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How to Use a Compass: Guide to Navigating in a Survival Situation

Navigating through the wilderness can be a daunting task, especially when you’re faced with a survival situation. One of the most essential tools to have in your survival kit is a compass.

In this article, we’ll explore the art of using a compass to help you find your way and stay safe in a variety of scenarios. Let’s dive in!

Understanding the Basics of a Compass

The Anatomy of a Compass

Before we start, it’s crucial to understand the different parts of a compass. Here are the main components you need to know:

  1. Needle: The red and white needle is the most important part of the compass. The red end always points to magnetic north, while the white end points to the magnetic south.
  2. Baseplate: The transparent, flat surface with ruler markings that allow you to measure distances on a map.
  3. Rotating Bezel: The ring around the compass that has degree markings. This is used to take bearings and navigate.
  4. Orienting Arrow and Lines: These are found on the rotating bezel and help align your compass with map markings.

True North vs. Magnetic North

Before using a compass, it’s essential to understand the difference between true north and magnetic north. True north is the direction towards the North Pole, while magnetic north is the direction that the compass needle points to, which is influenced by the Earth’s magnetic field. The difference between the two is called magnetic declination, and it varies depending on your location.

To compensate for this difference, you’ll need to know the magnetic declination for your area. This information is usually available on topographic maps or can be found online.

Using a Compass to Take a Bearing

A bearing is the direction from your current position to a specific destination. To take a bearing, follow these steps:

  1. Find your destination on the map: Identify the location you want to travel to, and place the compass edge on that point.
  2. Align the compass with your current position: Draw an imaginary line from your current position to your destination, ensuring that the compass edge connects the two points.
  3. Rotate the bezel: Turn the bezel so that the orienting arrow and lines are aligned with the map’s north-south grid lines. Make sure the “N” on the bezel points towards the map’s north.
  4. Read the bearing: The bearing is the number indicated by the index line on the bezel. Note this number down.

Following a Bearing

Now that you have your bearing, you can follow it to reach your destination:

  1. Hold the compass flat in your hand: Make sure the baseplate is level with the ground and the direction of travel arrow points straight ahead.
  2. Rotate your body: Turn your body until the red needle aligns with the orienting arrow on the bezel. The direction of travel arrow now points towards your destination.
  3. Pick a landmark: Choose a visible landmark in the direction of the travel arrow and walk towards it. Repeat this process until you reach your destination.
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Triangulation: Determining Your Location with a Compass

In some cases, you might need to determine your exact location on a map. Triangulation can help you achieve this:

  1. Identify two visible landmarks: Choose two landmarks that are also identifiable on your map.
  2. Take a bearing to each landmark: Using the steps mentioned earlier, take a bearing to each landmark and write down the bearings.
  3. Plot the bearings on the map: Starting from each landmark, draw lines on the map following the reverse bearings you noted earlier. The reverse bearing is found by adding or subtracting 180 degrees from the original bearing. For example, if your bearing was 45 degrees, the reverse bearing would be 225 degrees (45 + 180).
  1. Find your location: The point where the two lines intersect is your current location. You can now use this information to plan your route or determine your next steps.

Navigating in Challenging Terrain

In some survival situations, you might find yourself in challenging terrain where taking and following bearings may be difficult. Here are a few tips to help you navigate:

Aiming Off

Aiming off is a technique used when you’re uncertain about the exact location of your destination, such as a trail or a stream. Instead of following a direct bearing, aim to one side of the target. This way, when you reach the feature, you’ll know which direction to turn to find your desired location.


Handrails are natural or man-made features that run parallel to your desired route, such as roads, rivers, or ridgelines. Use these features to guide you in the right direction without having to rely solely on your compass.

Catching Features

Catching features are prominent landmarks that you can’t miss, such as a large lake or a mountain. Use these features as checkpoints to confirm your progress and adjust your bearings if needed.

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Learning how to use a compass is an essential skill for anyone venturing into the wilderness or preparing for survival scenarios. By understanding the basics, taking and following bearings, and applying techniques like triangulation, aiming off, and using handrails, you can navigate through any terrain and increase your chances of survival.

Remember, practice makes perfect. Familiarize yourself with your compass, and practice your navigation skills in a safe environment before venturing into more challenging situations. By honing your skills, you’ll be better prepared for any survival scenario that comes your way.

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