How to Read a Compass

Reading a Compass

General Directions

A compass can be used in many ways, from telling which way is North to finding hidden treasure or following an unmarked path over wilderness terrain. But, you've got to take baby steps, so let's talk about how the a compass is laid out.

compass reading

There are four cardinal points on a compass - North, South, East, and West. When reading a compass, and telling other people directions, you need to wipe "right" and "left" out of your vocabulary. Right and Left are relative directions and differ depending on your location and direction, but the cardinal points are constant.

compass cardinal points

The direction halfway between North and East is an intercardinal point and is called NorthEast. The other three intercardinal points are SouthEast, SouthWest, and NorthWest.

Finally, there are secondary intercardinal points halfway between each cardinal point and intercardinal point. These are North-NorthEast, East-NorthEast, East-SouthEast, South-SouthEast, ... and so on. With these directions, you can give someone a fairly good idea of what direction they need to go. We could add additional points, continueing to break each section in half over and over, but telling someone to go East-EastEastNorthEast-EastNorthEast would not be fun.

Since there IS a need for more precise directions, the circle of a compass face is split into 360 marks called degrees. For rough directions, go ahead and use North or NorthWest. But, for finding your way or locating destinations in the wild, use degrees as you'll see in a bit.


Two Types of Compasses

We will be discussing the mountaineering compass, also called the orienteering compass. This is the type that has a needle that always points north and you need to move a dial to find directions.
orienteering compass
You've seen compasses in cars or toy compasses - neither of these have a noticable needle and are called "Card Compasses". Actually, there is a magnetic piece like a needle, but it has a paper disk (card) glued to it or has a plastic ball around it that is free to rotate. As the vehicle turns, the card (or ball) remains fixed so the part you see changes. These are fine for general directions, but not helpful for what we want to do.
compass point


Basic Compass Reading

No matter the compass, one end of the needle always points North. On our mountaineering compasses, it is almost always the RED end, but its a good idea to test your compass before starting to use it.
If you are north of the equator, stand facing the sun around lunchtime. Whichever end of the needle points towards the sun is South and the end that points at you is North.
If you're 'down under' the North end points towards the sun and the South end points at you.

To read your compass,


Take a Bearing

By simply moving your compass with your body and using the N-E-S-W markings, you can get a good idea which way you are going. This is often all you need from your compass. But, you've probably noticed on your compass, there are also numbers and tiny lines. These represent the 360 degrees in a circle that surrounds you no matter where you are.

degrees on a compass

When you need to find your way from one particular place to another, you need to use these numbers to find out the bearing to that remote place. The direction you are going is called your heading. Heading and Bearing are pretty much the same thing. The image above is a heading of about 250 degrees.

Using your compass, take a few bearings. Move your body until the direction-of-travel arrow points at the following items and then turn the dial until "RED is in the Shed". Then, read the bearing at the Index Pointer:


Compass Reading Tips

Next: Different Compass Units

Radio conversation between two ships passing in the night...
Voice 1: "We can see your lights and you are on a collision course with our vessel. Please divert your course 15 degrees to the North to avoid a collision."
Voice 2: "I can see your lights too and recommend you divert your course 15 degrees to the South to avoid a collision."
Voice 1: "This is the captain of a US Navy ship. I say again, divert YOUR course."
Voice 2: "No, I say again, you divert YOUR course."
Voice 1: "I am in the U.S.S. Wolverine, the largest battleship on this ocean. I DEMAND that you change your course one-five degrees North!"
Voice 2: "I am in the Point Amour lighthouse. Your call, sir."

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