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How to Navigate by Compass in 5 Steps

The creation of compass navigation has made it possible for humans to know which way they’re headed, even with an overcast sky or blanket of fog. Compass navigation helps people find their way without using visible landmarks or reception areas. Using a compass kept sailors on track during their voyages, even out at sea and far from land.

How to Navigate by Compass

You may now ask, how does one navigate correctly using a compass? Well, stick around, and I will guide you through the steps on how to navigate by compass using these handy devices!

The History of the Compass

The Chinese people are the inventors of both the first compass and the magnetic compass. The first compass was invented as early as the third century B.C. At the same time, the Chinese also created the first magnetic compass during the eleventh century B.C.

As recorded, the first lessons on how to navigate by compass took place in Western Europe and the Islamic World around 1190. From then to now, humans have used compass navigation to get around ever since!

What Is a Compass?

A compass is a tool used mainly to determine the direction on the surfaces of the Earth. Most compasses generally use magnetic force along with metal pointers. You can use a compass to align with the Earth’s magnetic field. Then, the Earth’s magnetic field magically pulls its built-in arrows in the right directions; pretty neat! Most of the time, you’ll find a compass that uses angles in degrees.

Compass Navigation

What Is Navigation?

You will find that the word “navigation” is the process or activity of accurately ascertaining your position. Navigation also involves planning and following a specific route to reach your destination.

Azimuth vs. Bearing

It’s essential to know the differences between bearings and azimuths. In some cases, azimuths are called bearings. This situation can get very confusing! Azimuths are specifically the angular distance between the north and south lines using a spherical coordinate system. You can think of them as imaginary lines between you and the landmark you seek.

Another big difference, azimuths are measured using angles in a clockwise direction to measure distances. On the other hand, bearings are horizontal angles between the path from one landmark to your final destination. Therefore, bearings also refer to the distance between the location and the distance between true north.

Why You Need a Compass to Navigate

For a long time, compass navigation has been a vital method to help people get around without needing electronics or maps. Don’t get me wrong! Navigation systems are tremendous, and maps are handy, but sometimes a compass is a clear and straightforward answer. Knowing how to navigate by compass is an essential skill every human should learn!

5 Steps for How to Navigate by Compass

1. Get to Know Your Compass

Before even setting out on your journey, I can’t stress enough the importance of taking along the right tools and, in turn, getting to know these tools. Practicing compass navigation makes perfect! Use smaller land areas to practice on first; this way, the more significant pieces of land aren’t such a challenge! Here are the essential parts of a compass to get to know:

The Baseplate

The baseplate of a compass is the clear backing that allows you to see the map underneath. A ruled edge also helps with triangulation and is useful when it’s time to take your bearings.

Directions of the Travel Arrow

This part of your compass will show you where you’ll need to point a compass while taking bearings.

Navigating with a compass

Index Line

The index line is a part of the compass that’s an extension of the direction of your travel arrow. The index line indicates where to take and read your bearings.

The Rotating Bezel

The rotating bezel is the rounded area marked by numbers of degrees clockwise from zero to three hundred and sixty degrees.

Magnetic Needle

You’ll find the magnetic needle inside of the bezel. The magnetized needle will always point to magnetic north, never true north. Please remember that magnetic north and true north are hundreds of miles in difference.

2. Orient Your Map

Here are complete steps on how to orient a map correctly:

1. First, look at your map.

2. Locate where you are in correlation to where you’re represented on the map. Practice these skills early and often before traveling. You’ll know what to do in an emergency by practicing ahead of time.

3. Next, put your compass flat on top of your map, allowing the travel arrow’s direction to point to the top of the map.

Compass on map

4. Then, rotate the bezel of the compass so the “N” that represents north will line up with the direction of your travel arrow.

5. Lastly, slide the compasses baseplate until the straight edge lines line up with either the right or left sides of your map. You’re travel arrow should still be pointing to the top of your map!

3. Magnetic Declination

Allow for the difference between magnetic north and true or grid north. You’ll need to always focus on magnetic north.

The adjustment in the U.S. is commonly twenty degrees east in parts of Washington state and twenty degrees west in parts of Maine. In the U.K., there are barely any variations. However, remember that calculation errors will miscalculate your reading by up to a mile plus one hundred feet.

Be careful and take your time with this crucial step! Hold your compass and turn the bezel anticlockwise to add positive magnetic variations. Remember that turning the bezel clockwise is going to subtract negative variations.

4. Take a Bearing

Taking a bearing is an essential step on how to navigate by compass correctly. You can use both a map and the field.

Using the Field

1. First, learn exactly where you are, if possible.

2. Next, find a landmark or something you recognize from your journey and somewhere you can see on your map.

3. Hold the compass completely flat with the direction of your traveling arrow pointing opposite you while directly facing a nearby landmark.

4. Lastly, rotate the compass bezel until its magnetized needle is inside its orienting arrow.

Using a Map

1. First, you’ll need to set your compass on your map. Set it up, so the straightest side lines up with where you are and where it shows you are on the map.

2. Then, make sure your travel arrow is pointing in the direction you’d like to go.

3. Finally, rotate the bezel until the orienting lines on your compass align with your map’s north-south grid lines or left and right edges.

5. How To Navigate By Compass (Without a Map)

What if you’re lost? If you find yourself lost, but have a compass, just not a map, here’s some extra knowledge to remember to help you make your way home.

How to Use Pacing

It’s common to travel in circles when you’re lost; it’s human nature. Don’t panic! You can help find your way back using pacing. Before touring the area, learn how many paces it takes to reach one hundred meters. One pace equals a double step when you step left and right.

From the beginning location, choose a destination and walk four hundred meters, making sure to count paces. Going uphill shortens the pace while going downhill widens the space. Look for landmarks, paths, roads, cabins, or anything helpful in the case of an emergency.

Go back to your starting point and count your paces back. Repeat these actions in the other three directions until you find help.

Follow the Stars

Sometimes daylight is not on your side. So how would you practice compass navigation during the nighttime? Your best plan is to search for the North Star or Polaris, the brightest star in the Northern Hemisphere. It’s a very errorless tool and accurate bearing for the north.

Navigating by the stars

First, find the Big Dipper to locate the North Star. Then, follow the line between the outer two stars on the right side of the Big Dipper all the way up, and you should come across the bright north star. Lastly, remember while visiting places in the Southern Hemisphere, you’ll need to use the “Southern Cross” instead. The Southern Cross consists of a collection of stars creating a cross pattern.

Signaling for Search and Rescue

You’ll need to plan for worst cased scenarios; it can save your life! The best thing to do is let family or friends know your plans and when you hope to return. If you never return when promised, they know to call in a request for emergency assistance.

When facing emergencies, time makes all the difference. You can signal for help on your own using these methods:

Automatic Signalling Devices

I highly recommend bringing along a Personal Beacon Locator! These handy devices connect to a network of worldwide satellites. Once you activate this device, their job is to send out distressed signals and locations to search and rescue teams. The locator has to remain in a vertical position and pointed to the south.

Manual Signalling Devices

Here are a few other essential things to pack to assist you in creating signals if you get lost:

  • A mirror and sunglasses to create reflections using the sunlight.
  • Loud whistles.
  • Materials to make a torch or a fire source. Use the smoke to signal outward.
  • Wear bright-colored clothing.

Knowing How Much Daylight You Have Left

In emergencies, these skills could come in handy! For example, did you know you can find out how much daylight is left that day?

1. First, locate the sun’s position and face towards it.

2. Hold an arm out, make a fist, and point it in the sun’s direction. Line the base of your wrist with the horizon.

3. Next, use your other hand and make a fist. Then place this fist over your first fist.

4. Lastly, move your fist upwards and place it on top of the second fist. Continue these actions until you reach the sun. Each one of your fists will be equivalent to one hour.

  • For example, if you have counted four fists, you have four hours until the sun sets.

Two Main Compass Types

Compasses will come in many different shapes, colors, and sizes. However, it ultimately boils down to two base types of compasses. So let’s explore together what these types do:

Baseplate Compass

Baseplate compass navigation devices feature a handy transparent base plate. This clear plate is ideal for pairing with your map. Regarding compass navigation quality, it depends on the overall cost of your compass. A basic one works fine to navigate; however, pay attention to the increments located on its dials.

Navigating by compass

Lensatic Compass

Lensatic compass navigation devices come without that helpful, transparent base plate but feature important articulating pieces. In addition to compass navigation features, lensatic compasses include covers to protect their floating dials.

Most lensatic compasses will have a hundred and twenty clicks. A click represents three degrees. While learning how to navigate by compass properly, practice using the sighting lens for dial reading without looking down.

You’ve Learned How to Navigate by Compass!

This article discusses the compass, its uses, setting one up, and how to navigate by compass. You’re now in great shape to explore the great outdoors!

This compass navigation guide will come in handy or even save your life. I recommend printing a copy of this guide and storing it with your traveling gear. You’ll never know when it could come in handy!

If you found my compass navigation guide helpful, check out other excellent survival guides. Thanks for stopping by Survival World!