Outdoor Navigation Ultimate Guide [FAQ]



Outdoor Navigation Ultimate Guide - Using a Compass

Introduction to Outdoor Navigation Ultimate Guide

When one is in the wilderness and away from civilization, it is important to be prepared. It can seem like a scary prospect to navigate without any technology. With just a compass and maps as tools, one can still find their way even if they have never done it before.

GPS devices and even the common phone of today can help you navigate. But you should know the basics of navigating with a map and compass. Keeping a compass handy while in the outdoors can mean the difference between life and death.

Also, if you’re interested in Orienteering for fun or professionally, then knowing how to use a map and compass is the foundation. Check out our Orienteering Ultimate Guide for more information.

In this article, we will be discussing how to use a compass and map to navigate in the great outdoors. Keep reading “Outdoor Navigation Ultimate Guide” and you will have all the basic compass essentials and some advanced skills for using a compass and map to navigate.

What is a Compass?

A compass is a simple tool with a magnetized pointer or needle that displays the direction of magnetic North and is used to find direction. (Keep in mind that the magnetized pointer points to magnetic North and not true North)

A compass is one of the Four Greatest Inventions, which had a profound effect on the development of society throughout the world. It is still very much used for navigation in almost all outdoor settings throughout the world.

The simple compass includes:

  • A Baseplate is usually made of clear plastic so that you can see the map underneath. It includes ruled edges that help with bearings and triangulation. This baseplate also houses the main compass parts and can include various navigation marks printed on it.
  • The Direction of Travel Arrow is printed on a compass baseplate and is pointed in the direction of your travel.
  • Rotating Bezel is a ring around the compass housing with degree markings printed on it. You rotate the bezel to rotate the housing. The degree markings indicate the various cardinal directions and their orientation toward the North direction. The markings on the rotating bezel are normally indicated in degrees with zero being North.
  • Index Line is located on the compass housing itself and points to the direction arrow on the compass direction arrow on the baseplate. It is used to set an azimuth or bearing.
  • Magnetized Needle is the part of the compass where the magic happens. The needle tip is magnetized and floats inside the compass so the magnetic North pulls or attracts the tip towards it. This pulling of the needle tip towards the North is what gives the compass its powers.

Types of Compasses

The most common types of compasses for outdoor experiences:

  • Baseplate Compass
  • Thumb Compass

The least common types of compasses for outdoor experiences:

  • Card Compass
  • Prismatic Compass
  • Astrocompass
  • GPS Compass
  • Solid State Compass
  • Gyro Compass

Why Use a Compass?

The simple compass is one of the top inventions created by all of humanity. This instrument opened up navigation with a very simple premise; you can navigate with a handheld device anywhere on the planet. 

If you’re out to sea and need direction, the compass gave clear indications of which direction you were headed. You didn’t need landmarks or visible objects to get around. You simply hold the compass, and the compass points to magnetic north.

You can figure your heading even when all you have is fog around you. You don’t need sunlight, so you can navigate in complete darkness. The compass will help you navigate even when it’s impossible to see clearly all around you.

The compass has been successfully used for thousands of years for navigating on the land, the sea, and in the air. The compass is so simple but yet so useful. 

Today the simple compass has been mostly replaced by GPS but if GPS wasn’t available, then the compass would still continue to work as great as it ever has.

North, South, East, West

The direction indicators North, South, East, and West are called the Cardinal directions or Cardinal Points on a compass. They can also be marked on a compass as N, S, E, and W. The Cardinal Points are traditionally marked on a compass rose for display on a compass.

A compass rose is a figure on a compass, map, nautical chart, or monument, and sometimes called a windrose or a rose of the winds, that shows the cardinal directions of North, East, South, and West, along with the intermediate points of Northeast, Southeast, Southwest, and Northwest.

North Cardinal Point goes at the top of the rose and South Cardinal Point to the bottom of the rose. West is to the left and East is to the right at right angles to North and South. They’re in a circular position clockwise around the face of the compass starting with North, East, South, and West.

The Ordinal directions or Ordinal Points are the mid-way points between each Cardinal Point. So the mid-way point between North and East is called Northeast. The mid-way point between East and South is called Southeast. The mid-point for South and West is Southwest and the mid-point for West and North is Northwest.

The Cardinal Points in degrees are North – 360 degrees, East – 90 degrees, South – 180 degrees, and West – 270 degrees.

Declination Correction

Magnetic North is located somewhere near the Hudson Bay in Canada. True North is located at the North Pole. You can see that might make a big difference in navigation.

Always remember that a compass is oriented toward magnetic North and not True North. You can correct the difference between Magnetic North and True North by using the declination angle in measurements. 

You can get the declination angle from the most recent topo map that you’re trying to navigate with. Because the magnetic North shifts from time to time, it’s important to gather the most recent declination angle as possible.

You can also find the most recent declination angle by going to the NOAA website for the declination angle in your area.

Declination is used to correct the variation between the location of True North and Magnetic North. It is expressed as an angle. So, if the declination is 15 degrees, from where you are located, you will need to include that angle to make up for the difference. The angle will be different for other starting locations around the world.

Without correcting for declination, you might end up somewhere you don’t want to be. Just a single degree wrong might be the difference in a few hundred feet off course. So, it’s very important.

Once you’ve set the declination, you probably won’t need to set it again for any single trip. I would set the declination angle before any new trip.

The next step is to adjust the declination on your compass. Some compasses include a key to adjust the compass while other compasses will need to mathematically adjust the declination through addition and subtraction.

Basics Of Using A Compass

Get to know your compass

You can learn more about a basic compass by going to the first part of our article that is entitled What Is A Compass?

Adjust for declination

You can learn more about adjusting for declination by going to the first part of our article that is entitled Declination Correction

Orient Your Map

The direction arrow is at the top of the compass located on the baseplate. To orient a map, you simply rotate the orienting arrow and line it up with the direction arrow on the baseplate. Or by placing the zero degrees mark of the bezel in the same direction as the direction arrow. This will accomplish the same thing.

Place the compass on the map.

Next, you line up the straight edge on the side of the compass to the side of the map. If there are multiple straight vertical lines running North and South on the map that is specifically used with the compass, then line up the compass straight edge to any one of those North and South vertical lines. Not all maps have these lines. You might have to use the edges of the map instead.

Now with the compass laying on the map, turn the map and compass together to “Put Fred in the Shed”. In other words, keep rotating the map and compass until the Magnetic Red Needle (Fred) lines up with the direction arrow/orienting arrow (Shed) They should all align in the same direction. Your compass red magnetic needle North should line up with the map in going the same Northerly direction.

You’ve just oriented your compass to your map.

Take a compass bearing

Now that you have the map and compass oriented, you first need to draw a line on the map from where you are at to where you need to go. So, simply draw a line from your current location to your destination.

For the next step make sure not to adjust anything on the compass from what you’ve already set up above.

Next, slide your already oriented compass and place the straight edge of the compass along the line you drew from current location to destination. Double-check that magnetic North is still in alignment with the map’s North markings. They should still be in alignment.

Then rotate the orienting needle to match the magnetic needle once again. You’re basically putting the Shed under Fred. lol

The remaining markings on the bezel will tell you how many degrees from North you need to travel to head in the right direction. Don’t forget to add or subtract the declination angle.

Compass vs GPS

So which is better to use; a GPS or Compass while outdoors? The answer is when outdoors the best compass will always be the tried and true basic magnetic compass.

The GPS compass is extremely accurate compared with a traditional magnetic compass but if you lose power on your cell phone or there’s inclement weather, you will definitely want a magnetized compass to save the day.

Cell Phone Compass

On just about every modern cell phone today, you can download a compass to use on your phone. The compass on your phone is actually a GPS-based compass.

The most basic compass for your phone includes the magnetized needle (virtual), the bezel with the traditional markings in both degrees and cardinal directions, and a direction pointer.

iPhone Cell Phone Compass

Conclusion to Outdoor Navigation Ultimate Guide

This guide is meant to

  • Educate you on the basics of navigation outdoors
  • Explains the basics of a compass and how to use it
  • Explains how to orient your map and compass
  • Explains how to take a bearing to get you where you’re going

By using these techniques, you’ll be able to build confidence in your outdoor navigation skills that will help keep you safe.

Here’s an article on Adult Outdoor Activities to find other activities to do in the great outdoors.

Navigation – Wikipedia