You may be asking yourself, what is a compass? A compass is a navigation tool that shows direction and location. It is used by people to find out where they are or where they are going, whether that be while on a trip or during a hike. A compass has a suspended magnetic pointer that points to the North Pole polarity. A scale marks the directions relative to where the northern point is. Knowing what a compass is and how to read one will help you navigate from any point to find your way.

What Is a Compass Used For?

Compass on a hand

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Compass Basics

One of the most basic navigation tools is the compass. Many hikers wouldn't dream of hitting the trails without one. It doesn't require batteries and works with or without a map. No matter which way you turn, the arrow will always point to the north. But magnetic north is not pointing to true north (or the North Pole); maps reference true north.


Since magnetic and true north are not the same,
declination is utilized. This is the difference between the two, and it will vary by location. When using a topographic map, you will see two straight lines - one with a star showing true north and the other showing magnetic north. But this is not accurate for all locations or times. Once you know the declination, you will have accurate coordinates.

Traveling by Compass

When traveling using a compass, there are two methods you can use: map and sight.

To use the map method, place the compass and the map on the ground. Mark your position and your destination and draw a straight line between the two. Place the edge of your compass on the line with the arrow in the direction you will be traveling. Twist the azimuth ring (the ring with degree marks) until north shows on the map and the orienting arrow lines up with it. Remove the compass from the map and turn until you see the red magnetic needle and the orienting arrow lined up. That is the correct direction.

To use the sight method, point with the travel arrow on the compass to the direction you are heading from your current position. Rotate the azimuth ring until the red magnetic needle and the orienting arrow line up and are pointing north. Continue on this path so that the needle and the housing are intact. This is the correct direction.

Why Do We Use Compasses?

Compass on top of map

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The compass was invented in China in the second century. It was used to align building and structural elements with the surroundings. In the 11th century, the compass was used for navigation. The first compass from China was made of a bowl of water that had a floating magnetic needle.
Persian astronomer Al-Ashraf used a compass for astronomy in 1282. It was further developed using the magnetic pull of the Earth and a time-keeping mechanism. This calculated the way to Mecca for Islamic prayer. It served as a timekeeper to show the hours of the five daily prayers.


What is a compass used for other than navigation? It can be used for construction and building when marking borders and landmarks. It is used to measure vertical and horizontal lines for maps, and it is also used in the US military and in mining operations to help with underground navigation.

How to Use a Compass to Find Your Bearings

Magnetic compass on top of a map

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Above all other tools a hiker could have, the compass helps a hiker find his or her way through the wilderness. What is a compass used for in the wilderness? You could be in the middle of nowhere and select a destination knowing you can get there with your compass. It's a secure feeling to know this when you are unsure of where you are. One of the most important things to remember is that the needle is always pointing to the magnetic north, and you will need to use declination to find your path.

What Is a Compass Going to Do When You Take a Heading?

What Is a Compass Going to Do When You Take a Bearing?

Casting a Shadow

Checking the Time

Get a Helping Hand from Mother Nature


Person holding a map and a compass

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You may have asked, "what is a compass?" at the start of this article. As you have read, there are many items that can be used as a compass. Such a simple invention has given man a great tool by which to navigate. We hope that you gained some knowledge about this simple tool that will help you in your future travels.

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