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How to Use a Compass Without a Map : (Simple Tips!)

How to Use a Compass Without a Map

One of the best and worst things about living in the 21st century is the abundance of technology that we use on a daily basis. On the one hand, technology like smartphones has given us the ability to connect with anyone, anywhere in the world. On the other hand, it has made us overdependent on it for doing very basic things like figuring out where we need to go. 

Take a moment and truly reflect on the last time you were able to find something without looking it up first on Google Maps. Were you in a familiar place? Were street signs around? Did you ask anyone for directions? Chances are, without smartphones a lot of us would be absolutely lost!

For those who crave adventure and time outside, you might feel pretty confident in your ability to find your way around. You’ve spent tons of time in the backcountry, and you’ve never gotten lost before! Those poor city folks are the only ones that constantly need modern technology, not me though. 

But venture some place new and see how comfortable you feel without technology. Without a compass and knowledge of how to use it properly, you’ll be just as lost. Smartphones break, run out of battery, and get lost pretty easily out in the wilderness. 

Regardless of whether you’re in the city or in the backcountry, all people should know the basics of using a compass!

How to Setup Your Compass Before You Use it

How to Setup Your Compass Before You Use it

Using a compass is a pretty easy thing to do, when you know what you’re doing. Something that a lot of people don’t realize is that there are a few things to keep in mind before using a compass that will be the difference maker in whether or not you get to where you intend to go.

The first thing that you need to do before you leave for any outdoors trip that you intend to bring a compass on is adjust your compass for declination.

Declination is a fancy word that basically tells you how much the magnetism of the area is going to mess with your compass. 

Compasses work by a magnet being placed inside of an arrow inside of the compass. The arrow is floating around inside of the compass, which helps it move freely. The magnet is always trying to point to where magnetic north is, which can be different than what true north is.

The Earth is covered in a large magnetic field that protects us from the harmful rays that bombard our planet every minute of every day. These rays would absolutely cook the Earth if there wasn’t a magnetic field! Don’t believe me? Simply spend an hour or two outside on a sunny day without sunscreen. That sunburn that you’ll get is proof of how UV rays that are emitted from the sun still penetrate the atmosphere. Think of how much worse it would be if there wasn’t a magnetic field protecting us!

While the magnetic field is great, it makes using a compass a bit tricky. As I mentioned earlier, compasses all have arrows with a magnet that are constantly trying to point to the north. Depending on where you are on Earth, the location is likely going to have different magnetic objects nearby that are going to impact where your compass’s arrow is pointing. 

To adjust for declination, you need to first look up what the declination is for the area that you’ll be adventuring in by using an internet search or by consulting a topographic map. 

By doing this crucial step, you’ll be able to know how far off your compass will be impacted by the local magnetism. 

Now that you have figured out what the declination is, it’s time to adjust the compass. On most compasses, there is a ring that is on the top of the compass that can rotate. This is called the rotating bezel ring. The bezel ring can move 360° around the perimeter of the compass and can help you set your compass for the declination of the area.

Start by moving your bezel ring so that its 0° mark is at the north position of your compass. From there, you’re going to adjust it so that it matches with the declination of the area you’re going to be in.

Declination is reflected in either positive or negative numbers. Positive numbers tell you that the declination is going to pull your magnetic arrow to the east. Negative numbers tell you that the declination is going to pull your magnetic arrow to the west. 

From there, you’ll move your bezel ring so that it is the exact number of degrees to the east or west of north on your compass. 

For example, if the area that I was exploring has a magnetic declination of -2°, I would adjust my bezel ring so that the 0° line on it was lined up with 2°west on my compass. If the magnetic declination was 8°, I would adjust the bezel ring so that it is over the 8° east line on my compass. Easy!

Now your compass is calibrated for the area that you intend to explore. But be careful to check the date for when that declination was listed. Declination can change over time by a factor of 2 to 2.5 degrees every 100 years or so. While that might not seem like a big deal, you’d be surprised how far away you could end up from your destination without even knowing it!

How to Navigate with a Compass

How to Navigate with a Compass

Now that you have properly set up your compass to account for the declination of the area you’ll be spending time in, it’s time to practice using your compass.

The first thing you need to know is that there are two main techniques for using a compass to navigate. 

The first and most helpful is to use the map and compass method. By using both tools, you’ll be able to find the physical features on your map that will help you come up with an easy to follow plan. 

You’ll be able to use the contour lines on the map to help you determine where the ridges, hills, and water features are. From there, you can set up “boundaries” for yourself as you make your plan. 

Using boundaries means that you’re setting up fail safes for yourself. If you notice that you need to travel north and there is a river that follows the same direction that is to the east, you’ll always want to travel in such a way that you see the river to your east. If you notice that the river isn’t on your east side anymore, that’s a signal that you are disoriented and that you need to stop and reassess where you’re going.

The same method of using boundaries can be achieved when using the second technique for using a compass, which is called dead reckoning. 

While the technique name might seem foreboding, it basically means that you use your surroundings to help you navigate! Pick a physical feature somewhere in the distance as a reference point.  From there, you’ll end up shooting what is called an azimuth to find your heading.

An azimuth is the imaginary line that you follow when you find the direction you want to go with your compass. Simply point your compass in the direction that you want to go (in the case of dead reckoning, the large physical feature) and start walking in that direction.

Can I Still Get Lost When Using a Compass without a Map?

Can I Still Get Lost When Using a Compass without a Map

The short answer to this question is yes. You can still get lost even if you use a compass and you’re proficient at using it.

One of the things that trips most people up and gets them lost when using a compass is that they don’t stop to check that they are going in the right direction often enough. While I know that this might sound kind of silly, we tend to sabotage ourselves when we use compasses.

People follow the same azimuth line that they originally shot for far too long and they end up off track. The biggest reason for why this happens is due to the length of stride and pace people take. 

One of the most common errors that people have when navigating with just a compass is that they don’t account for how their strides are different in length. Think about it, when was the last time you really paid attention to how straight you were truly walking? People tend to veer off course when they don’t reshoot their azimuth lines, because they tend to have a longer stride on their dominant side than the other. Everyone has this happen, which is why it’s important to check your azimuth at regular intervals.

Choose a number in your head that you’ll walk to in paces in order to keep it consistent. The only time you should break with that number is if you are having to make a major movement around an obstacle like a large tree or boulder. 

That number that you have inside of your head should be your pace count. This isn’t the same thing as counting every step though. A pace count is where you count every time your right or left foot hits the ground. So essentially, you are counting every other step! 

Outside of keeping track of how long it has been since you last checked your azimuth, pace counts are very helpful in keeping track of distance. If you’re expecting to encounter a physical feature after a certain amount of distance and you end up getting to the end of your pace count and you still don’t see it, you know that something is wrong. You have either miss counted the number of paces you’ve taken, or your azimuth got messed up at one point or another.

The way that you calculate your pace count is by finding how many paces it takes to cover a distance of at least 100 meters. Try to find that distance where it includes a small slope to it with very few to zero obstacles in the way. This will help you determine a couple of things. 

The first thing you’ll learn is how many paces it will take you to cover 100 meters in an open area. You’ll also learn how many paces you take going downhill vs. uphill, since you want to walk both down slope and up slope to figure out the average amount of paces, you’ll end up taking to cover that distance. People generally will take fewer paces when going downhill than uphill, so doing both when calculating your pace count will help you get a realistic measurement for your own pace count. 

So now that you have your pace count, you know how to shoot an azimuth, and you know that you need to check your azimuth every so often, that’s all you need to know to keep yourself from getting lost, right? Well, there’s one more thing to keep in mind: navigating in the backcountry will require you to move around obstacles!

Boulders, trees, creeks, ponds, and a whole lot of dead trees often block our paths when we are deep in the backcountry. And since we haven’t developed the ability to phase through those objects yet, it’s necessary to move over, under, and/or around them to keep on our path!

Something that you should absolutely do every time you move around an obstacle that messes with your pace count is to reshoot your azimuth to ensure you’re going the right way still. This will ensure that you don’t end up completely off course, especially when you’re navigating over long distances of more than 1 kilometer. 

If you come to a large obstacle that you can simply step over or crawl underneath, you’ll want to use the box method to help you stay on track. 

The box method is basically where you intentionally make a box around the obstacle using your compass and pace count. Start by facing exactly 90° away from the obstacle. Keep that azimuth that you’ve shot in mind. 

Now walk as many paces in that direction as it will take to clear the obstacle. Count the number of paces you end up walking in that direction and remember that number as well. 

Once you have cleared the obstacle, turn 90° back to the original direction you were traveling and walk as many paces forward as it takes to clear the obstacle. 

Now that you’ve successfully gotten around it, it’s time to get back on track. Turn 90° to the opposite direction of the azimuth you shot at the beginning of this maneuver. Then walk the same number of paces that you counted when you originally started. Once you’ve accomplished this, reshoot your original azimuth and you’ll be on your way once more!

What do I do if I’m Still Lost?

What do I do if I’m Still Lost

The absolute best thing you can do if you’re lost, and you don’t know where you are is to stay put. This might sound counter intuitive, because if you’re lost, the last thing you want to do is to keep being lost! We all want to solve that problem as fast as possible, but there are a few really good reasons why staying put will save your life if you truly don’t know where you are.

  • You’ll give rescuers a smaller area that needs to be searched if you stay put.
  • You’ll save energy and resources like food and water to stay safe.
  • You’ll greatly reduce the chances of getting injured.
  • You’ll greatly reduce the chances of getting more lost!

By staying in the same place, you can help yourself survive and wait until rescuers arrive far better than if you wandered around the woods alone.

This is a big reason for why it’s important that you tell someone where you’re going and when you expect to return every time you go into the backcountry. If someone notices that you’re not back in time, they can begin the rescue effort if you did in fact get lost without having to confirm with you whether you’re lost or not, which can be really helpful when you actually are lost!

Final Thoughts

Navigation is one of the most important skills to have when going into the backcountry. While modern technology has done many things that have enhanced our lives, people have become overly dependent on it for basic skills like figuring out where you’re going!

When you get started using a compass, always make sure to set its bezel ring so that it’s properly accounting for the declination of the area you’re visiting. Ensure that you have a plan in place by consulting a map first or be sure to use the dead reckoning method to navigate.

And finally, if you end up getting lost, don’t make a bad situation worse by wandering around and trying to get yourself unlost! Stay put and wait for rescuers to come. Try to improve your odds of survival by creating a shelter and a fire, which will help keep you alive until rescuers can find you much better than if you tried to rescue yourself.

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Lisa Hayden-Matthews

Lisa Hayden-Matthews

A bike rider, triathlon enthusiast, amateurish beach volleyball player and nature lover who has never lost a dare! I manage the overall Editorial section for the magazine here and occasionally chip in with my own nature photographs, when required.

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