How To Use A Compass & Map

Nowadays, people lean towards using Google maps and GPS instead of an actual compass and maps. But you should know that once SHTF, electronics are less likely to become reliable, especially when you are navigating your way around the wilderness for a long period of time. It’s all about that prepper mindset.


In this post, we will guide you on how to rely on a compass and map for navigation. We will also give you a clear view of the true north and magnetic north, as well as the declination.

Parts of a Compass

To become more effective in using a compass, we should first learn each essential part to get a better understanding of the compass’ working mechanism.



The baseplate is a hard, flat plastic surface on which the rest of the compass is affixed. It is transparent to give you a clear view of the map underneath it. Moreover, it has a ruled straight edge for taking bearings on a map.



The rulers are on the side of the baseplate. It will help you to measure distance along with your map’s scale.


Direction of travel arrow/line

The direction of travel arrow/line is a fixed arrow or line, usually marked above the index line up to the end of the baseplate. This will show you which direction to point your compass when you are taking or following a bearing.


Rotating bezel (also known as “Azimuth ring”)

The rotating bezel is the big circle or ring which can be rotated. It is marked with degrees ranging from 0 clockwise up to 360 degrees in 20 increments.


Index line (also called as “read bearing here”)

The index line is marked above the rotating bezel and below the direction of travel arrow/line pointing in the same direction. It is where you will be reading your bearings.


Magnetized needle

The magnetized needle is the noticeable needle placed inside the rotating bezel. It can be colored red or white depending on the design. It is pointing to the magnetic north pole at all times, not the true north pole.


Orienting arrow

The orienting arrow is a big arrow placed inside the rotating bezel as well. It is used to help you orient the rotating bezel with the directions on the map. It will be pointing to a certain direction whenever you spin the rotating bezel.


Orienting lines

The orienting lines are just alongside the orienting arrow and are marked on the floor of the baseplate. It is a series of parallel lines to help you line up the compass with north on a map.


Declination scale

The declination scale is just below the orienting lines and is also marked on the floor of the baseplate. It will help you to easily adjust the declination of the direction you intend to travel.

True North vs. Magnetic North

Most people are confused with true north and magnetic north. But there is a difference between the two relative to the direction of the north a compass is pointing to. Simply put, the needle in your compass always points to the magnetic north pole of the earth. However, this is not a fixed location as it changes over time. In contrast, true north is a fixed location, meaning it does not change over any course of time. Maps are oriented along the longitudinal lines that meet at the North Pole.


When the needle points in the same direction as the direction of the travel arrow, it means you are facing magnetic north. To get your navigation right along the way, you should adjust the declination in accordance with the difference between the true north and magnetic north.

What is Declination?

Basically, the declination is the angle difference between the true north and magnetic north. The needle in your compass will only point to the magnetic north and not the true north. This is the trickiest part of the compass as most hikers or campers head in the wrong direction and get lost. This is likely to happen if the declination is not adjusted in accordance to the difference between the true north and magnetic north. More importantly, the declination varies depending on your location across the world. Over time, it will also change gradually when shifting of the Earth’s tectonics occurs.


To get the declination scale working right, look at your map’s declination diagram that’s usually placed at the bottom—as well as checking the map’s recent revision. Since declination changes over time, it is necessary to have newer maps to have more accurate figures. If you notice that your map hasn’t been revised for several, look up the current declination online. You should first learn the declination of a certain region or location you are in before using the compass. Once you know your region’s declination, simply subtract it from the bearing of your compass for west and add it for east.

How to Use a Compass

There are five ways to use a compass to find your way:


  • Setting Declination: To continue safe navigation in your current region or location to another place.
  • Knowing your Heading: To know which direction you are heading.

  • Orienting the Map: Determine your current standing location on the map along with your surroundings.

  • Taking a Bearing: Determine which direction a feature is relative to your current location.

  • Following a Bearing: This is the bearing you should follow to the feature you are heading.

Setting Declination

  1.     Get a newer map for an accurate measure.
  2.     Learn your region’s declination by checking it on the map’s declination diagram below.
  3.     Subtract the exact declination from the bearing of your compass for west and add it for east

Knowing your Heading

  1. Hold the compass in front and point the direction of travel arrow in the direction you are heading.
  2. Rotate the rotating bezel until the red end of the needle lines up with N.
  3. Your heading will be the number in degrees on the edge of the bezel at the index line.

Orienting the Map

  1.     Lay the map on an even surface in front of you.
  2.     Place the compass on a certain location on top of the map.
  3.     Rotate the map and compass until the needle lines up with the north-south grid lines of the map. Make sure that the red end of the needle is pointing to the top of the map.

Taking a Bearing

  1. Find a feature on the map that you want to travel.
  2. Identify the feature on the ground.
  3. Place the compass on top of the map. Align the orienting lines with your route towards the feature on the map.
  4. Hold the map and compass together firmly. Rotate the rotating bezel until the orienting arrow is pointing north on the map. The number in degrees on the edge of the rotating bezel at the index line is your bearing to follow.
  5. Remove the compass from the map. Hold it with the direction of travel arrow pointing straight away from you.
  6. Rotate your body with the compass until the red end of the needle is inside the orienting arrow.
  7. Now, the direction of travel arrow is now pointing towards the feature you want to travel. This will be the bearing that you will need to follow.

Following a Bearing

  1. Follow the direction of the direction of travel arrow is indicating until you reach the feature.
  2. Check your bearing along the way. You should always check the direction of travel needle.
  3. Identify the features on the ground in the direction of your direction of travel and of your map.

It's Worth The Effort To Learn How To Navigate With a Compass & Map

Compass paired with a new map is definitely a powerful navigation tool. You do not have to worry about battery life and supplies, unlike with smartphones or other navigation devices. It’s a no-brainer when it comes to the list of things to pack in your Bug Out Bag, INCH Bag, or Get Home Bag.