101 Guide to Reading and Using a Compass

This is so simple, does this really need an article?

As the subtitle mentions, you might think that is so simple and fairly common sense, do you really need to read this article? My response to that is that the fact that you were taught this topic in geography during your adolescent years and you still end up reading this article, means yes.

But we will be covering more than North, East, South, and West.

Understanding how to read a compass properly is necessary for any outdoor adventure or activity whether you are going for a hike or plan to hike, this small piece, can really save your life, and determine your location in relation to our surroundings and direction of travel, that is if you know how to use it properly. For that, you need to understand what a compass does and what it cant.

A 101 Guide to Reading and Using a Compass

So, let’s go over the basics.

The two main types of compasses are magnetic compasses and gyro compasses.

Settle Outdoor - 101 Guide to Reading and Using a Compass - Magnetic Compass
Magnetic Compass

A magnetic compass is a type of compass in which the needle aligns itself with magnetic lines of Earth’s magnetic field to point to the magnetic poles of the Earth. (More covered below).

Settle Outdoor - 101 Guide to Reading and Using a Compass - Gyrocompass
Naval Gyrocompass

Gyrocompass is a compass which has a rapidly spinning wheel whose rotation interacts with the rotation of the earth until its axis of rotation is parallel with the Earth’s and points to the Earth’s rotational poles. This compass points to the true poles of the Earth. (More covered below)

Different Types of Magnetic Compasses

Subtypes of a magnetic compass that are relevant to our category are:

Liquid Compass – which has a magnetized needle or card immersed in a fluid and is somewhat accurate and does the job.

Marine compass or a card compass – This type of compass has a needle that is fixed and a compass card that is mounted in fluid and rotates according to orientation. It is used on boats because the moving card absorbs much of the motion of a boat which makes it easier to read than a needle compass.

Base plate compass or Orienteering compass – which is a liquid filled compass placed on the rectangular base made of transparent plastic so a map can be read through it. It often has a magnifying lens for map reading, some sort of light for low light conditions and a ruler. It is often used for plotting.

Thumb compass – is a variant of base plate compass but smaller. It is fixed on the thumb (as its name says) which leaves one hand free to hold the map and is used often while traveling at speed by bike or by canoe.

Solid state compasses – are found in electric devices. They often have two or three magnetic field sensors from which microprocessor reads data about the orientation of the device. They can often be found in clocks, mobile phones, and tablets.

GPS compass: GPS compasses make the use of satellites in a geosynchronous orbit over the earth to establish the exact location. This is the 21st century’s compass as it is commonly found in phones.


 Components of a Compass

Compasses might be small but have so many details and components inside that you might be surprised when you finish reading the article.

Settle Outdoor - 101 Guide to Reading and Using a Compass - Components of a Compass
Components of a Compass

Compasses tend to have the following as primary component parts:

Body of Compass: This is the body of the compass which contains the tiny parts.

Compass Needle: A Movable Part that turns according to the magnetic pull of the Earth.

For purposes of this article, we would be focusing on the orienteering compasses as that is the most common one used outdoors while mountaineering, trekking, hiking, and camping. Orienteering Compasses which are used during hiking or mountaineering contain two extra components:

Travel Arrow:  This is an arrow painted outside the compass, that the traveler follows, once he hs determined where h needs to go.

Orienting Arrow: A fixed arrow painted on the compass itself, to which the traveler adjusts the compass.

An important feature found on many compasses is declination adjustment.

What is Declination?

Declination, in simple terms, is the difference that exists between Magnetic North and True North. The difference is attributed to the fact that the magnetic fields of the Earth (to which an Orienteering Compass Points) do not align exactly with the North Pole and the South Pole (to which a Gyrocompass points) and for this reason, declination varies from place to place.

The Difference between True North and Magnetic North

There are two types of North and understanding this is vital in knowing how to read an orienteering compass. True North is located at the North Pole, which is the point in the Arctic Sea around which the earth rotates.

The Magnetic North, however, is located in a different location, in northern Canada. This location actually changes with time. The earth is covered in magnetic lines that come out of the Magnetic South, cover the planet, and converge again at the Magnetic North.

To understand Magnetic North, you need to understand that those lines are generally not straight, and in some parts of the country they point pretty far from True North.

That variance between the True North and Magnetic North is called magnetic variation or declination.

Cardinal Points

There are four cardinal points on a compass – North, South, East, and West. In compass terminology, the words ‘right’ and ‘left’ are not used as they are relative and can differ based on one’s location, a and depends on how one is facing the relevant landmark, whereas cardinal directions are constant and remain same for everyone.

The direction halfway between each cardinal points are called intercardinal points and for example one of them is  SouthEast. The other three intercardinal points are  SouthWest, Northeast, and NorthWest.

Finally, there are secondary intercardinal points halfway between each cardinal point and intercardinal point. These are North-NorthEast, East-NorthEast and so on.

Reading a Compass Correctly

Compasses as mentioned above, contain a magnetic needle and therefore you need to make sure that are no metal or magnetic objects closeby that can skew your readings.

Here are a few tips on how to read a compass correctly, as explained by the Compass Dude:

1. When holding the compass, make sure that the baseplate is level and the direction-of-travel arrow points away from you.

2. Hold it at a height between your waist and your face, and close to your stomach. Your elbow should be slightly bent and your arm relaxed.

3. Look down and see which direction the needle points to.

Then, place the compass so that North is at the top of the circle. Now use the numbers of declination and rotate the compass slowly until you are at the correct number of degrees away from the magnetic North to point to True North.

Remember that North on a map is calibrated to True North. So when using your compass along with a map, remember to adjust for the declination or difference.

And that’s it, now you know how to operate and work with a compass and now you cannot get lost, that is if you bring a compass along with or if you don’t want to be sure to read our article, How not to Get Lost.


We hope you’ve enjoyed reading 101 Guide to Reading and Using a Compass and we hope this small masterclass should give you some great tips on how to get you to use this tiny magnificent creation and hopefully find your way through your adventure. Do let us know your thoughts in the comments below, what different brands of compass do you use and which is your favorite one!

Also, do check out our other great articles and guides. Be sure to signup for our newsletter to get future updates on great guides, and other outdoor inspirations and gear from Settle Outdoor.

Source True North vs Magnetic North Compass Dude
Via History of Compass
1 Comment
  1. Medhyps.Com says

    After you oriented yourself to the map, you can easily judge the location of a landmark in the field even if you can t see it. Mark both your current location and destination. Lay one side edge of the compass baseplate on the map, aligned with these two points. (The direction of travel arrow should be pointing toward the goal, not away from it.)

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