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How to Use a Compass Without a Map (and Still Get Home for Dinner)

Posted in: Outdoor Tips, Survival Gear

So while getting lost probably isn't in your trip plans, things can happen. In this post, you'll learn how to use a compass without a map. Your GPS might konk out – or maybe you're a purist and want to explore without electronics. Whatever your situation, this post will help.

How to use a compass without a map

How to Use a Compass (Without a Map)

The African desert ant can walk in meandering directions for 200,000 lengths of its own body, pick up a piece of food, and navigate its way back to its nest with no trouble whatsoever.

What makes this ant so good at navigation? And how can we get that good? The African desert ant has a built-in sun compass in its eye, and an odometer to measure distance. Although we don’t have these things built-in, we have an equivalent tool available to us, and the ability to count!

If you are out in the wilderness without a GPS device, a compass is a vital piece of survival gear. You may also want to have a little walk in the wilderness and ensure that you get back to your car to get home for dinner, but you don’t have a map, only a compass. We'll talk about both circumstances: unplanned and planned, and how you can use your trusty compass effectively.

Compass navigation is an incredibly important skill that (with our reliance on modern day technology) less and less of us are able to do. People still find themselves getting lost, and once you are lost it can be difficult to navigate your way out without a map and a knowledge of how to use a compass.

We'll talk about compass skills soon, but first let's talk a bit about why we get lost.

Why We Get Lost

There are lots of reasons why we get lost. The basic reason is that we have lost many of our way-finding skills, the ancient ways we used to navigate the landscape. Indigenous cultures knew that wayfinding was often a matter of life and death, and used the stars and sun to navigate, which is as, if not more effective than a compass.

The human brain does possess mental-mapping abilities, located in the hippocampus, and this has been found to be a “use-it-or-lose-it” skill.

For example, London cab drivers were found to have larger and more developed hippocampi than other people due to their need to navigate the complex streets of England’s capital (without maps – as was a requirement of the job). But even with these abilities, we will never hold the same level of skills as other animals such as the African desert ant.

Why do we walk in circles? I’m sure you have heard the stories of people in the woods, walking for hours, and ending up back where they started? Well, this is a surprisingly common phenomenon! It happens because we tend to favor a side, usually the side of our dominant hand, and we will walk with a slight favour in that direction. Over time this means that we can complete huge circles without even realising it unless we can correctly orient ourselves.

This is where a compass comes in!

How to read a compass without a map

Now let's get down to the nuts and bolts of how to use a compass without a map. First we'll look at magnetic declination.

Magnetic Declination

Before you start working with a compass, it's important to know the magnetic declination for the area.

This is the difference between magnetic north on your compass, and true north.

Depending on where you are in the world, this could be negative (ie. your compass shows north as west of true north) or positive (ie. your compass shows north as east of true north).

For example, in Sydney, Australia, the magnetic declination at time of writing is +12˚, meaning the compass shows north as 12˚ east of true north. Everglades City in Florida, however, is -5˚, meaning the compass shows north as 5˚ west of true north. This guide will help you find the magnetic declination for your location.

Does magnetic declination change over time? Yes, it will change over time, albeit slowly. It could be as little as 2-2.5 degrees over 100 years, depending on the distance of the location from the magnetic pole. For a location close to the pole, the declination could change by as much as 1 degree over just three years.

It's important to know the current declination of your location.

Even though this is a more valuable piece of information when using a map, it is important to know when you are, for example, trying to find your way back to a road or landmark that runs the length of an area you are in, and you know in which direction to head to travel to it. In this circumstance, declination will be useful to orient yourself back.

Here's a video showing how to use your compass without a map.

Two Types of Compasses

There are a number of different types of compass on the market but the two main types you will come across are the Baseplate Compass and the Lensatic Compass.

  1. Baseplate compass: These compasses often have a clear base plate which makes them ideal for use with a map. The quality of their navigation will vary depending on how expensive they are, but you should be fine with even a basic one to navigate. Most base plates provide 2˚ increments on their dials.
  2. Lensatic compass: These compasses do not have a clear baseplate and have articulating pieces including a cover that protects the floating dial. Most lensatic compasses have 120 clicks, and each click represents 3˚. Instead of looking down directly at the floating dial, you use the sighting lens on the compass to read the dial.

How to use a compass

Navigating a Walk With Only a Compass

This is often known as “mapless dead reckoning” and is what Christopher Columbus did when he set out on an exploration.

The basic idea is that you keep track of the direction that you have gone in, and how long or how far you have gone, and then when you wish to return, you plot your journey back by piecing together your journey and determine the direction and the distance to return to where you started.

You can choose to use timing or pacing, or both, when setting out. I personally prefer pacing rather than time especially if you are in uneven terrain, for the simple reason that you are going to go at different paces depending on the terrain and so the timing may vary considerably. However, if it is even terrain timing can be easier and requires less concentration on your part (for example if you’re with a group and chatting as you go).

How Pacing Works

For example, if you go 312˚ for 1200 paces (or in meters if you work out how long your paces are), then 215˚ for 600 paces, and you want to work out what direction you take to get back to your start point, you can easily map this out on the ground in front of you to work out the distance and direction. If you use your foot length to represent 100 paces, place some twigs out in the direction of 312˚ for 12 foot lengths.

Once you have done this, then measure out twigs for six foot lengths at 115˚. Then, using your compass, determine the direction you must head to get back to the starting point, and measure out the distance in paces using your foot lengths. Once you have clarified direction and distance, it is worth using a slightly different direction and then walking back to your starting point so that at least you know the direction your starting point should be in case our calculations are slightly out.

For example, if I have left my car on a dirt track as a starting point, and determine that I must walk at 28˚ 850 paces to return to my car, I might choose to walk at 18˚ for 850 paces and then when I reach the road I know that I have to turn right to navigate back to my car. If I were to walk at 28˚ and then came out on the road and could not see my car, I would have no idea which way to head to find it. Purposefully navigating your return slightly incorrectly can mitigate this risk.

If you are wanting to try this and learn to orient yourself in this way, I would suggest you start with easy terrain and having back up technology. Do this a few times and only once you feel confident with the technique should you try something a bit more challenging. Once you have mastered this skill, you will find it incredibly rewarding, and surprisingly useful in many different circumstances! You can be sure that your friends will also be very impressed.

More reading: 12 Must Have Survival Gear Items for Hikers

Getting “Un-lost” With Only a Compass (No Map)

So, if you’re not purposefully going out without navigation, and you may not know exactly or even roughly where you are, it is a whole different kettle of fish. You may have been walking and suddenly the track you thought you were following has come to a complete stop, or you may have been driving off road and your tire blew and your phone battery is dying.

The first thing you need to do, is determine where you are going to walk to. If you have any juice in your GPS, it may not show you much but if there is a road or a river/stream then this is a start. If you don’t have anything like that, try to recall any map or image of the area you may have in your head, and determine any roads and/or rivers and where they may be located.

3 Rules to Compasses: Finding North

Next you should refer to your compass. Hopefully, you know how your compass works and what it means. If not, there are a few regular rules to compasses.

  1. If there is one needle, this is pointing towards magnetic north.
  2. If there is a double ended needle, and one end is red, the red end is magnetic north.
  3. If neither are red, try to work out which is pointing to magnetic north by orienting yourself using the sun. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west, so you should be able to work out where north is unless it is the middle of the day. If it is morning, the sun should be on your right if you are facing north, and if it is the evening, it should be to your left.

Be careful of magnetized metal: Just a small note that compasses will orient themselves to magnetized metal that is close by, so do ensure that when you are orienting yourself you are not sitting on or near metal that may affect the compass.

If you know from memory that there is a main road that runs along the south west edge of the area you are in, then you can walk in that direction. Now is a good time to take into consideration the magnetic declination in your local area. If you don’t know, it hopefully shouldn’t matter too much, as we are not heading to a specific location, but it is worth being aware of.

  • In somewhere like Florida, with only a -4˚ deviation, it shouldn’t matter.
  • In Sydney, Australia, it is also unlikely to make a difference but with a +12˚ deviation it is probably worth taking this into consideration.

So, if you are wanting to head in a south westerly direction, you should stand so that the needle is pointing north over your right shoulder. If you’re in Sydney, the needle should be pointing a little closer to your neck than the tip of your shoulder to account for the declination.

Start to walk in this direction and continue to check your compass at regular intervals to ensure you are not deviating from your path. Keep walking, keep the faith, keep your hope up. Before you know it, you should reach your landmark, be it road or river, and you can then follow this to civilisation.

Clearly, the ability to use a compass can be immensely handy, and even in today’s world with all the modern gadgets and gizmos, can still mean the difference between life and death. We are regularly reminded of the risks still present in the wilderness when we see news stories of people disappearing or dying, only hundreds of meters from a track or road.

If you are the outdoor type, I would strongly urge you to become familiar and comfortable with the use of a compass and take one with you whenever you head out. Even with all your modern day technology, you can still run out of battery.

JRR Tolkien wrote, “Not all those who wander are lost.” Now you can make 100% sure you never are by always carrying a trusty compass.

References

How to use a compass with no map

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Your Turn

What technique do you use with a compass? Have a tip or question? Join me in the comments!

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Meet the Author

Bryan Haines

Bryan Haines is co-editor of GudGear - and is working to make it the best resource for outside gear. He is a travel blogger and content marketer. He is also co-founder of ClickLikeThis (GoPro tutorial blog) and Storyteller Media (content marketing for travel brands). Work with Bryan and Dena.

4 comments… add one
  • Battina Feb 24, 2018, 4:09 pm

    Interested in Ecuador and Galapagos

  • Candace Wells Jul 2, 2018, 9:46 am

    Mr. Haines,
    So I have question related yet unrelated to the post. Not sure if you are a survivalist your self or have just researched this topic, but I am writing a book where my main character has settled herself deep in the woods. She uses a compass to mark her true cardinal points and I had made it to where she had pre-marked all the points by creating starting trails in each cardinal direction and ordinal point. Is this realistic or would these directions change due to declination or by moving from your starting point?
    Thank you, I would love some feedback to make my book as realistic as possible.

    -Candace

    • Bryan Haines Jul 5, 2018, 7:26 am

      If I understand your question correctly, your character need only take readings on entry and then follow these in reverse to exit. They can be time or distance (pacing) based readings.

      Declination will only change if she was in a different region or if significant time has passed (many years). Magnetic declination can change as little as 2-2.5 degrees over 100 years, depending on the distance of the location from the magnetic pole. Close to the pole, it can much more, but it will still take years to affect the reading.

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