Written by 12:40 pmSurvival

How to Read a Compass

Close-up of golden compass.

We’ve all been in a situation at least once in our lives where we will need a compass. Whether that is for hiking, walking, or any other kind of other excursion you might find yourself on – it is incredibly important as a general life skill to know how to read a compass. With today’s modern technology, you might fall under the easier trap of using GPS to find your way, but what if you were in a mountain area with no phone service? This is why knowing how to read a compass is essential for your safety, also.

This article will take you through what we believe are the most important steps in knowing how to read a compass! From the cardinal points, to the general layout of a compass, by the end of this piece you will leave with a more confident and comfortable knowledge of how to read a compass, so that you don’t feel as afraid when you try it in real life! This is the perfect know how to use compass article for you to read!

Reading a Compass

Below are some of what we believe are the most important components to be aware of when reading a compass.

The Four Cardinal Points

There are four cardinal points on a compass – North, South, East, and West. When you are reading a compass, or telling other people directions – do not use the phrases ‘right’ or ‘left.’ These are known as relative directions, and they can massively differ depending on your location or your direction. The cardinal points, however, are a constant and will always keep you right.

compass cardinal points

The directions that come between North and East are known as an intercardinal point and is called NorthEast. The other three intercardinal points are SouthEast, SouthWest, and NorthWest.

Secondary Intercardinal Points

As mentioned previously, there are intercardinal points. To add extra detail, there are also secondary intercardinal points which are situated halfway between each cardinal point and intercardinal point. These are known as North-NorthEast, East-NorthEast, East-SouthEast, South-SouthEast etc. These are important as because with these directions, you can give someone more accurate directions on where they need to go. See the picture above for an example of what these points might look like on your compass.

How Does a Compass Work?

Prepare to get scientific for a second!

There is a specific science around compasses that make them unique, and why they are still so beneficial today. Magnetism is one of the early areas of science that is taught in school. The common knowledge is is that if you hold two bar magnets to the north poles of each, and they are almost touching, they will repel each other. If you were to turn one of the magnet’s north pole’s towards the other’s south pole, the magnets then pull towards one another.

The same sciene applies to a compass. The red pointer of a compass, otherwise known as magentized needle, is the magnent that’s being attracted by the Earth’s own magnetism (sometimes called the geomagnetic field—”geo” simply means Earth). As English scientist William Gilbert explained about 400 years ago, Earth behaves like a giant bar magnet with one pole up in the Arctic (near the north pole) and another pole down in Antarctica (near the south pole). If the needle of your compass is pointing towards north, this thus means it’s being attracted (pulled toward) something near Earth’s north pole. Since unlike poles attract, the thing your compass is being attracted to must be a magnetic south pole. In other words, the thing we call Earth’s magnetic north pole is actually the south pole of the magnet inside Earth. A confusing concept, we know. What you really need to remember is that the just like the saying: opposites attract!

Earth’s magnetic field is actually quite weak compared to the “macho” forces like gravity and friction that really dominate our lives. For a compass to be able to show up the relatively tiny effects of Earth’s magnetism, we have to minimize the effects of these other forces. That’s why the best survival compass needles are lightweight (so gravity has less effect on them) and mounted on frictionless bearings (so there’s less frictional resistance for the magnetic force to overcome).

Compass Reading Tips

  • Hold the compass level – if the compass is tilted, the needle will touch the clear lid and not move correctly.
  • Read the correct end of the needle in order to know where to go!
  • Try to use common sense when you can, and if you can’t: RESEARCH. For example: if you are in North America, Europe, or Asia and heading anywhere towards the sun during the middle of the day, you are heading in a southerly direction. If you are south of the equator and heading towards the sun, it’s just the opposite and you are heading in a northerly direction. (If you are in the tropics, between the Tropic of Cancer at 23.5 degrees North of the equator and the Tropic of Capricorn at 23.5 degrees South of the equator, then this tip should not be used. The sun can be either north or south of you, depending on the time of year.)
  • RED IN THE SHED! An important little rhyme that could really come in handy! This means, where the red is, you will ALWAYS be going north!
  • Keep the compass away from metal objects – even a knife, flashlight, or keychain can cause a false reading if too close to the compass. You don’t want an inaccurate reading, and ending up getting lost!

The 5 Easy Steps to Reading a Compass

1 Get To Know Your Compass

Depending on what kind of compass you are using, before you start your journey, it is important to be familiar with the various parts of the compass. They are small components you need to know before using a compass, which will make your using experience all the more easier. Once you have familarized yourself with these parts, you are ready to go! Your compass should come with a leaflet that explains the parts that are specific to that particular type. When ready, lay the compass flat on your palm. The travel arrow should be pointing towards where you want to go.

The Parts of a Compass

  • Understand the basic layout of the compass. While the designs of compasses can vary depending on your model, all compasses include a magnetized needle that orients itself to the magnetic fields in the Earth. The basic field compass, also sometimes known as a baseplate compass, features the following simple components you should familiarize yourself with as soon as possible:
  • The baseplate is the clear, plastic plate on which the compass is embedded.
  • The direction of travel arrow is the arrow in the baseplate pointing away from the compass.
  • The compass housing is the clear, plastic circle that houses the magnetized compass needle.
  • The degree dial is the twistable dial surrounding the compass housing that displays all 360 degrees of the circle.
  • The magnetic needle is the needle spinning within the compass housing.
  • The orienting arrow is the non-magnetic arrow within the compass housing.
  • The orienting lines are the lines within the compass housing that run parallel to the orienting arrow.

2 Adjust Your Declination

Most people are most comfortable finding North on a map, as it’s on the top! However, in most real-life situations, magnetic north (where your needle points) and what is really north differ by a few degrees: This difference is commonly known as “declination.”

If you have the wrong declination, it can set your journey askew by 20 feet to even up to 100 feet – not a position you want to find yourself in! The map you are using, or even your areas Natural Geographic website has co-ordinates in place in order for you to adjust to the correct setting. You need to twist your compass dial so that the orienting arrow lines up with the red end of the magnetic needle.

3 Orient Your Map to Suit Your Bearing

Map reading is an essential skill that should be practised early in life and at that, often. Before you can begin to read your compass, you need to make sure you have your map oriented properly.

Going on from Point 2, once you’ve set your declination, map orientation will be simple. Read below the following steps on how to do it:

  1. Place your compass on the map with the direction of the travel arrow pointing toward the top of the map.
  2. Rotate the bezel so that N (north) is lined up with the direction of your travel arrow.
  3. Slide the baseplate until one of its straight edges aligns with either the left or right edge of your map.
  4. Then, while holding both map and compass steadily, rotate your body until the end of the magnetic needle is within the outline of the orienting arrow.

After these simple steps, you will have your map oriented properly and can begin to recognise nearby landmarks and other outdoor visual items on it. It is important to become familiar with your map and surrounding areas before setting off on any kind of excursion. While on the trip, it is important to consistently use your map to find your point of reference. This means you keep yourself and those who may be with you right.

4 Try To Take A Bearing

A ‘bearing’ is simply another term for navigationally finding a precise location/direction. For example: instead of telling someone to go ‘north-east’ to find the nearest campsite location, you might follow a bearing of 315 degrees instead.

Bearings are always relative to a specific location. If you try to follow the same bearing from two different places, you will not reach the same destination. All are different, and need to be read and taken correctly.

If you are worried that when taking your bearings you still might be ‘off-track’, line up the orienting arrow with the needle. Whenever this is done, the direction of the travel arrow will point you in the right direction. Be mindful of keeping the compass dial in the same position.


What is the red on a compass?

The red part of any compass will always be referring to the North part of it. This will always keep you right when you are using it. People who are familiar with compasses often like to refer to it as Red Fred in order to remember how to use it!

As you perform the steps to successfully navigate your compass, remember the following.

  • Move your body—not the compass.
  • Think of the red magnetic needle as “red Fred.”
  • Think of orienting arrow as the “shed.”
  • To use the compass to follow a specific bearing, put “red Fred in the shed.” For example, if you want to travel at a bearing of 240°, follow these steps.
  • Turn the azimuth ring until the 240° mark is lined up with the direction-of-travel arrow.
  • Keep the compass level as you point the direction-of-travel arrow directly away from your waist.
  • Keeping the compass in the same position with your body, turn your body until the red needle lines up inside the orienting arrow (think of it as putting “red Fred in the shed”). You now are facing a bearing of 240°.
  • Move in the same direction that the direction-of-travel arrow points. Be sure to keep red Fred in the shed as you go.

How do you read a compass app?

Whether you have an iPhone or an Android, using your compass app can still be used just as easily as if you were using an actual compass.

The Compass app on iPhone isn’t as accurate as the real thing, but it’ll help you follow basic directions and bearings quickly. To do so:

  1. Launch the Compass app from your Home screen.
  2. Hold your iPhone flat in the palm of your hand.
  3. Spin around, holding your iPhone in your hand until you hit the bearing (degrees) you want to follow. For example, 30 degrees north-northeast.
  4. Tap the compass face once to lock in that bearing.

With an iPhone, you can adjust in your Settings a component called ‘Stay True To North’ to make sure you can always find your way.

With Android, there are plenty of apps to choose from that could substitute to the real thing!

Compass Galaxy is currently the highest-rated compass app on the Google Play Store. It has a nice styling and it’s ad-free and does only the most basic compass function – perfect for any kind of small excursion. If you aren’t looking for anything particularly fancy, we would highly recommend this app.

Just a Compass also has a very clean and straight-forward interface but has some additional features compared to Compass Galaxy. Using data from your phone’s location services (if you allow it to) the app will show you your altitude, exact latitude and longitude and the sunrise and sunset times. All of these can be pretty handy during a hike in the mountains, or help enhance the perfect camping trip with your family!

Is My Compass Pre-adjusted by the Factory When Built?

In short, the answer is no.

When a compass is built by the manufacturer, it done manually on a workbench which usually is clean of magnetic reactions. Afterwards, it is usually purchased and installed by the owner – causing changes to occur. Surrounding items can affect the compass menu, causing the starting point to deviate, and your compass dial to go askew. Electronics around you, when turned on, can deliver an electromagnetic field which can negatively affect the accuracy of your compass.

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