How to Use a Compass Without a Map and Get Home Safely

If you’re going on a hiking trip without a map or a GPS device, you can still keep track of your movements with just a survival compass and a notebook. This navigation method requires a lot of concentration and a little bit of preexisting knowledge, though.

In this article, I’ll teach you how to use a compass without a map on your hiking and camping trips, getting you home safely.

Track Your Movements with the Pacing Method

Pacing is a pretty simple method of tracking your movements, but it requires a lot of focus, so you need to be careful when you do it.

It works by counting the number of steps you make and keeping track of the bearing at which you’re walking.

Speaking from personal experience, counting steps is an insanely dull activity.

Military reconnaissance teams, which usually consist of three to four members, always have one person counting steps and keeping track of the bearing. This way, they can ensure they don’t get lost.

Keeping track of your steps requires both a notebook and a compass.

For example, let’s say you’ve parked your car at the edge of a forest, and you want to do a little hiking trip. Follow these steps to use the pacing method to track your movements and make your way back:

Step 1: Determine Your Heading

Pull out your compass and determine your heading before you start walking. If the direction you’ll take is due north (0° on the compass), write that down in your notebook and start walking.

Step 2: Count Your Steps

Begin counting your steps as soon as you start walking and do not stop until you stop walking. If you need to talk to someone on the phone or do anything that will draw focus away from counting steps, I suggest you stop walking.

Step 3: Determine Your New Heading and Write Down the Steps

When you reach a turning point (i.e., you’re going to change your bearing), stop, and write down how many steps you’ve taken so far.

The note should look like this:

0°(N) — 2550 steps

Let’s say you’re turning right, for example.

Pull out your compass and point it due north, even if your heading so far wasn’t north — this process is identical for all direction changes. Lock your arms in once you get it and rotate your entire body in the direction you’re about to take.

You’ll notice that your needle is still pointing north, but the dial isn’t showing that. Rotate the dial until the N (north) mark lines up with the needle.

Without moving, take a look at the front of your compass. There’s most likely going to be a line there (you can do it without a line, but it’ll be less accurate). The number on the top of the dial beneath the line is your bearing!

Write that down.

In this example, since I said you’re turning right, let’s say the bearing is 52°, which is northeast.

Step 4: Continue Walking and Count Your Steps

Just like last time, start walking and count each step you take. Keep following these steps every time you change direction. Write down the number of steps you make every time you change direction.

Step 5: Going Back

Let’s say you walked 52° for 4225 steps, and you decide to turn back.

Your notebook should now look like this.

0°(N) — 2550 steps

52° — 4225 steps

The question is, how do you get back?

You get back by walking in the opposite direction. The opposite direction of north is south, and that’s easy to find, but what about the opposite of 52°?

Azimuth is the direction you’re facing. On a compass, it’s expressed in degrees. To find your return azimuth, the formula is simple:

  • If the azimuth is greater than 180°, then subtract 180 — that’s your back azimuth.
  • If the azimuth is smaller than 180°, add 180 — that’s your back azimuth.

In this case, the formula would be 52° + 180°, which is 232°.

Now, determine the heading of 232° using the method described in step 3 and walk in that direction for 4225 steps. You can make a note of this too!

Once you finish that portion of the trip, walk in the opposite direction of 0° (which is 180°, or simply south) for 2550 steps.

You’ve done it! You’re home!

An important thing to note is that this method is never 100% accurate. There are subtle curves and turns we take when we walk in the wild, and they’re imperceptible to our eyes and our natural navigation senses.

However, you’ll remember enough of the track to recognize your surroundings as you walk. Even if you miss by a few hundred steps or by a few degrees when you’re navigating back, you’ll still be heading in the general direction of your desired location.

Using a Compass Without a Map If You’re Lost

Let’s say you’re lost in the wild. Your GPS malfunctioned and you can’t rely on it anymore. You didn’t think that would happen, so you didn’t bring a map with you. You didn’t count your steps and write down directions either.

The only piece of navigation gear you have is a compass. Worst-case scenario, right?

That can be scary, for sure, but it’s not the end of the world. You can still use a compass without a map to get yourself to a safe place, and I’m going to teach you how.

Method 1: Memorize the Map Before the Trip

Experienced hikers and campers are well aware of this rule. Even if you’re bringing a map and a GPS device with you, memorize the surrounding areas before you start your trip.

For example, if you’re planning a hiking trip in a forest, you need to memorize these three things before you set off:

  • Where you will park your vehicle and start your trip
  • Where the closest towns and villages are
  • Where the closest roads are

You’re probably wondering why this matters.

Referring to the scenario explained in the introduction (completely lost with no navigation tools other than your compass), the first thing you’re going to do in that scenario is remember where one of those safe points is and walk in that direction.

How does that work?

Grab a map (virtual or physical and draw a line from the center of the area you’re visiting (in our example, that area is a forest) to those safe points.

Measure the exact angle of the line and the distance between the center of the area to the safe point. Do this for all safe points. You can write down that info in your phone or in a hiking diary, and I highly recommend you do both.

If you get lost, all you have to do is take a look at your data, find the closest safe point, use the compass to find that bearing and start walking in that direction.

Let’s say you park your car in a town on the edge of the forest you’re hiking or camping in, and that the town is on the east side of the forest.

All you have to do is pull out your compass, point it due east, and start walking in that direction. Pull it out every few minutes to make sure you’re on the right track, and keep walking in that direction until you’re out of the woods (both literally and metaphorically).

You most likely won’t get to the exact spot you were planning to (it would take laser precision to do that), but you’ll get to the eastern edge of the forest, and from there, you’ll be able to see the town.

Easy, right?

But what happens if you didn’t memorize the closest safe points and you have no idea where anything is?

Method 2: Locate the Closest Town or Road Without Memorizing the Map

So, you have a compass on you, but you have no idea where you are or where the closest safe point is. This situation can be very dangerous.

If that’s the case, the first thing you should do is find a vantage point. Preferably a hill from which you can see what’s around you.

Once you find a vantage point, look for buildings, cars, or farming fields. If you’re lucky, you’ll see a town or a village.

Pull your compass out, find out the direction of the safe point you identified, and start heading in that direction.

A question a lot of people have is, “What do I do if there are no safe points?”

This is pretty much the worst possible situation to find yourself in — no goal to reach.

In such a scenario, you should locate the nearest forest edge and make your way there. I know that isn’t much to go on, but the smartest thing you can do is get out of the woods.

If you’re lucky, you’ll find a sign of human life out of the woods, like a road or a cabin. If you don’t, follow the forest edge and walk around the forest until you find something.

A Disclaimer About Compass Navigation

As I explained before, navigating in the wilderness without a compass isn’t an exact science. You would need incredible precision to stay on the bearing you initially chose, and that won’t happen.

The route you take will involve subtle turns, taking you off the intended path, and this is why it’s important to pull out your compass every once in a while and reassess your direction.

However, if you’re aiming for a town or a forest edge, it’s difficult to miss. You don’t need to hit a very precise azimuth. For example, if you need to travel at 143° for three miles, you’re going to reach your destination successfully even if you constantly change direction between 135° and 150°.

What’s important is to try to stay on course as much as possible.

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