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Using a compass

Land Navigation using a compass

Wilderness Land Navigation 

Hikers, hunters and other outdoor enthusiasts routinely get lost even though they have a compass and map in their packs.

They get lost because they think they know the trail because they have been over it before, but just a few yards off the trail is unknown territory.

Once lost people assume that if they do not know which way to go then a map and compass is of no use, this is wrong of course.

The map and compass in their pack is there because the survival manuals they scanned before leaving said to always have a map and compass.

Herein lays the problem there is a difference between having the right tools and materials and knowing how to use them properly.

The Compass

The Lensatic Compass is probably one of the best wilderness tools to own and by most accounts the easiest to understand and use.

navigation compass lensatic
navigation compass lensatic

Note where true north is on the compass face, south for example is 180 degrees south so if your destination is 180 degrees south you sight along the compass. Walk along the imaginary 180 degrees line to stay on course and you will find that you have to adjust your direction of travel.

You cannot walk in a straight line without visual references such as prominent landmarks in the distance, or by using the sun or by following the degree lines on your compass. If you simply set out walking, you can walk for five miles and end up just a few hundred yards away from where you started.

This is why people who do become lost just a few miles from camp or their home cannot manage to find their way back. Lost hikers can literally walk for days and never get anywhere.

  •  You must be able to focus on an object and walk toward it to maintain a straight course.


The needle always points to magnetic north, which is not true north on your map so you have to align the two if you have a destination plotted on the map. Lay the compass on the map and turn the map until north lines up with north on the compass needle. If you know, your current position on the map then draw a straight line using a protractor from your destination back to your current location.

Line the compass up along the line, mark where the line falls on the degree lines, and make note of the degrees, it may be 270 degrees west for example. Now all you have to do is raise the compass and maintain a course of 270 degrees this is the visual aid needed. You now can walk too your destination without having to see it to maintain course. You may lose sight of it because of terrain and so forth but you can raise the compass and align yourself with the 270 degrees.

navigation lensatic compass

If you do not know where you are the map then you must determine your position before you can plot a course to your destination. Look around you and find at least three prominent landmarks that are in the same general direction.

map navigation using a lensatic compass

*Finding your current location using a topographical map is called triangulation.  

Once you have identified the landmarks on your map use your compass to determine the bearing from the landmark to you by lining up the compass, mark the degrees and draw a line from the landmark along the degree line back from the landmark and do this with the other two and where the lines intersect is your present location.

Having a protractor makes it much easier to plot a course on your map. Make sure however the needle on the compass is pointed in the direction of travel, as you draw the lines otherwise you will be walking in the complete opposite direction.

Lost Without a Compass or Map

Everyone knows the suns rises in the east and sets in the west. Once again, if you cannot walk in a straight line you cannot make your back to civilization. Some believe that if you can manage to walk in a straight line for enough miles you will come upon civilization. This is not something you count on though. In theory because of population density walking in a straight line or relatively straight line for 30 miles would bring you to somewhere, but that does not mean civilization.

Use the sun to maintain course, so if you know you are along the west coast of the United States then walking west will bring you to the coast eventually. However, hundreds of miles back from the coast are built up so you would encounter civilization long before you reached the ocean. The same would apply for the east coast and if in the Midwest part of the country you should know on which side of the Mississippi river you are so you can travel toward it if you know which way is west or east by using the sun.

Place the sun on one shoulder and keep it there to maintain course. You can also focus on a prominent landmark, walk to it, and then do the same again with another landmark. Use the sun to stay moving east or west. Once you know east or west, you know north is on your left if facing east and of course south is on your right. Note a landmark in the direction of travel before it gets dark so when it is daylight again you know your directions if the sun is obscured because of heavy cloud cover.

Walk down stream to find civilization. Most settlements and cities began around major waterways and most of the towns and cities are still there today. The river or stream may not run in a straight line but you can cut across areas to avoid having to follow every twist and turn as long as you can keep the river on either your right or left side.

Finally – owning a compass is an essential part of your kit when venturing out into the wild. The U.S. Military LENSATIC Compass is about the best and most tested navigation compass used by the U.S. Military –  learning map navigation is a wilderness survival skill that can literally save your life and get you out of danger and safely home.