• How to use a Compass

    A compass is of utmost importance when travelling outdoors. When combined with a map it can help lead you to safety, whether the weather conditions are poor and the correct route is not visible, or for times when you are simply unsure. People who venture out into the mountains without a compass are doomed, and their trip will almost certainly end in casualty, or worse, fatality. However, it is not good enough to simply take one with you, it is crucial that you are actually able to use it. Our guide on how to use a compass could save lives in hazardous conditions, so read it carefully.

    The most basic element of a compass is the directions. The main four are North, East South and West, in clockwise order around the compass. There are many methods of remembering this order, for example, Never Eat Shredded Wheat. See below:


    Next, you need to be able to recognise and name all the parts of a compass. You will need to refer to the diagram above.

    • The red compass needle will always point to the North, and the North Pole, due to the earth’s magnetic field. This makes travelling in directions other than North possible.
    • The compass housing will have degrees running round the outside from 0 to 360 and the letters N, E, S, W which stand for each direction. This housing can be rotated, which makes it possible to go in any direction.
    • The orienting lines are to line the compass needle up.
    • The orienting arrow is to line up with the housing.

    To make this clearer, here’s an example. To go East, turn the housing to East, so that the travel arrow points towards it. Whilst holding the compass flat, turn yourself, keeping the compass in your hand and ensuring that the housing doesn’t move, until the needle is parallel with the orienting lines.

    This should give your direction, but before heading off be sure to check that the red compass needle is pointing to North on the housing and not South, or else you will go in the exact opposite direction to the one you wanted. After you have checked, check again – it will save you much hassle in the long run. Consult the compass to ensure you are still travelling in the correct direction every 100m to avoid going off course.

    You would be able to use this technique without a map in a situation where you knew what direction the destination you were aiming for was in. The advantage of this is that you do not need to know where you are, but this method has its downfalls too. It isn’t very accurate, and if you were aiming for a lodge in the mountains then it would be unlikely you could find it using this method.

    To improve this accuracy, the best way is to use a compass in conjunction with a map. By using both tools it is possible to navigate safely in unfamiliar areas. Take a look at the diagram again:

    To go from point A to B you first have to be certain you are actually at A. Then, place the compass so points A and B are along one edge of it, as below. Make sure the direction arrow is pointing from A to B or else this will cause you to set off in the wrong direction again.

    Now, keep the compass in the same position as earlier and turn the housing until the orienting lines and arrow are parallel with the meridian lines on the map, which are black and point North. When you are sure you have done this correctly, take the compass off the map and read the bearing off the housing. Finally, hold the compass flat and position yourself so that the compass needle is aligned with the orienting lines and is pointing North, again without turning the housing. You can now set off in the direction of the travel arrow. Do this by finding a recognisable point in the distance in the correct direction, and aim for that. This should minimise errors.

    In a practical sense, the methods listed above may not go as planned. Adverse weather conditions can make using a compass difficult, and using a map even more difficult still. Fog, rain and snow can creep up very fast, and the worst of these conditions is a ‘white out’, where the fog is grey and the snow is white. In conditions like this you have to put absolute faith in your instruments and persevere. A good tip is to line up the party with the compass-bearer at the rear. This way, when the compass-bearer sets the group off on a course, they can tell when the group deviates because they will see the back of more than one person. If the group is aligned correctly, the compass bearer should only be able to see the back of the last person, like so:

    This method works better the further apart the group is, but take care not to get too far apart or lose contact.