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How To Use Your Map And Compass – Compass 101

Compass and climbing rope on a topography map.

Anyone who spends enough time in the wilderness knows that a compass can be your best friend.

If you’re ever lost deep in the woods, a compass alone will not save you, however. You’ll need to know basic orienteering and have an understanding of how this indispensable tool operates.

Let’s acknowledge the basic parts of a compass before moving on to orienteering: site notch, magnetic arrow, orienteering arrow, base plate, and housing. We’ve written this article with the assumption that you’ve got a basic understanding of how your compass operates. So please, read on for our breakdown on how to best utilize the essential combination of your map and compass!

The two main functions of orienteering are as follows:

1. Taking a bearing in the field

A person holding a compass to take a bearing.

Taking a bearing in the field allows you to know what direction to follow to get to your destination. In order to accomplish this, you need to find the ‘object’ you aim to reach. Standing still, orient your compass so that the site notch is pointing towards your intended direction and your compass is parallel to the horizon. Once you sight your object through the notch (or directional fixed arrow), turn your dial so that the orienteering arrow is aligned with the magnetic arrow.

Most compasses have color-coded arrows, with one half being red. When turning the dial to align both arrows, ensure that the red end of the magnetic arrow is matched to the red part of the orienteering arrow. Once this is completed, the compass degree number in front of your notch (or direction of travel arrow) is your bearing.

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2. Following a bearing in the field

Person holding a compass outside to follow a bearing.

Once you’ve found your bearing, take the next step: following that bearing. Turn your compass dial so the bearing number lands on the site notch. Once that number is lined up, make sure that the compass is directly in front of you. This is critical, as the compass is a representation of where you need to travel. If your body is turned, remember to turn the compass the same way, keeping the notch (or front of the compass) in front of you at all times.

Once you have this concept down, and your bearing properly fixed, turn your body until the magnetic arrow lines up with the orienteering arrow. At this point, look up: the direction you are facing is the exact direction of your bearing. You’re now safe to start moving with conviction!


Remember that practicing these two functions of orienteering will imbue trust in your compass use and confidence in knowing how it works. There is more to learn, of course. The next steps (which will be posted in the near future) detail how to use your compass in conjunction with a map. Modern GPS technology is not foolproof; knowing how to properly employ a compass and map will only enhance your skills with a GPS.

Furthermore, a GPS device is only as good as its satellite connection and batteries. In dire moments when those two things are not available, a map and compass combination is still your best outdoor companion.