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Whether you’re exploring the backcountry or just planning a short day hike, a compass is one of those must have essentials that you should always bring with you. Unlike your phone or GPS device, a compass and a map won’t die on you, which make it one of the most reliable navigational tools that you can buy.

Using the compass – how to use it correctly?

Now that every better smartphone works GPS-compatible and there is hardly an outdoor watch without a compass, the question naturally arises whether the bussole in the backpack has not been a relic from days past. We clearly mean: no! – and are happy to recall the most important steps of the Bussole. First of all: A compass is actually all models that indicate the north direction in some way. So-called bearing compasses (also called bussoles) are used for orientation questions.

Pointing the way – your DF compass

Our earth has a magnetic field that condenses towards the poles. A free-swinging, magnetic compass needle is therefore aligned towards the poles. The magnetic poles (magnetic north) are not immediately identical to the point of penetration of the earth’s axis (geographical north).
Compass for mountain sports

This horizontal deviation is called declination and can be corrected with adjusting screws on some models. The magnetic field naturally has a spatial effect, which means that there is also a vertical deviation of the needle (inclination). This deviation is usually corrected by the type. There is also a deviation of the needle from the north direction of the map (grid north – this results from the projection used to produce the map) and is titled with needle deviation, the deviation from geographic north to grid north is called meridian convergence, but this is not intended for us very busy. More important are the frequent application errors such as tilting the needle by holding it at an angle or working near metallic sources of interference (devitation).

How do you use a compass?

Explains in detail how to use a compass:

  1. North card
    Anyone who is no longer able to classify the card according to natural conditions (see AlIMountain 5 | 2012) should use a bussole. To do this, the compass box is set to 0 ° (north) and placed directly on the edge of the map. Now we turn the map (on a horizontal surface) until the north needle has leveled off at its “parking lot”, the north marking of the compass box. Finished. Bussole, map and our view are now facing north.
  2. Determine the direction of march
    We want to use a protractor or plan pointer to determine the direction of travel. This is created at the starting point or our location with the west-east band parallel to a location signature. Now you can target the target with the cord and read the direction of travel in degrees. Remember: the longer the distance to the target, the less precise. It is therefore better to aim for shorter stages. Of course you can also determine the direction of travel with the Bussole. A ruler and a pencil are helpful for this. If the bussole is placed with the edge towards the target point, the compass box is rotated until the lines running west-east within the compass box are parallel to the map font. The direction of travel can then be read on the visor.
  3. Transfer direction to nature
    The reading direction is now set on the compass box and you turn the compass on the stand until the compass needle again matches the north marking. So you have transferred your direction of march into nature. In the case of very poor visibility and a terrain that gives few clues (e.g. glaciers), it is necessary to keep the direction with extensive instruction from a partner.
  4. Determine location
    In the dark or missing clues, almost nothing works without GPS, so it is important to determine your own location early enough if you are not sure (you know where you are!). For this purpose, a known point in the field is sighted and the north marking of the compass box leveled off with the compass needle. Now you can see the direction to the known destination.

The easiest way is to create the plan pointer on the target point and “look back” by 180 °. Technically correct, this step is called “cutting backwards”. Your own location is somewhere on this line. If you know your altitude (line level) or if you are on a stream, path or other line signature on the map, you will get your position by cutting the line with the signature. If you have a second target to aim at (ideally this is at right angles to the first target), you repeat this “cut backwards” and get the (intersection) point where you are.

How do I orientate myself in the field?

7 points on how to orientate yourself in the field:

The usual approach requires reasonably good visibility, a hiking map (possibly a topographic map, definitely a map with contour lines) and a compass for safety. From the start you follow the route on the map with. In this way, you always know exactly where you are (as exactly as the map gives). A location check should be carried out several times a day, in any case at points that open up alternative pathways.

  1. You hold the map in front of you so that the entire visible area is visible on the map.
  2. You north the map: The top of the map faces north. You determine north in the landscape with the compass or with the help of the sun (and a clock). Then you hold the card in front of you (or place it on the ground) with the top edge of the card facing north.
  3. Now you are looking for distinctive points in the terrain such as valleys, rivers, mountains, lakes, even towns or streets.
  4. Select at least four or five such striking points in different directions.
  5. Now target the different landmarks on the map using the location you suspected. You have to find all the selected brands on the map.
  6. If you notice a slight deviation in the direction of one or the other selected landmark, correct the location on the map accordingly.
  7. Repeat steps 6 and 7 until you are sure of your current location.

Important tip! Many make the following mistake: the compass needle points east, so I have to point east, right? No. Not correct! To find my direction, I need to turn the compass wheel until the north mark and alignment arrow line up with the north end of the needle. Then I can read the heading that is at the point (end of the directional arrow)

What options are there for orientation? How can you orientate yourself outdoors?

North determination
The determination of the north direction is the most important basis for the orientation with maps. You can use the compass to help you or use celestial objects as a guide.
North on the map

North is usually marked on the top of the map or by a north arrow. Unfortunately, north is not exactly where your compass needle points. The reason for this is the difference between the geographic and magnetic north poles. This difference is called refusal (see excursus “Refusal worldwide”). If you are using a topographical map, you will find the refusal for the map sheet on the edge. If you work with a special hiking map or maps from a trekking book that do not contain this information, you should inform yourself beforehand.
North determination with clock and sun

– A simple and in many cases sufficient method of north determination is based on the position of the sun and an analog clock.
– Align the hour hand with the sun, take the smaller angle between the hand and the twelve and cut it in half. It is exactly in this direction that south is and north is automatically opposite. With this method you have to consider:
– If in the area where you are trekking, the clock was set one hour ahead of summer time, you have to turn the clock back (at least mentally) by one hour.
– The exact time of a time zone is only correct on its main longitude. 15 ° length always corresponds to one hour. Depending on how far you are from this main longitude, the local time must be corrected accordingly, west of it, east of it. A longitude corresponds to four minutes.
– At midday in the southern hemisphere, the sun is in the north. Therefore, north and south must be interchanged when determining.
– In the tropics between the tropics, the method is not suitable because the sun hardly moves north or south on its way. That is why it always stands here in the morning in the east and in the afternoon in the west.
– If you have a digital clock, paint the hands accordingly.

Permanent location determination

– Those who have followed their path on the map from the start can shorten the simple orientation in the terrain:
– Orient the map at two or three terrain points.
– Check yourself north with a quick glance at the sun.
– Check whether the topography of your area coincides with the assumed location on the map.
– Repeat this process many times a day.
– If there are any doubts, do a detailed assessment.

FAQ – Questions and answers about the compass

How do I know which arrow to see on white or red?
The Red. Sometimes the red (magnetic) needle contains a small “N” letter that means North.

Why does compass point north?
Our magnetic field is oriented from south to north. Compasses always point to the magnetic north pole.

Which arrow should I follow?
The arrow that moves by itself during the movement. He is the one who points to the magnetic north.

How do I know which direction the wind is coming from?
Turn so that the wind blows in your face. Use your compass to find out where you are looking. That is the direction from which the wind is blowing.

My compass has a red arrow pointing north, but there is a bubble in the compass. What should I do with it?
Center the bubble in a circle. This shows you that the compass is horizontal to move exactly.

Does it matter where I stand when checking a magnetic compass?
As long as there is no metal near you, it doesn’t matter where you stand.

How do I find the GPS coordinates of my location if I have found my position using an object on the map?
A sufficiently detailed map – such as a topographical USGS map – will have longitude and latitude markings. The markings are usually on the edge of the map. You have to use a straight edge from the position on the map and perpendicular to the longitude scale to read the longitude. The same applies to latitude.

When do I need a compass?
Compasses are most useful when you’re out in the wild.

What is “pitch and roll” written in the left corner of a compass?
Tilt and rotation generally relate to the orientation of a vehicle (airplane, boat, or vehicle) with respect to the horizontal – and are usually not taken into account when running on land.

What do the different arrows on a compass mean?
The different arrows on the base of the compass indicate different directions, e.g. North, Northeast, South, Southwest, West, East and so on. The large red arrow on the base points north. is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to also participates in affiliate programs with Clickbank, CJ, ShareASale, and other sites. is compensated for referring traffic and business to these companies.