How to Use a Compass?

Last Updated on July 7, 2022 by Ecorf

A compass is one of the most vital navigation tools that any ardent hiker should own. A compass is amazing in that it does not require any batteries for power and it also works with or without a map. A compass becomes handy when you have lost your trek or when you want to find a specific location.  

However, there are basic concepts that you should know about how to use a compass if you are new to this device. As such, this guide gives you basic information that you may need to effectively use a compass during your compass. 

Understand the Direction First

When you want to learn to use a compass, you must know the directions and their significance. North is the most important direction on the compass. When you are holding a compass in your palm, the north is facing the direction of your head while the east is on your right side.

How to use a compass?

There are four cardinal points on every compass namely North, East, South and West. There are also intercardinal points that are followed by secondary cardinal points

  With these directions, you have an idea about how you can direct someone or navigate your way to the desired location. For rough directions, you can either use cardinal points like North, East or you can also refer to intercardinal points such as North East.  

Basic Features of a Compass

The first thing that you should quickly observe when you are looking at your compass is that it comprises a floating needle with a red end as well as a black end. No matter what type of compass you have, the red end is always pointing north. 

The red part of the needle is magnetized such that it always points towards the magnetic north direction. Even if you try to turn the compass, one thing that you should know is that the red arrow is pointing to the north, even if it is not aligned to the cardinal north point on the compass.  

The diagram above shows the basic features of a compass. The golden rule that you should always understand is that the red arrow is always pointing to the north. This part is simple such that you may not forget it when using a compass.  

Using a Compass to Navigate the Trail

Now that you have an idea about the basic features of a compass, you must learn how to use it. There are two different methods that you can use to navigate your trail and these can include sight or a map. Sight-reading is also called mountaineering or orienteering which is the most common method that is used by many people for general directions. 

The other method of using your compass involves a map. As you are going to see in detail below, this method requires you to have a topographical map that you will use along with your compass. The method is ideal for specific identification of the location. 

How to Read Your Compass Using Sight Method

This method is quite simple and it involves compass use for general directions when you are mountaineering. However, it is crucial that you should have a general idea of the nature of the topography of the area. Each area is characterized by different features that make it navigable.  

For instance, you should have an idea that there is something remarkable like a river, church, school, shopping center or even railway like among other features that you will not miss the moment you follow the right direction. Follow the steps below and you will realize that a compass is a smart device that can take you to the right direction.   

Hold Your Compass in Your Hand

The first important thing that you should do is hold the compass steadily in your palm such that there is no movement. Make sure that the direction of travel is pointing to another direction away from you. 

You must hold your compass at a level between your waist and face but close to your stomach. It is important to make sure that your compass is in a level position so as to avoid wrong reading when the needle is touching the inner housing of the compass.  

Check the Position of the Needle

While steadily holding the compass in your palm, you must check where the needle is pointing. While still holding the compass in front of you in your palm, you must turn your body. As you now know, the direction of the red arrow is the north. 

Therefore, as you turn your body, you will realize that the red part of the compass needle remains pointing in the same direction as the compass rotates. You must mark the direction of travel but you can only get it accurately when the north mark is right in front facing you.

How to use a compass?

If you want to head to a specific location like a mountain, then you must point it using the travel arrow on the compass. You can rotate the azimuth ring until a position where the orienting arrow is aligned with the red magnetic needle that is pointing to the north. When the housing and the needle remains undisturbed, then you are in the right direction. 

However, you need to constantly check the direction of your needle say after about 100 meters to make sure you do not lose track. Alternatively, you can mark a big feature ahead of you so that you walk focused instead of constantly checking on your compass as you walk. What is important is to get the direction and keep walking toward it and you will definitely reach your destination. 

The other thing that can help you not to lose direction is to check the position and direction of the sun. When you are in the northern hemisphere, the sun should be roughly in the south. The same applies when you are in the southern hemisphere, the sun should be in the northern part at noon.   

Common Mistake by Beginners

You must always make sure that the red part of the arrow on your compass is pointing at the north inside the housing of the compass. In any event that the south is pointing at the north, then you may walk in the opposite direction. Beginners usually make this mistake so always take a second look at your compass to make sure that it is pointing north. 

Therefore, you must turn the dial of the compass until the orienting Arrow and north mark are in alignment with the north end of the needle. What you should simply do is that you turn the housing of the compass until a position where the direction of travel arrow meets the direction where you want to go in the housing. 

The other mistake that you should avoid is to carry iron or other related materials with magnetic attractions. These will disturb the compass needle and you can end up getting inaccurate results which can lead you off course. You must make sure that there is nothing magnetic that can affect the operation of your compass. 

You must also know that there are certain types of rock or soil with magnetic attractions. If you are moving in a mining environment, then you might experience magnetic attractions that can affect the functions of your compass. 

Navigating Your Way by Map

The other way to locate your direction is to use a map and compass where you place them on the ground. To mark your intended direction from your current position, then you must draw a straight line between the two points on the map. You must always remember to be guided by the direction on the compass to get the right direction. 

How to use a compass?

What you should do then is to ensure that the travel arrow is pointing the right direction you wish to go and twist the ring on the compass until it points north on the map. It should also be aligned with the orienting arrow so that you do not lose direction. 

When you take off the compass from the map and make sure that the red magnetic needle and orienting arrow are lined up, then you are moving in the right direction. A map is vital since it helps to make the navigation exercise manageable since you can refer to it as you travel towards your direction. 


If you are an ardent hiker, then a compass is an essential tool that you should have. A compass is wonderful in that it can keep you on track even in a place that you are not familiar with but have an idea of some major features within it. Before using a compass, there are certain steps that you should follow to get accurate direction. 

Some of the following compass reading tips can also be helpful when you are still a beginner. 

  • Hold the compass in a level position in your palm
  • Get a correct reading of the end of the needle
  • Know the direction of the sun- In the northern hemisphere, the sun is in the south towards midday. In the southern hemisphere, the sun is in the north during the same period of the day.