Learning how to use a compass is a skill that everyone who enjoys the outdoors will find useful and can be essential if you walk in isolated areas or in more challenging conditions.
To navigate successfully you will need to use your compass alongside a map – so first make sure you are comfortable with reading maps first. In urban areas and lowland countryside in good visibility, good map readers can navigate well without using a compass.
For walking we recommend an orienteering compass with a rectangular base (like the below), which is marked with km/m scales that can be seen even in poor light.
A compass helps you to:
The key thing about the compass is that the needle always points to magnetic north. This is slightly different from grid north, and the difference between them varies in different areas of the world and over time. Information about this ‘magnetic declination’ is usually printed on walkers’ maps. Over short distances it should make little difference to your navigation but if you are walking on a single bearing for a very long distance in open countryside you need to compensate for it in order to navigate accurately.
An excellent use of a compass is to help you set the map, aligning it so that it corresponds to the surrounding landscape. This makes it much easier to relate the map to what you see on the ground.
The same technique can also be used to check the direction of a path on the ground after taking its bearing from the map.
Advanced techniques include using a map and compass with a pencil to locate your exact position by taking bearings from two or more distant landmarks, known as resectioning.
For further information try our article on navigation or check out the Ordnance Survey guide to using a compass.