How to read a compass

Girls holding a map and compass atop a hill

Modern technology means you can usually find your way using a Global Positioning System (GPS). But it’s essential to know how a compass works, just in case you are in a remote place with no signal or your battery is 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 is also an arrow on the housing known as the ‘orientation arrow’ and an arrow on the baseplate called the ‘direction of travel arrow’.

Twist your compass dial so that the orienting arrow lines up with the red end of the magnetic needle
Illustration showing the different parts of a compass
Twist your compass dial so that the orienting arrow lines up with the red end of the magnetic needle

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).
Children building a den from twigs and branches Hudswell Woods

Go wild in the woods 

How could a stick save your life? What bugs are the best to eat? How do you make a shelter without a tent? Our book 'Go Wild in the Woods' tells you everything you need to know to have a fun, safe trip in the woods.