How to use a compass without a map

How to Use a Compass Without a Map?

(Last Updated: February 20, 2020)

Although no one wants to get lost while on a trip in the wilderness, not everyone is lucky enough. At times, things may not go as planned. In this article, we are going to find out how you can use a compass without a map and still get back home safe and sound. On your trip, your GPS may stop working or maybe you are the kind of guy who doesn’t like to use electronic gadgets on his trip. Regardless of your situation, given below are some tips that can help you find your way using a compass only.

How to use a compass?

Here is an interesting fact: an African desert and walks several hundred meters in different directions, picks up his desired food and walks back to its nest without any trouble. She doesn’t get lost despite the fact that she has no map or electronic equipment to help her find its way back.

Have you ever wondered why these tiny creatures don’t get lost? It’s amazing, isn’t it? Actually, there is a built-in compass in the eyes of these ants. Plus, they have an in-built odometer as well that they use to measure distance. While we don’t have these abilities, we have other tools at our disposal. Also, we can count, unlike ants.

Whenever people go out in the wilderness, they use a GPS device for location tracking. But if don’t want to or can’t use this device, you can opt for a compass instead. In fact, a compass is an important piece of survival gear. An easy way to get back home without getting lost is to use a map but you may not have one during your trip. Therefore, you need to learn how to use a compass for your trip whether it is planned or unplanned.

Although compass navigation is one of the most important skills, not many of us have this skill. That’s the reason people get lost. Once you are lost, you may find it really hard to get back on the right track unless you get access to a map or use a compass.

We will discuss the compass navigation skills but we need to find out why we get lost in the first place.

Why people get lost?

There are many reasons people get lost in the wild. The number one reason is that most of us don’t have navigation skills anymore. During ancient times, humans knew how to navigate the landscape without any special tools. They know that getting lost was a matter of life and death. Therefore, they used the sun and stars to navigate, which is almost as useful as a compass.

Your brain has different sections and one of them is the hippocampus, which has mental – mapping abilities. If you use this ability, you can turn it into a skill. But if you don’t use it, you will eventually lose it.

For instance, cab drivers in London have to drive on the complex streets of the capital of England without using a map. Therefore, researchers found that they have a more developed hippocampus than the drivers in other cities. However, even with these abilities, your skills can’t be as strong as those of the African ants.

You might be thinking about why we are not getting straight to the point. You will know in a bit. You may have read the stories of people who got lost in the woods and ended up back where they started after hours of walk. This is a common phenomenon. Typically, this happens because we tend to walk in the direction of our dominant hand. So, we end up getting back to the same spot where we started our journey in the wild.

This is where a compass comes to your rescue!

Without further ado, let’s find out how to use a compass without a map. But first, we need to know a little bit about magnetic declination.

Magnetic declination

Once you have a compass in your hand, you need to find out the magnetic declination for that particular area.

Although this information is valuable when you have a map on you, it can help you immensely when you are trying to find your way back to a certain landmark or road that runs the length of the area that you are currently in. In this case, you can use declination to guide yourself back to the location.

Types of compasses

Nowadays, you can buy different types of compass but there are two most common types: the Lensatic Compass and Baseplate Compass.

Baseplate compass

This type of compass features a clear base plate. These devices are a great choice for use with a map. However, their performance depends upon their quality. In this case, high-end devices work better but you can manage with a basic one as well. Most of the base plates feature 2 ̊  increments on the dials.

Lensatic compass

This type features no baseplate but offers articulating pieces, such as a cover that safeguards the floating dial. The majority of lensatic compasses feature 120 clicks with each click representing 3 ̊. If you have this compass, you need to use the sighting lens to read the dial rather than look down at the floating dial.

Navigating with only a compass

History tells us that Christopher Columbus navigated using only a compass during his exploration. Basically, the idea is that you need to remember the direction you have headed in. Plus, you need to keep track of how much distance you have covered. When you want to get back, you piece together your journey and figure out the distance and direction to your starting point.

When setting out, you can use either pacing and timing or both if you want. It’s better to use pacing instead of the time when you are on uneven terrain. The reason is that your pace may vary based on the terrain. Therefore, your timing will also be different. In case of an even terrain, for instance, timing can be a lot easier and you won’t need to pay a lot of attention.

How does pacing work?

It’s simple to figure out how pacing works. Let’s take an example. You go 310 ̊ for 600 paces and then 215 ̊ for 300 paces. Now, if you need to figure out the direction you should take to reach your first spot, all you need to do is figure out the distance and direction by mapping this out on the ground. If your foot length refers to 100 paces, you can put some sticks in the direction of  312 ̊ for 6 feet lengths.

Next, you need to measure out the sticks for 6 feet lengths at 115˚. You can use your compass, decide on the direction you should choose and measure out the distance with your foot lengths to get places. Once the direction and distance are clarified, you may opt for a little bit different direction and then head back to the initial point. This way you can at least have a better idea of the direction of your initial point even if your calculations are a little bit out.

For instance, if you leave your car on a dirt track and mark this location as your starting point and know that you have to walk 850 paces at 28 ̊ to get back to your vehicle, you may want to walk for 850 paces at 18 ̊. Once you reach the road, you know that you must turn right to get back to your vehicle. If you walk at 28 ̊, come out on the track and don’t see your vehicle, you won’t have any idea where you should go to look for it. If you navigate your return a little bit incorrectly on purpose, you can mitigate this risk.

If you want to give this a go and learn to navigate this way, you can choose an easy terrain and keep a backup technology like a GPS. After trying it a few times, you can feel confident enough to try something more challenging. After mastering this skill, know that you will have tons of fun. This skill will help you in different circumstances. Your friends will be impressed by you.

Ways to back on track with only a compass

Now, if you get lost without navigation and have no idea of your location, you need to try a different technique. Maybe the track you were driving on has come to an end, or maybe your tire blows up while driving off-road and your phone battery is almost dead.

In this case, you need to decide where you are going to walk to. If there is a stream or river, you can use it to take a start. But if there is nothing like that, you can recall an image or map of the area you are in, and think of the possible location of the nearby roads or rivers.

3 Rules to find North using your compass

Your next move is to use your compass. At this point, you already know how this thing works. If you don’t know yet, you can follow a couple of simple rules that are given below:

  1. If your compass has only one needle, know that the needle points in the direction of the magnetic north.
  2. If it has a double-ended needle with one red end, know that the red end is pointing towards the magnetic north.
  3. If neither of the needles is red, you can orient yourself by looking at the sun to find out which one is pointing towards the magnetic north. We know that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. Working out the location of the north will be easier for you unless it’s the middle of the day. In the morning, if you are facing north, the sun will be on your right. But it should be on your left in the evening.  

If you know that the main road runs along the, say, southwest of the area you are in, you can head in the same direction. Next, you should consider the magnetic declination of your vicinity. If you have no idea of it, it won’t matter much as you are going to go towards a certain location. However, it’s better if you know that.

  • In Florida, for instance, if you are deviated by only – 4 ̊, you don’t need to worry.
  • In Sydney, the minor difference won’t matter either but if you are deviated by + 12 ̊, you need to be careful.

Therefore, if you want to go towards the southwest, you might want to stand up and see if the needle points north over your right side. In Sydney, the compass needle should point a bit closer to the neck instead of your shoulder so you can make up for the declination.

Head in this direction and keep checking your compass from time to time to make sure you do not deviate from the track. If you keep your hopes high, you will reach your destination whether you are on foot or driving a car.

There is no doubt that a compass is a handy device. It’s still important even in the presence of modern gizmos and gadgets. You may have heard of stories of individuals dying or disappearing a few hundred meters away from a road or track.

So, if you like to go on adventures, you might want to learn to use a compass and keep it with you whenever you head out on a trip. Modern devices may run out of power but your compass won’t be disloyal to you no matter what.


If you are the outdoor type, we suggest that you learn to use a compass and keep one in your pocket whenever you head out. Modern-day gadgets offer better functionality but may not be reliable for many reasons. If they run out of battery, you can get in trouble. By following the advice given in this article, you can find your way back using a compass even if you don’t have a map on you

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