Why Every Adventurer Should Carry a Compass and Map

how to use and read a compass

Whether it’s a day hike in the backcountry or a survive-the-apocalypse hideout in the woods, there are a few basic tools that every outdoorsman should carry. A whistle for communication, chlorine or iodine tablets for water purification, a firestarter… for fire, and a compass and map for orientation. The first three items are small, lightweight, and can live in your pack without much forethought. The compass and map, however, require some background. The following guide will serve to do two things: 1) explain how these tools work and 2) convince you to add them to your gear list.

We consider a compass and map to be two parts of the same tool. A good map provides the lay of the land while a compass works to orient an individual within that map. For example, although a map can show that a certain river is south of a major peak, it does not clearly depict where one is in relation to those landmarks. A proper map is oriented towards true north and a trusty compass can line a person up with true north, thus providing direction within the map. From there, an adventurer can pinpoint visual landmarks to place their location and plan a route.

compass and map

In order to highlight the usefulness of a compass and map, we’ll share a story about the Monopoly board game. First and foremost, Monopoly is a fantastic board game — anyone who says differently should go straight to jail without passing go nor collecting $200. Secondly, and more interestingly, the Monopoly board game was used by the Allies during World War II to smuggle in maps, compasses, files, and foreign money to Prisoners of War to aid in their escape. As detailed in this Snopes article:

“[M]en carved out precise depressions in the unfinished game boards and, before applying their labels, filled them with low-profile compasses, files, and maps that depicted escape routes from the prison camp where each game was to be sent. (The maps were printed on silk because silk did not rustle when opened…) Hidden among the games’ play money was real currency — German, Italian, or Austrian. It is not known how many airmen escaped thanks to these Monopoly games.”

If a map and compass could help soldiers escape enemy territory, they could definitely help a lost adventurer find a way home. So what are the parts of a compass?

  • Direction of Travel Arrow – Non-moving arrow in the compass baseplate.
  • Azimuth Ring – rotating bezel with 360 degrees markings.
  • Magnitized Needle – a colored needle that points towards magnetic north.
  • Orienting Lines – a set of parallel lines that rotate with the bezel, use these to line up with north – south lines on map.
  • Orientating Arrow – Orients the bezel and compass baseplate to determine where true north lies in relation to magnetic north (not the same thing)!
how to read a compass

Now to use our tools to find a way home.

  1. Prime your compass by adjusting the declination. Since magnetic and true north are not the same and magnetic north changes over time, a compass needs to be adjusted dependent on the location of use. From the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), “Magnetic declination is the angle between true north and the horizontal trace of the local magnetic field.” To find the declination value for your trip area, visit NOAA’s Magnetic Field Calculator. Depending on the compass, there are various ways to adjust for declination.
  2. Take out your map, line up the straight edge of your compass along the left or right side of the map ensuring that the direction of travel arrow on the compass is pointing toward the top of the map.
  3. Rotate the azimuth ring so that N (north) is lined up with the direction of travel arrow.
  4. Hold your compass and map flat in front of you and rotate your body to align the magnetic needle with the outline of the orienting arrow.
  5. In this position, the individual is now facing true north and can start to survey the landscape to deduce where exactly they are — think of high peaks, water features, elevation profiles, or anything that can be considered a landmark. Once oriented, an escape plan can be made.
SUUNTO Compass

Although this sounds to be an easy enough task, it’s actually a difficult skill to master. Any adventurer should practice these skills in familiar terrain before heading out into the wild. Perhaps a cautionary tale can best drive this point home.  From Wilderness Survival Stories, a 16 year old boy named Clifford was once lost in Eastern Oregon. After hunting on his own, he recounts:

“When I again got to a point where the ridge sloped down I began to feel the psychological effects of being lost, mostly frustration and some fear. I remember going back and forth from one side to the other searching for the trail and being so sure of myself and my direction that I actually discounted and didn’t believe my compass when it told me I was going East. As the afternoon turned into evening I divided to try going back to where we started that morning. By this time I had accepted the fact that I was lost and retrieved a roll of ribbon that I carried in my daypack and began marking my trail. I searched till sunset for our starting point or anything that looked familiar, then divided to find a place to prepare to spend a night. I cut boughs from a fir tree to make a bed that would keep me off the ground and hopefully insulate me from the cold. I placed my bed along a down log of about 3 feet diameter then gathered enough wood for the night and build a fire in front to reflect heat on me. It was a cold miserable night. Without the fire I’m sure hypothermia would have been a real threat. At 6000 feet elevation I imagine the temperature got down in the low 40’s. The next morning my dad picked up my trail of ribbon and followed it until he found me. It turned out I had walked out onto a finger of the main ridge and should have realized it if I would have simply trusted my compass instead of my feelings.”

Before you plan your next backcountry trip, consider purchasing a good quality compass and local map to add to your pack. We like the brand Suunto and their M-3 Compass, but there are many quality options out there. If you choose not to add these life-saving tools to your kit, it could be a better idea to just stay home and play some Monopoly. Dibs on the race car piece.