How to Read a Compass

When you are taking a hike, it is good to know where you are headed. Even if you are just walking, biking, or traveling by car, a compass can be an invaluable tool when there aren’t any signs or maps around. When you aren’t sure which way you need to go, a compass can point you in the right direction.

What is a Compass and How Does it Work?

A compass is usually a round device with a rotating magnetic needle. The outside of the device is marked with the four cardinal directions (North, South, East, and West). The needle is usually a very light piece of metal that spins freely around the center point of the compass.

The reason a compass works is that the entire earth is covered by a huge magnetic field. Even though the magnetic field is huge (the size of the entire earth), it is also very weak. The needle must be very light and as frictionless as possible or the magnetic field will not be strong enough to orient it north.

How to Read a Compass

When you look at a compass, you’ll notice that one of the tips is pointed red. This is the side of the needle which will always point north. You’ll also notice that there is usually an arrow on one side of the compass. This represents your direction of travel.  

To read the compass, hold it in front of you, at about chest level. You should try to hold it as steady as possible. Make sure that the direction of travel arrow is pointing directly out from your chest.

You’ll notice that the needle will spin a bit, and then it will settle into place. The direction that the red tip is pointing is north. To find out the direction YOU are facing, you need to turn the dial of the compass until north is aligned with the red needle. Once you have done that, you should be able to read the direction you are facing.

For example, if the red needle is pointing directly to your right, then you would turn the dial until north is on your right, and you would see that you are facing west. With practice, you’ll develop an intuitive feel for which direction you are facing based on the orientation of the needle. However, it is a good habit to actually turn the dial if you are a newbie so that you don’t erroneously head in the wrong direction.

Hopefully now you have an idea of how to use your compass. If you just remember that red points to the north, you’ll be fine.