Why Accurate Compass Readings Are Essential to Staying “on trail”

Kieran James Cunningham
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Why Accurate Compass Readings Are Essential to Staying “on trail”

Want to Improve Your Navigational Skills?

You’re in the right place! In this guide, we will be covering the following:

    • Why Getting an Accurate Compass Reading is so Important
    • Five of the main causes of inaccurate readings
    • Solutions and fixes for each

Let’s start with a little math…

When navigating with your compass, just a slightly inaccurate reading could have fairly severe consequences.

With just 1 degree of compass error, over a mile, you’ll end up about 92 feet away from your destination. This means that over a distance of ten miles you’ll end up 920 feet from your target. Up that margin of error to 4 degrees—which is easily done—and walking on your errant bearing would land you almost 400 feet wide of your target over a distance of a single mile.

Scary, right?

Even scarier if you happen to be navigating in a whiteout in sketchy terrain…

Below, we offer a short guide to help you avoid wayward wandering with a list of the five most common causes of errant compass readings and along with five tips on how to fix them.

Five Causes of Inaccurate Compass Readings

1. An inaccurate compass

The Problem:

Not all compasses are created equal. In fact, the difference between more basic models and top-end units is just about as vast as those between any other outdoor gear items, whether it be boots, backpacks, GPS devices, or clothing.

Further Reading: If you are need of a higher quality compass, then check out our guide to find out which model is the best backpacking compass.

The most significant difference between compasses of differing quality lies in the potential for cross-range error when plotting lines of bearing.

Every compass has small bearing tick marks that are spaced at varying increments, usually ranging from 1° up to as much 5°. As you might imagine, the smaller the increments, the more accurate readings you’ll be able to take. Standard baseplate hiking compasses typically have increments of 2 or 3 degrees—a level of vagueness not conducive to precise navigation.

Best hiking compass featimage

The Fix:

When buying your next compass, make sure its bearing marks are spaced in increments of no more than 2°, which is perfectly adequate for general hiking. If you’re an all-weather warrior and anticipate hiking in testy terrain in low visibility, then a model with 1° increments is the way to go.

2. Magnetic interference

The Problem:

Several magnetic forces can cause your compass to give an inaccurate bearing. The most common culprits are car speakers, smartphones, magnets on cellphone cases, avalanche beacons, GPS devices, cameras, car keys, ice axes, and even under-wired bras.

The Fix

Keep your compass well away from magnets and metal objects at all times and hold the unit away from your body when using it. After taking a reading, cross-check features in the terrain with those on your map to ensure your compass bearing is correct.

If the polarity in your compass is reversed, you can fix the problem with a strong magnet by stroking the magnet outwards along the ‘north’ end of the needle to reset its magnetization.

3. Failing to adjust for magnetic declination

The Problem:

Magnetic declination refers to the variation in angle between magnetic north (that given by the magnetized needle and which points in the direction of north in the Earth’s magnetic field lines) and true north (the direction of the geographic North Pole).

Magnetic declination varies depending on your location and must be adjusted for, per the declination in your area, every time you take a bearing.

The Fix:

Buy a compass with a mechanism that allows you to adjust for magnetic declination or be prepared—and remind yourself!—to adjust or account for magnetic declination every time you take a bearing.

4. 180° out

The Problem:

A surprisingly common compass mistake is to align the wrong end of the compass needle, thus giving a reading that’s out to the tune of 180 degrees.

While this may seem like a Darwin-award-worthy error to make, in the heat of battle (a storm, for instance), you’d be far from the first to do so.

The Fix:

Take your time when taking readings and do a sense check of the reading by comparing the features in the nearby terrain with those on your map. Also, of course, bear in mind that the colored end of the compass needle is the magnetized end which points towards north.

5. Baseplate vagueness

The Problem:

Standard baseplate compasses are the type most commonly used by hikers and backpackers. Compared to the lensatic or prismatic compasses used by the military, baseplate models lack precision because they have no sighting system and are held at waist level when sighting an object in the terrain.

The Fix:

If you don’t want to go full-on prismatic or lensatic, choose a mirrored sighting compass. The mirrored black box component of these compasses has a small notch that allows the compass to sight on a distant feature far more precisely than when the compass is held at waist level.

Kieran James Cunningham

Kieran James Cunningham is a climber, mountaineer, and author who divides his time between the Italian Alps, the US, and his native Scotland.

He has climbed a handful of 6000ers in the Himalayas, 4000ers in the Alps, 14ers in the US, and loves nothing more than a good long-distance wander in the wilderness. He climbs when he should be writing, writes when he should be sleeping, has fun always.

Kieran has taught mountaineering, ice climbing, and single-pitch and multi-pitch rock climbing in a variety of contexts over the years and has led trekking and mountaineering expeditions in the Alps, Rockies, and UK. He is currently working towards qualifying as a Mountaineering and Climbing Instructor and International Mountain Leader.

Kieran’s book Climbing the Walls—an exploration of the mental health benefits of climbing, mountaineering, and the great outdoors—is scheduled for release by Simon & Schuster in April 2021.

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