skip to Main Content

How to Use a Compass- The #1 Bugging Out Skill

*We may earn a commission for purchases made using our links.  Please see our disclosure to learn more.

Have you ever wanted to learn how to use a compass for navigation?

I did.  So I took a Backcountry Navigation with a Map and Compass course from  REI in Prospect Park and compiled the article “How to Use a Compass- The #1 Bugging Out Skill”  from my experience.

If you’re interested in acquiring this essential bug-out skill, reading this article and checking out the video is essential!


Whether you’re an outdoor enthusiast, a hiker, a scout, a prepper, or simply someone who loves exploring, having a compass and knowing how to use it can greatly enhance your adventures.

In this article, we will guide you through how to use a compass:  choosing the right one, understanding its various parts, and mastering the basics of navigation.

How to Use a Compass- The #1 Bugging Out Skill

Choosing the Right Compass

When choosing a compass, there are a few key factors to consider. First and foremost, you’ll want to invest in a good quality compass that is reliable and accurate. Look for a liquid-filled compass, which helps stabilize the needle and allows for more accurate readings.

Choosing a compass that is easy to read and understand is also important. Look for one with clear and bold markings and a luminous dial for nighttime use. Consider the size and weight of the compass as well, as you’ll want something comfortable to carry and use for extended periods of time.

Lastly, consider any additional features that may be important to you. Some compasses have sighting mirrors for more precise readings, while others may have declination adjustment capabilities. Think about your specific needs and choose a compass that aligns with them.

Understanding the Compass

Before we delve into the navigation world, let’s take some time to understand the different parts of a compass and how they work together. This knowledge will be the foundation for using the compass effectively in the field.

Parts of a Compass

A typical compass consists of several key elements:

  • The baseplate, often made of transparent plastic, provides a flat surface for the compass to rest on and helps take accurate readings.
  • The compass housing houses the magnetic needle and dial, allowing for easy rotation.
  • The magnetic needle, which is typically red or white, points toward magnetic north, helping you determine your direction.
  • The orienting arrow, often marked with the letter “N,” allows you to align the compass with the map.
  • Lastly, the sighting mirror, if present, helps in more accurate readings by aligning the compass with distant objects.

Setting the Declination on a Compass

Declination refers to the difference between true north (the North Pole) and magnetic north (the direction the compass needle points to).

This variation is important to consider when navigating, as it affects the accuracy of your compass readings. Setting the declination on your compass ensures that your bearings are accurate and aligned with the map.

To set the declination, consult the reference material or instructions that come with your compass. There should be a way to adjust the declination by rotating the bezel or dial.

To determine how much the declination is, use a current topological map of the area.

Once set, your compass will compensate for the declination, providing you with accurate bearings that align with true north.

The Basics of Navigation With a Topographical Map

Now that you’re familiar with the compass and its components let’s dive into the basics of navigation. To navigate effectively, you’ll need to understand

how to use a topographic map, determine landmarks, and find bearings.

Using a Topographical Map

A topographic map is necessary if you are going to use it with a compass;  a road map won’t help.  So if you are taking an Intro to Compass and map reading course, be sure to bring a topographical map.

Topographical maps are detailed representations of a particular area, providing elevation information and identifying natural and man-made features.

To use a topographic map, start by familiarizing yourself with the legends and symbols representing various geographical elements like rivers, mountains, roads, and trails.

Next, identify your current location on the map. Look for landmarks you can see, such as distinctive mountain peaks, lakes, or buildings.

Once you’ve identified these landmarks, you can start orienting the map using your compass.

Determining Landmarks

Landmarks are vital in navigation, helping you pinpoint your location and track your progress.

Look for prominent features such as mountain peaks, lakes, rivers, or distinctive rock formations to use as landmarks.

By identifying these landmarks on the map and aligning them with what you see in front of you, you can better understand your position and the direction you need to go.

Finding Bearings

A bearing measures direction relative to a specific landmark or point on the map. Once you’ve identified your current location on the map and determined your desired destination, you can use your compass to find the bearing for your journey.

Hold the compass flat on your palm to find a bearing, keeping it level and steady.

Rotate the compass housing until the orienting arrow aligns with the magnetic needle.

Read the bearing from the housing or the bezel and make note of it; this bearing represents the direction you need to travel to reach your desired destination.

Using the Compass in the Field

Now that you understand the compass and the basics of navigation let’s explore how to use the compass effectively in the field. We’ll cover two essential techniques: orienting the map and following a bearing.

Orienting the Map

Orienting the map means aligning it with the surrounding terrain and the compass, allowing you to read it accurately. To orient the map, follow these steps:

  1. Lay the map flat on a surface, ensuring it is not affected by any magnetic objects.
  2. Place the compass on the map, aligning the edge of the baseplate with the direction of the travel arrow on the map.
  3. Rotate the map and the compass until the magnetic needle aligns with the orienting arrow on the compass housing.
  4. Once aligned, the map is now oriented, and you can read it accurately in relation to the surrounding landscape and landmarks.

Following a Bearing

Following a bearing is the process of walking in a specific direction using your compass as a guide. To follow a bearing, follow these steps:

  1. Set the desired bearing on your compass by rotating the bezel until the desired degree aligns with the orienting arrow.
  2. Hold the compass flat and steady in your hand, ensuring the magnetic needle is pointing towards the “N” mark.
  3. Rotate your body until the magnetic needle aligns with the orienting arrow.
  4. Choose a landmark or distant object in the direction of your bearing and walk towards it, continually checking the compass to stay on track.

Practical Tips for Using a Compass

Using a compass effectively requires practice and attention to detail. Here are a few practical tips to keep in mind:

Having the Compass and Map at Hand

Always ensure that you have both your compass and map easily accessible when you’re navigating. Store them in a pocket or pouch that is readily accessible so you don’t waste valuable time searching for them when needed.

Using a Sealable Map Bag

When venturing into wet or rainy conditions, consider using a sealable map bag to protect your map from moisture. A wet map can quickly become unreadable and hinder your navigation efforts. A sealable map bag will keep your map dry and in good condition, ensuring its usability throughout your journey.

Common Mistakes to Avoid

While using a compass can greatly enhance your navigation skills, there are a few common mistakes to avoid:

Why Relying Solely on the Compass and Map Is a Mistake

While a compass and map are valuable tools, relying on your surroundings and natural instincts is essential. Look for landmarks, familiarize yourself with the terrain, and trust your intuition.

Using the compass and map in conjunction with your observational skills will lead to more accurate navigation.

How a Globe Helps Us With Navigation

Lines of Latitude

Understanding the earth’s geography is essential for accurate navigation. The imaginary lines of latitude and longitude on a globe help us determine our position on the planet.

Often called parallels, Latitude lines are fictitious lines that split the globe. They calculate your distance from north or south, but they run from east to west. The most well-known parallel is the equator. It splits the Earth into the Northern and Southern hemispheres at 0 degrees latitude.

These lines provide a reference point for locating specific positions on the earth.

Lines of Longitude

Lines of longitude, also known as meridians, are imaginary lines that run from the North Pole to the South Pole, converging at the poles.

The prime meridian in Greenwich, England, is a line of longitude marked as 0 degrees longitude. Longitude lines are measured in degrees east or west of the prime meridian, ranging from 180 degrees east to 180 degrees west. These lines help establish a reference point for determining the east-west position on the Earth.

Best Detailed Video for Beginners to Learn Compass and Map Use

Using a map and compass for navigation may sound daunting; in this video, Joey Young’s video, makes it easy for beginners to grasp.

So, if you’re ready to embark on your navigation journey and visit amazing places, this video is a must-watch.

Testing Your Skills Using a Compass

Try navigating through a familiar area using your compass and map to test your newfound skills. Choose a destination and plot your course, then set out and put your skills to the test. Pay attention to how accurately you can follow your bearings and navigate to your desired location. Don’t be discouraged if you make mistakes; learning from them is essential to the navigation process.


Congratulations! You’ve completed the basics of navigation and can use a compass to enhance your outdoor adventures.

Remember to choose a reliable compass, understand its various parts, and practice orienting maps and following bearings. With time and experience, your navigation skills will improve, opening up a whole new world to exploration and discover.

If you need  more help with your compass and map navigating skills or want to go to cool new places with other people, check out REI Adventures and Classes.

Welcome to Survival Skills Now.
After seeing and experiencing some of the effects of global warming, increased floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, forest fires, and other situations, I see the importance of prepping. It is my mission to present survival skills information so that we can prepare for any survival situation.

Back To Top