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





  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. says

    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. says

    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.

  4. Jeff Kent says

    I like the wrist compasses as well but many of them are shit quality. Most of them take a while to settle. They are decent for basic direction for sure. The mirrors on compasses serve many purposes. I can stare at my ugly mug when doing personal hygiene. They can serve as a signaling device but most importantly they allow you to set a bearing (azimuth in military vernacular) and sight an object in the distance that you will walk to. The mirror would be at a 45 or so degree angle to the baseplate so you can see your bearing is lined up. This is good for dead reckoning. The mirror can also be used when you are sighting to some distance objects or terrain features and it allow you to look down and record the bearing. Once you know that, you can calculate a back azimuth for establishing your unknown location. All compasses serve a purpose. It just depends on how good you are at terrain association with a map and being able to compare the 2D map to your 3D surroundings.

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