triangle. Somewhere in that triangle is where you are located.

Summary

Getting practice with your compass by heading to trails you’ve already been on will get you ready for using your compass in any environment. Know the parts of your compass and declination as starting points. With that information you’ll be ready to start getting bearings and triangulations positions in no time.

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