How to use a compass on the trail

How to use a compass on the trail

One of the most critical things any hillwalker or outdoor adventurer should learn is how to take compass bearings. With this skill, you can figure out where you are, plan a route, and get around accurately in any terrain.

As we all know, compasses show four cardinal directions: north, south, west, and east. But following such vague directions in the wilderness can lead to confusion, mistakes, and sometimes even disaster.

Given this, before going into the wilderness, hikers, campers, and mountaineers should put aside time to learn how to use a compass and take compass bearings.

This skill is simple, as shown in our straightforward, step-by-step instructions.

How to use a compass on the trail
Photo by Joshua Woroniecki on

Are You Ready to Learn More About Compass Bearings?

  • Take an ocular bearing.
  • Make adjustments for magnetic declination.
  • Arrange your map
  • Obtain a bearing
  • Triangulate your position precisely.

What You’ll Need To Follow Along With This Tutorial

A compass and a topographical map are needed to read bearings in the field.

What kind of Compass should I use?

Depending on your preferences, you can use a baseplate or a thumb model. On the other hand, baseplate compasses have different characteristics not found in thumb compasses that make them more exact, better for charting distances, and easier to use when getting a bearing.

Maps, what should I look for

Detail, revision date, and type are the three most important things to consider when choosing a map. It is always a good idea to obtain the highest detailed topo map you can locate (1:25.000 or even 1:10.000). This will let you navigate more precisely. Because the magnetic declination value of specific places changes over time, having the most up-to-date version is crucial for successful and precise navigation.

Finally, it should go without saying that you’ll need a topographic map—a tourist or road map will be useless out in the wilderness.

Walking maps for hiking ireland tour
Photo by Andrew Neel on

What Is A Compass Bearing?

There are two simple methods for navigating with a bearing. Before we get there, let’s look at how to set up your map.

Make A Plan

Step 1: Make adjustments for magnetic declination.

Magnetic declination is the difference between the two. The magnetised needle on a compass doesn’t point to true north. Instead, it refers to the direction of the Earth’s natural magnetic field, also known as magnetic north. Declination values alter over time and vary by locale. To take accurate readings, you must first adjust your compass for the declination of your location.
The area’s declination value should be provided in the map’s legend. Turn the housing clockwise (west) or counterclockwise (east) until the index line at the base of the direction arrow shows the correct value, depending on the declination value for the area. If the declination value is 6° west, turn the housing 6° clockwise. Keep in mind that an east declination is a positive number, and a west declination is a negative number.

Step 2: Center Your Map on True North.

After adjusting for declination, place your compass so that the arrow pointing in the direction you want points north and the edge of the compass lines up with the edge of the map. Rotate the map and compass until the red point of the magnetic needle is inside the orienting arrow. You now have a map that is correctly oriented!

Triangulating Your Position and Taking a Sight Bearing

You’re now ready to take a bearing with your map and compass. To do this, you must figure out the angle between Magnetic North and a distant object on the land. The visual or sight approach is the simplest way to achieve this, as it allows you to figure out where you are by using a visible landmark. This is how it’s done.

Step 1: Find a landmark.

Maintain a level and steady grip on the compass. Aim the direction-of-travel arrow at a prominent feature in the terrain. This could be a mountain, a bend in a river, the edge of a forest, a campsite, or anything else that stands out.

Step 2: Line up the magnetised needle with the orienting arrow.

Turn the bezel ring until the magnetic needle is centred within the orienting arrow. Take note of the bearing just below the index line.

Step 3: Adjust for Magnetic Declination

Unless you have a compass that permits you to “set it and forget it,” your reading will be off by the same number of degrees as the area’s declination value!

Step 4: Draw a line from the landmark to the point of interest following the bearing

Place the compass on the map, ensuring that the lines that help you determine north and south are parallel to the map lines. Place the compass so that the baseplate’s top end points toward the landmark you want to find. Then, following the bearing you just took, draw a long line from the historic.

Step 5: triangulate and repeat twice more.

Steps 1–3 should be repeated twice more with two distinct landmarks or features. Your position will be inside the triangle made by the three lines you drew meeting.

Hikers at Murlough Bay, Antrim Coast
How to use a compass on the trail 4

How To Use A Compass On The Trail And Take A Bearing

Now that you know where you are, you may calculate a course to your target.

While this step is not always required, it can assist you in navigating past obstructions (cliffs, steep inclines, boulder fields, lakes). It’s especially useful when trekking in low light, allowing you to divide your journey into short pieces between waypoints (aka way-points/waymarkers) to ensure you stay on track.

Step 1: Locate Waypoints

Mark a series of easily identifiable landmarks or elements on your map between your starting location and destination.

Step 2: Connect each waypoint with a line.

To “connect the dots,” draw a line between each waypoint using the ruler edge and a pencil.

Step 3: Assess Your Situation

Place your compass on top of your topographical map. Place the baseplate’s edge along the line drawn between point A (your current location) and point B. (your first waypoint).

Turn the bezel so that the orienting lines match the north-south grid lines and the north marker points to the top of the map. Read the bearing beneath the index line, correct for declination, and then repeat Step 3 for the remaining legs of your route (Points B to C, D, E, etc.).

Step 4: Keep Your Bearing

The bearings you took in Step 3 inform you which way to go on each leg of your planned itinerary.

Here’s how to walk on a bearing and follow each one.

  • Adjust your compass to the bearing you took for this leg of your travel, remembering to add/subtract the declination figure. Rotate your entire body until the magnetised needle rests inside the orienting arrow.
  • The direction you are now facing is the direction you must travel. Keep your compass in your grasp as you walk to avoid becoming lost. It’s also a good idea to look for minor things in the distance that you may use as intermediates along the way.

It’s time to get out there and practice!

After reading the previous instruction, we hope you agree and can understand how beneficial the ability to take bearings can be in the outdoors. Now that you’ve learned the fundamentals, it’s time to put them into practice. Get your instruments ready and go take some measurements!

How did you find our bearing-taking guide? We’d love to hear how things went!

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