How to Use and Align Your Compass

Basic compass skills will keep you on track as you travel over land and water.

By Steve Howe, BACKPACKER Rocky Mountain Editor, June 2002

In open country and above treeline, route finding tends to be as easy as looking for the next landmark. But in forests, marshes, and low-visibility situations (like whiteouts and fog), you'll need a compass to orient your map. A few basic skills simplify the art of compass navigation.

1 Determine the magnetic declination for your area (see "Declination 101" below), and set your compass for that variance, which is marked on most maps.

2 Orient the map so its grid lines point toward true north. This orients map to landscape, so you can correlate contour lines with surrounding features.

3 Place the compass on the map so the baseplate's long edge (and direction arrow) point from your map position to your intended map destination.

4 Hold the baseplate in alignment with your intended route, and rotate the compass bezel until its markings align with the magnetic needle. Now the north-south arrow on the rotating bezel points to magnetic north, while the baseplate arrow points along your intended travel vector, called a heading.

5 When obstacles deflect you off course, note the compass bearing of the direction you walk or paddle (say, 45 degrees), then count your steps, strokes, or the time you spend off-course. After skirting the obstacle, follow the "back bearing" (225 degrees is the opposite direction of 45 degrees) for the same steps, strokes, or time (equals distance). Then resume your primary heading.

Quick Tips

Follow The Leapfrog

In heavy fog or featureless terrain, use your hiking or paddling partners as intermediate objects. Send them forward as far as possible and wave them into position along your course. Then leapfrog ahead. Give them the compass as you pass so they can repeat the leapfrog.

Rock To Rock

In low-visibility situations, take note of any obvious landmark in your line of travel, then move single-mindedly until you reach it. When you get there, take another sighting, pick a new intermediate objective, and repeat.

The Two-Mile-An-Hour Speed Trap

An oft-stated rule of thumb for walking speed is 2 miles per hour. But that's for a dayhiker on an easy trail. It doesn't account for heavier loads, gazing time, rest stops, photos, or lunch breaks. Plan to average about 1.5 miles per hour if you move steadily on a good trail. Heavy loads, rough terrain, rest stops, or water searches slow you down further.

Compass Tip

Declination 101

Maps are oriented toward geographic, or "true," north (the North Pole), but compass needles point to magnetic north, a place that wanders slowly within the Canadian Arctic. The difference in angle is called magnetic declination, and it varies from 21 degrees west in Maine to 26 degrees east in Alaska. That's why you should buy a compass with adjustable declination and set it properly.

On most compasses, adjusting declination is done by turning a tiny metal screw on the rotating compass needle housing. Look for declination on the lower left portion of your topo map; you'll see two diverging lines with the angle listed between them. If it says "16 degrees east," rotate the compass housing so the magnetic north/compass needle mark sits 16 degrees to the right (east) of the true north orienting lines. Twist the screw to reach the proper orientation.

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