A Good Compass For Map Reading And Navigation

Looking for a good map reading compass? A good compass (and map) will enable you to navigate without the high tech of GPS.

Map reading and navigation by map in this modern day-and-age of GPS is apparently seldom used by hikers, hunters, campers, etc.. who instead rely on GPS trackers. The problem with that is a GPS tracker relies on the functionality of its ‘high-tech’, and it requires functional batteries and satellite reception. It could become ‘a brick’ during bad weather, with dead batteries, or if it simply ‘breaks’.

The alternative? (and backup method)

A Good Map Reading Compass

A good compass (and a topo map of the area) will enable navigation in the wilderness.

The job of a good compass is to get your bearings, orient the direction of a map, identify terrain features (e.g. topographical map) relative to your location, triangulate and pinpoint your location, set a course, and more…

Knowing how to navigate with a map and a compass will be an important skill for any such time when GPS may not be available. I always keep a good compass (and appropriate maps) in my vehicle and/or 72-hour kit (also kept in the vehicle) for ‘just in case’.

A compass uses a magnetized floating needle that aligns with the earth’s magnetic field, and they are often filled with a fluid to help steady the needle.

There are LOTS of inexpensive basic compasses (better than nothing!), however it’s very much worth it to buy a more advanced compass which includes more features. These include a declination adjustment (for ‘true’ north), a sighting mirror and/or a magnifier to improve accuracy while map-reading, a ruler, map scales, rotating bezel ring, luminescent indicators, clinometer (vertical angle), and there are even those with a special ‘global’ needle.

There are a wide variety of good compasses.

Silva Ranger Compass

To give you an idea, here is an example of a good map reading compass, The Silva Ranger:
Silva Ranger 2.0 Compass
(view on amzn)

Suunto Compass

Another good compass is this Suunto Compass:
Suunto Compass
(view on amzn)

The following instructions are excerpted from REI.com. Useful basic explanations on how to use a compass for map reading and navigation:

Transferring Compass Bearings (Map to Compass)

1. Identify your position and your objective on the map. Connecting those two points creates a line on the map (which you can either visualize or physically draw on the map).

2. Align the edge of your compass with that line.

3. Rotate the bezel so its orienting lines run parallel with the map’s orienting lines (which point to true north). This means the actual bearing have been captured at the front of the compass.

4. Take the compass and turn your body until the magnetic needle lines up with the orienting arrow on the compass. At point, you will be facing the direction that will lead to your chosen objective.

You can rearrange the process and use a compass to take a bearing off a real-world object (one that is known to be on your map) and transfer that information to the map to identify your location even if you are uncertain of your whereabouts in the field. A companion video illustrates these steps:

Transferring Compass Bearings (Compass to Map)

1. Hold the compass level and aim the front of it at an object.

2. Rotate the bezel until the magnetic needle is aligned with the orienting arrow of the compass.

3. Locate the object on the map and place the edge of the compass on that object.

4. With the edge still tight against the object, and without touching the dial, turn the entire compass until the orienting lines within the bezel line up with the orienting lines on the map.

5. The edge of the compass forms a line on the map, and you now know you are somewhere along that line.


Triangulation is a technique that involves a map, a compass and 2 separate landmarks. It can pinpoint your position on your map even if you have no idea where you are.

1. Pick 2 distant landmarks that you can easily identify on your map. They should be at least 60° apart.

2. Take a bearing off of each object.

3. Transfer those bearing to your map.

4. Each bearing will form a line. Where the lines cross marks your location.

Magnetic Declination

The magnetized needle of a compass points toward magnetic north (abbreviated MN), but topo maps are oriented toward true north (or polar north, sometimes represented by a star symbol). Depending where you are located, the difference could be substantial —10°, 15°, 20° or more. This difference is called declination.

1. Find your map’s magnetic declination diagram, usually in the margin’s lower-right corner.

2. Our goal is to align the compass with true north, using the needle which points to magnetic north.

3. The magnetized needle must then be adjusted to the degree indicated by your map’s magnetic declination diagram. Use the index (degree) lines on the edge of the bezel.

4. The compass must then be adjusted to account for the declination. Find the declination degree on your compass bezel. You may wish to mark this point with tape or a marker. If you have an adjustable compass, you can move the orienting arrow here.

5. As you navigate, ensure that your needle is not pointed at true north, but to magnetic north, the declination degree.


  1. I know how to use a compass because of my time in the military. What I need is a good source for maps. Anybody have a source they can recommend.

    1. When I got out of the Army I got a job with the Forest Service. They had all kinds of maps that people could get. I’m not sure if they still offer them but it would be worth checking out.

    2. @ E52rgr75
      I get my maps from 3 different sources, 1) from the BLM – The Bureau of Land Management, 2) I have a source of Maps from the “Oil Patch”, now those boys know their maps/roads, and 3) AAA, yes seriously, free is always good.

      Also Goggle Map and Goggle Earth are a great way to get very detailed printouts.


    3. I get my maps from two sources….USGS and also Division of Wildlife! They have great maps that show the “political” regions!

      I taught all of my children to read maps from a very young age….You would be surprised how many people do NOT know how to properly read a map. My kids thank me regularly!

  2. Usgs and nationalmap.gov could also be helpful. I’d love to get some military ones for around the area that I live.

    1. Yeah, but then I’d have to print em and tape em together to make it big enough and then laminate them and then get my wife to help me fix it all. I think I’ll just try to find one to buy. XD

  3. I noticed when I looked thru the Rand atlas that the updated versions would sometimes not have some of the old farm roads, railroad tracks and secondary roads. Probably due to new roads being built to replace them. It doesn’t mean that they are gone just not being used as much. It might be worth a look locally if you have to bug out from a city job or location.
    When I did some work in Texas GPS in that location was completely unreliable.

  4. Don’t forget the oldest ways of sun east and west to determine north, the stars and moss on trees. Just in case you have no equipment. Nice compass!!! I had recently had a failure of a GPS event and it was off by nearly 5 miles. Interestingly enough my wife used Google maps and it was the same. Did the earth shift position?

    1. @ Thor
      “and moss on trees”, wellll maybe not so much, Last time I visited my Mom, in Portland….. short story, the “moss” grows all the way around the trees in “fungus corner”. :-) No wonder I’m walking in circles, hehehehe

      1. I thought the saying was “moss always grows on the out side of trees.”

  5. I am absolutely horrible at reading a map and following directions
    I have NO sense of direction and I mean NONE
    I am TOTALLY dependent on my TomTom
    I keep an extra one on hand in case the first should fail

    if I’m on a trip and they both quit working
    I’ll just drive until I run out of gas !

  6. Tips to land navigation. Shoot your azimuth as far as you can. Alternate which side of obstacle you go around them on. Use key terrain features. Use two known positions go triangulate yours. Know your pace count. Learn the difference between grid north and magnetic north.

    Tactical navigation: don’t use roads. You can “handrail” them but you want to be 100m in. Don’t walk on top of hills or ridge lines. Avoid game trails. Don’t break brush, ease it out of your way then put it back. Go slow, stop often to scan surroundings.

  7. My advice is you get off your ass and explore your immediate area. Case in point… I recently found a deep well hand pump close to my house near a church. Exploring woods and creeks has shown me potential attack points. Get off the computer. Step away from the TV. Plant the garden. Work the ground. Hunt the land, and know your terrain.

    1. And use Google Earth–I’m in Kentucky. I have found lots of huge ponds and one mini-lake (guy owns a nursery near me) in our area.

      These are not visible with a drive by, heck, the mini-lake was just behind the barn/store/nursery I visit monthly!!! I never knew till I used Google Earth and then I searched and found it next visit.

  8. Great article, great feedback.

    I’d like to add something that may really assist novices in using a compass and ‘old school’ navigation. Metes and bounds.

    Before GPS, before millimeter-accurate surveys; even, the USGS and accurate topographic maps, people often used the ‘metes and bounds’ system of property definition and land navigation. Simply put, it uses what we all do anyway – using a reference point known by most and natural features that over the current time period are more or less fixed.

    Like any good description given to someone to tell them how to get to your house – the question “from where?” needs to be answered first. I’ll joke and say that Einstein had it right, “everything is relative to the observer”. Once you know where you are, you look around and see what points in the area of scrutiny you know are what they are. Gives you a ‘benchmark’ for all motion leading away from the start point.

    Using natural features, you then navigate according to observable objects…. “.. go up the creekbed a piece ’til you get to the old oak with the 3-way split up its trunk…. then turn south towards the knobby bald rock you can see ’bout 1/4 mile away” type of thing.

    Distances can be measured in paces or other parameters more or less common to any walker/hiker. Time estimates “it’s about 10 minutes more or less to git to that rock cuz you have to cross the muddy crick … and to do so, you’ll have to go downstream a bit to the ford…. once across take a look back upstream and off south by southwest for that bald rock agin…. you’ll find it right easy if you just look for where the ash trees start up”.

    I’m writing this because as a good former Eagle Scout, people need to be very aware that if the grid goes down, as time passes and things get overgrown, buildings collapse…. we need all to be confident with far less accuracy in one sense; and more so, due to our own lack of fear of being lost. You’re never lost. You’re right where you are. Now…. just look around for those ash trees and that big ol’ bald rock.

  9. Check out Mytopo.com. You can customize your map on line with grid lines to the scale of protractor your using. Once your satisfied you place an order and they ship very fast. Maps are coated to protect them from the elements

  10. Good article! It made me go check my possibles bag where I keep my old Suunto brand surveyer’s compass. It is still intact with a red lanyard where I have a can opener/spoon attached to it. It does not get used as much these days as I live in an area of hills and trees and I hike on marked trails these days.

    I used a compass quite a bit in my younger years when I blazed trails and went cross country off the trails. I had a small liquid filled compass and it did the job. I chose to upgrade to a good surveyer’s compass after navigating through thick ground fog for most of a days hike. The small compass got me there but I upgraded because i did not want to trust my wellbeing to a bargain-basement compass. I also use a compass when paddling across long stretches of open water in foggy conditions. I shoot the azimuth during clear weather from one point to another. I dare say that the good quality compass was money well spent on my peace-of-mind and delivering me from point a to point b when I was cold, hungry and tired.

  11. Recent update regarding obtaining maps from the USGS: They no longer keep rooms full of paper maps. They have been and can print up just about any grid coordinate you may need upon demand as most of the maps are now on computer. Call first and request a map grid. This is what sister Fed agencies do when we are going out to fight fire in distant regions away from home base.
    I am normally not a big fan of computers however, in the area of mapping and obtaining maps of given areas, computers, use of photos from space and modern printers have made land navigation much more precise and easier for the user these days.
    I pass on my thanks to the USGS office in Menlo Park, CA many years ago for being there to help me when I worked for a sister Fed agency in the 1980’s. Good maps and my Suunto Forester compass brought me home through storms and ground fog many times.

  12. – I have an old Cammenga military lensatic compass. Old enough the tritium has failed, and the scale it is marked in on the outside edge is out of date. Given to me by a supply sergeant who didn’t want to do the paperwork to turn just one item in. Still accurate, tough, and no mirror, LOL.

    – Papa S.

    1. – It does still light up after you shine a light on it, though. Thought I should make that clear.
      – Papa

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