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How to read a compass

Close up shot of clear plastic compass in a child's hand with bright multicoloured sleeve just visible
Using a compass at Anglesey Abbey, Cambridgeshire | © National Trust Images/Britainonview/David Levenson

Many people use their mobile phones and satnavs to get around, but it’s also good to know how a compass works, just in case you're somewhere remote with no signal or if your battery's low. Plus, it’s more fun. Here are our top tips on how to read a compass, taken from our book, Go Wild in the Woods, by Goldie Hawk and Rachel Saunders.

Useful things to know

There are a few important things you should know about how a compass works before using one in the wild.

There are four main points on your compass: north, south, east and west. Around the whole compass, there are little measurements, called degrees.

The most important part on the compass is the magnetic needle. It swings around the compass as you move, but the red end will always point in the direction of north and the white (or sometimes black) end will always point in the direction of south. There's also an arrow on the housing, known as the ‘orientation arrow’, and an arrow on the baseplate called the ‘direction of travel arrow’.

Two teenage girls sitting on a hill with rucksacks, one reading a map and the other looking at a compass
Walkers on Pen y Fan, Wales | © National Trust Images/Paul Harris

How to follow a compass

If you want to walk in an exact direction, you can ‘follow a bearing’. To follow a bearing, all you need to do is:

  1. Place the compass flat on your palm, with the direction of travel arrow pointing towards where you want to go.
  2. Twist your compass dial so that the orienting arrow lines up with the red end of the magnetic needle.
  3. The direction of travel arrow should line up with your ‘bearing’ (this is the angle you want to walk in) – now you can begin your walk by following this arrow.
  4. If you’re worried that you’re going off track, line up your orienting arrow with the needle. Whenever you do this your direction of travel arrow will point to where you want to go (remember to keep your compass dial in the same position, though).
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