What’s the most important function of your compass?

Navigation using map and compassWhat’s the most important function of your compass? To tell you where North, South, East And West are or to take accurate bearings and set a course using a bearing?

It’s a great question that was raised by a comment from Nick (not me, another one!) on this post from ages ago about choosing a compass :

To learn navigation people always worry about bearings first. This is usually the wrong way round. The most important thing is a compass that reliably points North (Silva and Suunto are well respected) and the ability to ‘set’ a map correctly and use the features.
So when I advise people on compasses I normally say just get one that points north and has no mirrors or other confusing features.

And Nick’s spot on.

Taking bearings can be essential to double check your position, to travel in a featureless landscape or to travel towards a specific feature.

However, the meat and potatoes of navigation with the compass is to ensure you are oriented in the landscape – you know which way is North and which is South and you use it to set the map accordingly.

If I’m travelling and using the map often to check my position and/or the route I love these little watch strap compasses. They’re not much use for anything other than telling where the cardinal points are but they’re ideal for keeping a check on your orientation with little fuss.

Recta watch strap compass




Nick Gallop

Nick has spent years studying bushcraft and wilderness skills both formally and less formally. He's passionate about wilderness travel by traditional means and employing traditional skills to conquer modern problems.


  1. Nikki Calhoun says:

    Thanks for pointing out that beginners should use a simple compass. The first compass I ever bought was very grand. Unfortunately, it took me a year to realize that you were meant to use the mirror when dialing in declination. This confusion resulted in all of my bearings being wrong by double the declination.

  2. I’m glad I learned how to use a compas when I was in the miltary. Still have that compas,too. The one with the eyepiece and slit and thread in the lid.
    But I find myself using the old, basic compas most. No distracting tidbits.

  3. Agreed with starting out with something simple, you really don’t need anything more. Some of those “fancy” ones are mighty complicated to figure out.

  4. Other than direction, a compass provides hope as well. If you’re lost that can be important. Of course, if you study land navigation then you’re not likely to get lost. People should become comfortable without electronics and your recommendation for a basic compass is spot on.

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