If you go bird watching in remote or unfamiliar areas, then it is a very useful skill to be able to read a compass. Even if you prefer to use GPS devices, things can sometimes go wrong or your batteries could run out and being able to use an old-fashioned compass to navigate means you won't end up lost.


Modern compasses are simple to use. Before you take one out in the field, familiarise yourself with the different parts and practise finding your bearings. You can find a section of compasses available to buy online here.

Parts of the compass

Before you begin to use your compass take some time to understand its different components and what they do so you can use them to navigate.

Modern compasses will include the following:

Baseplate – the clear plastic plate on which the compass sitsDirection of travel arrow – the arrow on the baseplate that points away from the compassCompass housing – the circular plastic case that contains the magnetized compass needleDegree dial – the dial that surrounds the compass housing which shows the 360 degrees of the circleMagnetic needle – the spinning needle within the compass housingOrienting arrow – the non-magnetic arrow within the compass housingOrienting lines – the lines within the compass housing that run parallel to the orienting arrow

What is the difference between magnetic North and true North?

In order to use your compass correctly it is important that you know the difference between magnetic North and true North.

Magnetic North – the direction the magnetic needle will point to in response to the earth’s magnetic field.

True North – the point at which all longitudinal lines meet on a map at the North Pole.

The difference between True North and Magnetic North cam be as many as 20 degrees in some places which means that if you don’t take account of the magnetic shift when travelling you will soon be off course.

If there is just one degree of difference between True North and Magnetic North then after a mile you would already be 100 feet off track, so you’ll need to find out the declination in your area and take it into account.

How to use your compass

Place your compass on the palm of your hand pointed upwards in front of your chest. This is how you should carry the compass when you are travelling. If you are using a map with your compass, then place the map on a flat surface and place the compass on the map.

To find out which way you are facing take a look at the magnetic needle. It should move off to one side or the other unless you are facing North.

Turn the degree dial until the orienting arrow lines up with the magnetic arrow, pointing them both North. Find the general direction you’re facing by looking at the direction of the travel arrow.

For example, if the direction of the travel arrow is between the N and the W you’re facing Northwest.

To get a more accurate reading look at the degree markers on the degree dial and see where the travel arrow intersects. If it intersects at 15, you’re facing 15 degrees Northwest.

Take off or add local declination by twisting the degree dial the correct number of degrees to the left or the right.

Once you start travelling, check your compass regularly to make sure magnetic needle is lined up with the orienting needle and continue to follow the travel arrow.

To use a map with your compass, place the map on a flat surface and place your compass on the map. Use the edge of the compass as a ruler and move it until it creates a line between your current position and where you want to go.

Turn the degree dial until the orienting arrow points true north on the map. You will also need to compensate for local declination although you’ll turn the dial the opposite way from when you first took your bearings.

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