How To Use a Hiking Compass

You should never hit the hiking trail without two items: a hiking compass and a map. Though many trails are well marked and well-trodden, there are times where you might hit a confusing crossroads or mistake a false shortcut for the trail. In these moments, a compass could save the day…if you know how to use one.

This article covers four important topics:

  • The parts of the compass
  • How to adjust your compass to the area in which you’ll be hiking
  • How to orient your map to identify landmarks and your destination
  • How to read your bearings to locate your destination or current location on a map
How to Use a Hiking Compass

Part of what makes a compass so intimidating to beginners is its many parts, but each part serves an integral purpose. The following are the essential items you must know in order to use and to read a hiking compass.

Base Plate: The clear plastic base your hiking compass, or needle housing, is attached to.

Magnetized Needle: Usually red or white, the magnetized needle is the free-floating arrow that always points to the magnetic north pole.

Direction-of-Travel Arrow: The arrow on the base plate (outside the needle housing) that signifies which direction to point your compass when taking a bearing.

Rotating Bezel: Graded in degrees, the rotating bezel is a moveable piece that surrounds the hiking compass and is used to take a bearing.

Index Line: The marking located directly above the rotating bezel that’s used when reading a bearing.

Orienting Arrow: The outline of an arrow located inside the hiking compass that’s used to orient the rotating bezel when orienting your map or taking a bearing.

Orienting Lines: The parallel lines that rotate in step with the rotating bezel that are used to align your hiking compass with the north–south grid lines of your map.

Step 1: Adjust for Declination

Declination is the difference between magnetic north (the direction your magnetized needle points) and true north (the top of your map), and it can mean the difference between arriving at your destination and arriving miles away from it.

The declination value changes depending on your location, as a result of Earth’s magnetic fields and core elements, but it also changes over time. Most topographic maps include the declination value in the map legend, which makes life easy for you.

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