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How to Find North with a Compass and Take a Pee without Getting Lost

A compass is a remarkably lightweight and reliable navigation tool.
A compass is a remarkably lightweight and reliable navigation tool.

A magnetic compass is designed to show you which way is north. Knowing that, you can figure out the other cardinal directions: east, west, and south. If you always know where north is, you can also walk in one direction and backtrack later to the point where you started. Why is that useful?

Let’s say you step off a well-marked trail and walk into the forest to pee. Afterwards, you can use a compass to backtrack to the trail if you’ve forgotten which direction it is. This is easy if you know how to find north.

While this may sound like a trivial example, hikers have died because they couldn’t find their way back to the trail after stepping off it to pee. I know of one hiker who died this way. It’s especially tragic because they were carrying a compass but didn’t know how to use it.

I’d encourage you to take the next 5 minutes to learn this skill if you don’t already know how to do it.

This example doesn’t require a map, topographic map reading skills, or understanding declination. It just explains how to use a compass:

  • to find north
  • to find the other cardinal directions: south, east, and west
  • how to walk in a straight line, relative to north
  • how to backtrack along the straight line

These are the basic building blocks of using a compass. They’re easy to learn and the foundation of all land navigation.

The Magnetic Needle

A hiking compass, like the one below, has a magnetic needle which spins around inside a dial. Most of the time, the north end of the needle is colored red or sometimes yellow.

The north end of the magnetic needle is colored red on most compasses
Figure 1: The north end of the magnetic needle is colored red on most compasses

To Find North

To find north, pick up the compass and hold it level with the dial is on top. The red end of the magnetic needle will point north. Ignore all the other markings on the compass except the direction that the red half of the needle points to.

Now: turn around slowly and continue to hold the compass level. As you turn around, the needle will spin inside the dial. But the red end will always point in the same direction, north, no matter which way you are facing.

The outline of the arrow found in the dial is called 'the shed."
Figure 2: The outline of the arrow found in the dial is called ‘the shed.”

Put Red in the Shed

There’s an outline of an arrow inside the dial, called “the shed”. Turn the dial with the numbers on the outside , so that the red end of the magnetic needle fits inside the outline. This is called putting “red in the shed.”

Twist the dial, so the the red end of the magnetic needle covered the outline of the red arrow in the dial. This is called putting red in the shed.
Figure 3: Twist the dial, so the red end of the magnetic needle covers the outline of the red arrow in the dial. This is called putting ‘red in the shed.’

This doesn’t change the direction that the red end of the magnetic needle points to when you hold the compass level, it just makes it easier to locate North, South, East, and West on the dial, and the numbers, which are degrees that correspond with them. For example,

  • North is 0 degrees
  • South is at 180 degrees
  • East is at 90 degrees
  • West is at 270 degrees

The hash marks in between the cardinal directions are also measured in degrees.

Point the compass in the direction you plan to walk and out red in the shed. Read the number behind the direction of travel arrow – in this case 282.
Figure 4: Point the compass in the direction you plan to walk and put red in the shed. Read the number behind the direction of travel arrow – in this case 282.

Direction of Travel Arrow

Let says you’ve been hiking along a trail and you need to pee. Turn the compass perpendicular to the trail in the direction you want to walk to take a pee. Holding the compass level in your hand with the dial on top, sight down the direction of travel arrow along the direction you plan to go. Twist the dial of the compass, so red is in the shed, while keeping the direction of travel arrow pointed toward you plan to walk. Read off the number at the bottom of the direction of travel arrow, which is 282 degrees the example above.

Start to walk in the direction of the direction of travel arrow, holdings your compass level and in front of you, keeping red in the shed as you walk. This is called following a bearing. Walk out a ways and do your business.

To backtrack: subtract 180 from the original bearing, turn the dial so that bearing is at the base of the direction of travel arrow, put read in the shed, and walk in that direction.
Figure 5: To backtrack: subtract 180 from the original bearing, turn the dial so that bearing is at the base of the direction of travel arrow, put read in the shed, and walk in that direction.

To Backtrack

Subtract 180 degrees from the bearing you followed previously. Turn the dial, so that the number 102 (282-180) is at the base of the direction of travel arrow. Holding your compass level in front of you, turn so red is in the shed, and start walking in the direction that the travel arrow is pointing. This will return you to the point where you left the trail (or very close: people drift left or right 3 degrees when they follow a compass bearing, although this rarely matters over short distances.)

If the first bearing was less than 180 degrees, you’d subtract 180 from it, and add the resulting negative number to 360 to get the back bearing. For example, if your first bearing was 60 degrees, you’d subtract 180 from it, and then add 360, which would give you your back bearing to the trail.  (60-180)+360=240. Hint: if you don’t like math, trace your finger down to the base of the direction of travel arrow to the other side of the dial – see Figure 4. If the bearing to your pee point is 282, the back bearing back to the trail is 102.

Basic Compass Use

These techniques are the basic building blocks for compass use. They’re so basic, you don’t have to have a map, know the difference between magnetic north or true north, or about magnetic declination to use them. All that comes later and builds on the techniques described here. Being able to find a fixed point of reference, in this case magnetic north, and to follow bearings relative to it is an incredibly powerful tool for hikers: a skill that is easy to learn and can save your skin.

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39 comments

  1. The key is making it a habit to check the compass before you leave the trail. If you wait until you are lost to look at the compass, it doesn’t help.

    • If you know where you are on a map, you can. But that skill builds on this one.

    • I should have had a compass and read a heading when I went to the Ikea store showroom yesterday. It was as bad as a casino – twisting path through various rooms, no windows, no direct sightlines. Well, the casino I went to had mirrors on the walls as well…. (I am not a better, there was a clinical trials group meeting at a Vegas hotel/casino – perhaps the wrong message to send….).

  2. I learned another trick for backtracking when I was a kid. Line up the compass with the white/uncolored (South) part of the needle in the shed… “Backwards to Backtrack” or something like that!

    • “Black is back.” It only really makes sense once you fully understand what’s going on (ie. black is always pointing south). I wanted to keep this explanation to as few moving parts as possible, so I avoided introducing that new concept. I explain the non-math option in the post, which is simpler in some ways, and just builds on the limited number of techniques explained in the article.

  3. This is excellent advice. I had a hiker in one of my groups get lost for 2 hours because she couldn’t backtrack from where she went to attend to business.

    A high quality button compass is something you could keep in your shorts or pants throughout the day.

    • Roleigh, I’m going to have to respectfully disagree. A button compass is virtually worthless (no direction of arrow travel, for example). Get a Suunto A10 (the compass shown – quite good for all basic compass use and my standard for teaching navigation classes)

      Only $21 bucks and it will last a lifetime.

  4. Philip, your Suunto-A-10 compass, it’s a little bigger than what I desire for something kept in the pocket. I understand what you’re recommending. How about this one, it is a little smaller.

    • Much better. Baseplate compass.

    • That’s the one we give the Cub Scouts when we teach them compass skills. Cheap enough that we can cover the cost with Pack funds, but accurate enough to be very useful. We set up a course on our year end camping trip where the cubs are required to navigate around the field/woods using compass directions and landmarks (walk 120 degrees until you arrive at the stone wall) with the goal to end up at a specific place at the end. Most of the kids pick it up quickly and the rest learn from their peers.

  5. Ah, compass and map/chart reading skills. I learned mine off the CT, MA, and RI shore in the pre-GPS plotter days. Nothing like a good New England fog to make you want to figure out how to use a compass and chart, even if we did have a good LORAN position.

    Map skills in the woods can’t be stressed enough, take a course and if you want to do Bushwacking, find out what the compass variation is, what it means to navigation, and how to use it. One of the Eagle Scouts from my son’s troop has finished his 2nd year at West Point and commented on how many Cadets just had no idea how to use a map and compass – when they give you a map, compass, 1 day of food, and resupply cache map position, and tell you to take a 3 day hike, you just want to find that re-supply cache. He commented on the fact that his patrol was one of the few that had food for all three days……….

  6. Thanks for the primer, Philip. Great info!!

    One way to not get lost, especially if you’re way out in the back country, is to just step off the trail a few feet and git’r done. Keep your gear in sight!! Leaving no trace, of course. :)

  7. If math completely intimidates a person, another way to figure the direction of backtrack is to spin the dial until the back of the needle is in the shed, then turn your body until you’ve put red back in the shed and walk that direction.

  8. Here is another small base compass —

  9. Love your blog. Finally found something I can contribute :)

    I taught navigation years in the Military, scuba, and scouts. My experience was that even the simple math you describe is too onerous and will to cause many people to forgoe using a compass… And it’s debatable whether subtracting two a 3 digit numbers is simple (carry the one, subtract, remember to decrement the digit to the left — wait ! What was the digit to the car right again ???).

    My recommendation is to teach “put red in the shed” and “black is back” first – and only to teach the 180 reciprocal math as a precursor to triangular and square search grids, or to people with one of those (horrible) compasses without the south-side half of the arrow.

    After teaching 100’s of students to navigate, I found that using the reciprocal math caused people to be waaay off course about 20-30 percent of the time.

    Red the shed, black is back —- resulted in new student success 100% of the time :).

  10. Been there and didn’t have a compass. Found my way to the latrine on top of Mount Philips at Philmont. It was evening in a forest of tall pine trees all the same age (size). The clouds had hit the mountaintop so the visibility wasn’t great. I made it back to the trail, but it wasn’t obvious.

    I did have a whistle, so I wouldn’t have been out all night.

    • I camped with the grandkids on a very foggy forested mountain top one night and got up to go my requisite 200 feet away to find a lonely tree. Everything looked the same in the mist and I had a very difficult time finding my way back. Took me about 30 minutes. I was afraid I was going to spend the night out there and then I saw a faint glow in the distance where the grandkids, afraid of furry woodland creatures, had hung a nightlight. I hadn’t thought of yelling to get them up and get their attention but my lone remaining neuron might have considered that after freezing for a while. I never thought of using a compass. I was more concerned with the trowel.

  11. Number of people taking compass readings before taking a pee BEFORE reading this article: 0.

    Number of people taking compass readings before taking a pee AFTER reading this article: 0.

    • Maybe. But 4500 people read this post today. I’ll be happy if 1 learned how to find north.

      • Usually don’t go that far off the track, rest of the group are usually all female and don’t go far away from the one off the track, but I founf your explanation very good and easy to follow, can I please copy?

      • It’s copyrighted material, so no. You can hyperlink to it though.

      • I didn’t learn this stuff just today, but after twice starting out the wrong way on a trail because I didn’t realize GPS systems don’t really work well at all under the trees, I learned how to use a compass. And after reading about Inchworm, I started noting the heading whenever I left the trail.

      • Ill definitely be reading it now

    • Phil, you found your one person. I know basic compas-map skills and this is good information. Unless you have a birdseye view of the trail, everything looks the same especially if you don’t like that tree. I like the reply of “red ahead black back”. Math was never my strong point in school.

  12. OK, thanks

  13. Philip, what about this compass — it has the shed feature. Silva Forecaster

    • Fixed dial, no direction of travel arrow, tiny print.
      I wear cargo pants when hiking, so the standard baseplate compass is easy enough to carry, and I don’t have to squint at it to see it. Also – many baseplate compasses have luminescent paint arrow north tip, shed, ring, etc making use at dusk easier. Weight difference from keychain number is about half an ounce.

  14. When you can when using a compass, get your bearing and find an object in the distance in that direction. It could be a tree or a rock, any distinguisable object will do. Then walk toward that object rather than watching the compass. When you reach that object, use the compasss to find your next object. This way, if you have to divert to get around an obstruction, continuing toward your target object will keep you on the right track.

    One word of caution, don’t depend on a compass made by the Tates Compass Company. They are of very poor quality, and most accomplished hikers know that he who has a Tates is lost.

  15. Thank you for posting. I am learning compass basics because I have left the trail momentarily and become disoriented on trying to get back. Simple guidance, thanks.

  16. I have been deluding myself with my good sense of direction.I have never lost my bearings.I am getting a compass tomorrow.Great post Thanx

  17. Good advice Phil. An old aviators trick to find reciprocal headings is to add 200 to your outbound heading, then subtract 20. Or if the heading is 200 or more, subtract 200, then add 20. OK, now everyone is confused. Say your heading is 100 degrees. 100+200=300-20=280. Another example, 260 degrees. 260-200=60+20=80. A heading between 180 and 200 takes a bit of interpolation. Say, 190+200=390-20=370. Well, no such thing as 370, but common sense says it’s 10 more than 360, so 10 degrees it is.
    I will admit, a baseplate compass is best to learn on. But once you got this fuzzy math down, a little keychain compass hanging off the pack strap is all you need. It will save 1/2 an ounce. On the other strap I hang a wind up analog watch. It saves the battery weight of a digital watch. 1/16 of an ounce. It’s a sickness.

  18. Map and compass is an essential required skill for wilderness travel, rain snow of mist can so easily get you into difficulties. I find a GPS only a minor aid to navigation giving reliable distance traveled.
    A standard basic of map and compass navigation is “AIM OFF”. This is to insert a deliberate error into your map bearing, The chosen destination on the map may be a stream junction totally out of sight at a distance of up to a mile. you know that the terrain will be difficult to keep a straight line of travel so you put in a chosen course of 2 degrees to left or right. When you reach water you will know that turning in the opposite direction to that chosen and following the water will bring you to the junction. Now you know precisely where you are!

  19. A couple of years ago a youngster left a school camp site in New Zealand bush to see the other side of the tree! He was less than a minute away from the group. SAR searched for a week and never found him. His remains were eventually found 3 month layer miles away by another tramper. “LEARN NAVIGATION” It will save your life.

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