How to use a compass with a map? – The complete beginner guide with video

A compass and a map are essential for navigating in the wilderness. Learn all the basics of effectively using a compass in the guide.

from Martin Gebhardt | Survival | reading time 8 Min
Updated on 18 July 2023 55.086 views 100% found this guide helpful
How to use a compass with a map? – The complete beginner guide with video

Martin Gebhardt

From Martin Gebhardt. Check out my “About me” page.


👉 The key facts from this guide

  • A compass is an essential tool for wilderness navigation. It doesn't require batteries, works in any weather, and can be used at any location on Earth with or without a map.
  • There are two main types of compasses: the ruler compass and the march compass. For beginners, the ruler compass is recommended as it is easier to use.
  • To use a compass, some essential steps need to be mastered.
  • It is important to know your location and determine your position before starting navigation.
  • There are different models of compasses suitable for different needs and environments.
  • It's essential to be aware that magnetic interference can affect the accuracy of a compass.

Imagine being stranded in the wilderness with no rescue team in sight.

But you have a compass and a map. And these two things can save you.

However, you must know how to use a compass. Because simply walking around would be fatal.

In this guide, you will learn the basics of using a compass and navigating with a map. Let's get started.

The compass is your best navigator

There are always hikers who will be lost. Anyone who has experienced this knows how terrible it feels.

I don't wish it on anyone, and I hope that people don't panic if it does happen.

A compass and a map are essential equipment
A compass and a map are essential equipment

But if it does happen, then a compass is worth its weight in gold. Once you are familiar with its basic functions, it is pretty easy to determine direction and take a safe route.

Here's why you should always have a compass with you:

  • A compass doesn't need batteries like a GPS device.
  • Works in any weather and can get wet
  • Works with or without a map anywhere on earth
  • A compass can save your life if you get lost.

How a compass is constructed

Before you use a compass, you must become familiar with it.

If you don't know how a compass functions, it won't be of any use to you in a survival situation.

Basically, there are two different types of compass: the ruler compass and the march compass. If you're just getting started, I recommend using a ruler compass.

The ruler compass is easier to use due to its ruler and angle markings, and it also weighs less. Although a march compass is somewhat more precise and solid, it also weighs more and is more difficult to use.

A modern ruler compass consists of the following elements:

  • Baseplate made of plastic, usually transparent, with edges and lines
  • Compass housing, in which the magnetic needle is located, with 360° markings of the circle including N-S-W-O markings for the cardinal directions
  • Compass needle, which aligns itself to the north (red end always points north) and rotates in the compass housing
  • Orienting arrow / fixed compass rose, integrated into the rotating bezel and aligned with the north in the compass housing
  • Rotating bezel with orienting lines (these are lines within the compass housing that run parallel to the orienting arrow)
  • Index line, the extension of the orienting arrow
  • Direction of travel arrow / heading, an arrow at the end (or beginning, depending on the model) of the baseplate
  • optional: mirror and/or magnifying glass
Structure of a modern compass
Structure of a modern compass

Now, you have probably already discovered the most important element, right?

Exactly, that's the compass needle, which always points north with its red end.

We take advantage of this effect, and I'll show you the basics of how to use a compass.

Using the map

If you are going to be in the wilderness for a while, I recommend getting a map with the largest possible scale. An ideal map is at a scale of 1:25,000 or 1:50,000.

Get a topographic map (rather than a planimetric map), as it will show you lots of information such as hills, mountains, forests, and swamps.

A topographic map allows for optimal navigation in the field
A topographic map allows for optimal navigation in the field

The good thing about modern maps is that they mark the north side. North is generally oriented upwards.

How to use a compass - Step by step

Now you know how a compass is constructed and which map is useful. But how do I use a compass?

We have already learned two things:

  1. You have found out that the compass needle with the red end always points north. If you turn in a circle, the needle will point north in every position.
  2. And you know that north is at the top of your map.

These are two crucial points because now we can connect our compass with the map.

Using a compass in a quick overview:

  • Place the long edge of the compass on the starting and ending point.
  • Rotate the compass housing until the orientation arrow and orientation lines on the map point north.
  • Turn yourself around with the compass until the red end of the compass needle is over the orientation arrow.
  • Follow the direction arrow on the compass and make sure the compass needle is on the orientation arrow.

But let's get into it step by step because I'll explain everything in detail.

Step 1: Know your location and determine your position

To navigate from one place to another, you must first determine where you are.

You can do this in two ways:

  1. If you know where you started, then you know your starting point. Then continue to look at the map. Compare landmarks, such as mountains, forests, fields, valleys, lakes, or rivers.
  2. If you don't know your starting point, find a prominent location in your area. This can again be a mountain, a river, or a clearing. Then search for this spot on the map. If you can't find a prominent spot because you're in a dense forest, you have to leave it.
  3. Cross-bearing: Determine your location by sighting on at least two points in the terrain: sight on the first point (align the compass straight on it) and rotate the compass housing until the red needle tip is in the north marking. Then place the compass on the map with the long edge against the sighted point. The direction arrow on the compass housing must point towards the object. Then turn the entire compass (not the compass housing!), until the north arrow in the compass housing points north on the map. Your position is now somewhere on the bearing line. Draw a line from the sighting point to the end of your compass. Repeat this with the second sighting point. Your location is at the intersection of both lines.
Cross-bearing to determine location
Cross-bearing to determine location

Okay, now you know your location on the map. If you don't know it, you can't proceed.

As an example, I marked my location with a crosshair on my map.

Step 1: Determine your location
Step 1: Determine your location

Step 2: Set your direction

You now want to walk from the hill towards a lake in a certain direction.

If you have the map in front of you, North is at the top. This gives you a rough idea of the direction of the lake, since you know your current position.

Here's an example: We are on the mountain (red cross) and want to go to the lake (red flag).

Step 2: Where is your destination? Set the direction.
Step 2: Where is your destination? Set the direction.

Now you can already see roughly that you have to move in a north-east direction, since North is at the top of the map.

Next, you place the compass from the starting point to the destination point.

This is what it looks like in my example:

Place the compass from start to finish
Place the compass from start to finish

Step 3: Align can north with map north

Now turn the rotating bezel until the orientation lines inside are exactly aligned with the north-south lines on the map. This is also called aligning can north with map north.

Step 3: Align the orientation lines in the rotating bezel with the north-south lines on the map
Step 3: Align the orientation lines in the rotating bezel with the north-south lines on the map

Step 4: Read the march compass number

The orientation lines are now correctly aligned.

Then go to the sighting mark on the rotating bezel (red arrow in the picture) and determine the march compass number. In the example in the picture, it is 8 (more on my unit "mil" below).

Step 4: Read the march compass number and remember it
Step 4: Read the march compass number and remember it

Step 5: Set the direction

Your march compass number is set and is identical to the direction arrow on the compass housing.

Now turn around until needle north coincides with can north. The direction arrow on the compass housing now points you in the direction you need to go.

Step 5: Turn around until needle north and can north coincide
Step 5: Turn around until needle north and can north coincide

Step 6: Start walking

You are now ready to start walking.

Hold the compass so that the compass needle matches the north marking, and you can observe the position of the compass needle through the mirror.

Then, using the direction arrow and the opening at the top of the mirror (or the notch at the top of the compass), find an object in the landscape. When taking a bearing, make sure that needle north and can north do not change.

kompass peilung

Once you have found the object, close the compass and start walking. When you reach the object, take a bearing on the next object and continue in this way until you reach your destination.

My video also shows you the whole process again:

Which compass do I recommend for beginners?

My recommendation: Buy a compass from the Suunto or Silva brand. These two manufacturers provide high-quality compasses at a fair price.

Entry-level models from both brands start at 18 to 20 euros, such as the Suunto Compass A-10 NH (usable only in the Northern Hemisphere).

A Suunto brand compass, globally usable
A Suunto brand compass, globally usable

But I recommend spending a few more euros right away because then you get a compass with a mirror, magnifying glass, inclinometer, sight and sighting hole.

But be careful, you have to make a few decisions when buying a compass:

  • Should the compass be usable globally?
  • Which unit of measurement on the rotating dial is best for you?
  • Should the compass be equipped with a magnifying glass (not only for magnification, but also to start a fire with it)?
  • Do you need a mirror as a function (and as a glare function in an emergency)?
  • Are you travelling globally and do you need to adjust the magnetic declination?

Let's answer the three most important questions briefly:

Should the compass be usable globally?

When buying a compass, make sure it is usable where you require it.

Global models are equipped with a "G" in the product description, for example. Or with an "NH", which stands for Northern Hemisphere. These compasses can only be used in the Northern Hemisphere.

Which unit of measurement on the rotating dial is best for you?

Who would have thought? There are three units of measurement for compasses. So pay attention to the one you can work with most reliably.

  • Degree, 360° rotating dial
  • Nautical stride, 32-segment rotating dial, 360° = 32 segments, 1 segment = 11.25°
  • Artillery stride (also known as "mil"; Switzerland: artillery per mille ‰), 64-segment rotating dial, 360° = 6400 segments, 1 segment = 0.05625°

Are there advantages and disadvantages to the units of measurement? Generally not, unless you are in a group and everyone uses different units of measurement. Then you have to convert the figures.

For precise information on the units of measurement, see the Wikipedia article.

Do you need an adjuster for magnetic declination?

Did you know that there are actually two North Poles?

One of them is the geographic North Pole; the point of the axis around which the Earth rotates. The other is the magnetic North Pole; where all compass needles point.

How many degrees one differs from the other is indicated on good maps. This varies all over the world.

In Germany, the difference (also called deviation or local deviation) is small. In other regions of the world, it can be up to 180°.

So if you find the indication "deviation (declination) -15°" on your map, your compass will show 15° too little. So if the needle points to 100°, the point it is actually pointing to is at 115°.


Here are some examples of good compasses:

I've been moving safely and efficiently through the terrain with the Suunto Compass MC-2/G/6400 for a long time.

SUUNTO Unisex Mc-2/G/6400 Kompass, Weiß, Einheitsgröße EU
4,6 (2698)

Daten aktualisiert vor 23 Stunden

SUUNTO Unisex Mc-2/G/6400 Kompass, Weiß, Einheitsgröße EU

  • Professioneller Kompass mit hoher Präzision und zuverlässigen Funktionen, Spiegel für Richtungspeilung und Signalgebung, Mit Klinometer
  • Globale Ausrichtung, Gute Lesbarkeit bei schlechten Lichtverhältnissen durch leuchtende Markierungen, Einstellbare Deklinationskorrektur, Herstellung in Finnland
  • Bodenplatte mit Lupe, Richtungsskala in mils, USGS UTM-Skalen, Peilloch und Kimme, Abnehmbare Tragekordel mit Schnappschloss, Keine Batterien erforderlich
  • Hochwertige Edelstahlnadel mit Edelsteinlager, Flüssigkeitsgefüllte Kapsel für stabilen Betrieb, Lünette aus Kunststoff
  • Lieferumfang: 1x Suunto MC-2/G/6400 Mirror Compass, Inkl. Tragekordel, Schlüssel für Deklinationskorrektur, Schnellverschluss, Kurzanleitung, Farbe: Transparent/Schwarz, Maße: 65 x 101 x 18 mm, Gewicht: 75 g, Lünettenmaterial: Kunststoff

89,75 €

View Product

And if you're now excited about the topic of "orientation with compass, map, and GPS", I recommend this outdoor guide:

Karte Kompass GPS (Outdoor Basiswissen)
4,6 (144)

Daten aktualisiert vor 23 Stunden

Tips for working with the compass

Finally, here are a few tips for using your compass correctly:

  • Make sure there are no magnetic interference fields in the area, as they strongly influence the compass needle. This also applies to metal objects (knives), electrical devices such as smartphones or cars and ships.
  • Determine your location early enough because it's almost impossible without a GPS device in the dark.
  • For long tours, it's better to perform a location determination several times a day.

And if you don't have a compass with you, there are many other methods to determine the cardinal directions without a compass. You can also build your own compass with my instructions.


Did you like the guide? Will you try it yourself? Write it in the comments!

Take care, Martin
Martin Gebhardt

Author of the guide


Martin Gebhardt

Hey, I'm Martin. On my blog, you will learn the basics and numerous details about living in the wild. I think survival, bushcraft and the good life in nature are the keys to happiness. Find me here on Instagram or on YouTube. You can find more about my mission on the About Me page.

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