How to use a compass

If you didn’t go to Scouts or Guides as a child, you may not be familiar with how to read a compass, which could get you into trouble in the wilderness.

There are some traps for young players when using a compass for the first time. So if you’re heading on a hike into the great outdoors and relying on a compass for directions, you might want to practice before you depart.

Cardinal points

A compass has four cardinal points: North, South, East, and West. When reading a compass, and telling other people directions, never use “right” and “left” as these are relative directions and differ depending on your location and direction. The cardinal points are constant and are key to the language you need to use.

The direction halfway between North and East is an intercardinal point and is called NorthEast. The other three intercardinal points are SouthEast, SouthWest, and NorthWest.

There are also secondary intercardinal points halfway between each cardinal point and intercardinal point. These are North-NorthEast, East-NorthEast, East-SouthEast, South-SouthEast, etc. Using these terms you can give clear instructions to others about the direction they need to head.


No matter the compass, one end of the needle always points North. On the majority of compasses it is almost always the RED end, but it’s worth testing your compass before starting to rely on it.

If you stand facing the sun around noon, with your compass resting in your hand in front of you, whichever end of the needle points towards the sun is North and the end that points at you is South. Check CompassDude for the features of your compass.

When using your compass, make sure you don’t have any metal objects close by, such as a watch, mobile phone, belt buckle, bracelets, necklaces and the like. These can distort the reading and you’ll head off track in no time.

Reading your compass

Hold your compass steadily in your hand just in front of your chest. Ensure the baseplate is level and the direction-of-travel arrow is pointing straight away from you. Then simply look down at the compass and see where the needle points.

Turn your body while keeping the compass in front of you and you’ll notice as the compass rotates, the needle stays pointing the same direction. Keep turning until the needle overlays the direction-of-travel arrow. North is now directly in front of you and you can confidently head in the direction you desire.

If you find yourself in need of directions but without a compass, here are some tips to find your way.