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Set a bearing with a magnetic compass

A bearing, or sighting, on a compass determines the direction to an object, and/or helps a hiker identify his position in the backcountry. 

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By Blake Miller

Taking a bearing or sighting with a compass is an important skill that can determine direction to an object or

help the hiker locate and identify his position in the backcountry.  A compass is an important part of the backcountry navigator’s kit.  The knowledge of  how to use a compass is still important; do not underestimate this skill.

Sighting with a compass allows the hiker to determine the direction to an object such as a mountain peak or lake.  The compass direction to an object is known as the “bearing” or azimuth.   Bearing is the more common term in outdoor recreation and is a term used heavily in GPS navigation.  For example, if a mountain peak is due north of you, the bearing to the peak is 000° (spoken as zero zero zero degrees.)

Taking a bearing with a compass allows the hiker to do several things.

First, sighting on a distant object can provide direction to that object and repeated sightings can provide course corrections along the way.  Secondly, with several sightings on different objects a person’s position can be triangulated.  (Triangulation will be the topic of a later post.)

This post will focus on using a standard baseplate compass such as the example pictured below.  (The lensatic and military compass will not be discussed.)

This compass is adjusted for declination. (Pantenburg photo)

Figure 1: This compass is adjusted for declination. (Pantenburg photo)

Figure 1: An example of a good baseplate compass.

Key features  include:

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Declination adjustable – I don’t recommend a compass that can’t be adjusted for declination.  The packaging will state “declination adjustable.”  Some cheap compass packaging states that the compass has declination scales; this is not the same thing.

Liquid filled housing to dampen the magnetic needle

2° increments on the bearing dial of the compass housing.

A clear baseplate of adequate size with map scale information and a small magnifier.

The picture below offers a quick review of the components of a baseplate compass.

baseplate compassTo sight or take a bearing do the following:

1. Using the owner’s manual, adjust the compass for declination.

2. While holding the compass at waist level, turn squarely toward a distant object.

Hold the compass so that the direction of travel arrow points directly at the
object. (Point the direction of travel arrow away from you; perpendicular to your body.)

3. While holding the compass, turn the compass housing (the dial) and align the orienting arrow (engraved in the rotating housing) underneath the red magnetic needle.

The bearing data is found where the direction of travel arrow intersects the compass housing. At this point the hiker can walk towards the object (e.g., a mountain peak, a building, etc.) on a bearing.

While heading out on the new bearing, consider walking to an object that is in-line with the destination.  For example, perhaps there is a distinctive tree or rock out cropping half way between the hiker and the destination.  Simply verify the bearing to the object and walk directly towards it and place the compass in a pocket.  Homing in on an intermediate object prevents fixation on the compass and keeps the navigation simple.

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Consider using multiple intermediate bearings in route. Remember, a quality topographic map should always be taken in the field with the compass.

Blake Miller has made a career out of staying found and knowing where he is at all times. His formal navigation training began when he joined the U.S. Navy in 1973. He served as an officer aboard several Navy ships over his twenty-year career; many of those tours included the duty of Navigator. Blake began working with satellite navigation systems at sea in 1976, culminating with the then-new Global Positioning Systems aboard the Battleship WISCONSIN in early 1990.

In 1998 Blake started Outdoor Quest, a business dedicated to backcountry navigation and wilderness survival. Blake has taught classes to wild land firefighters, state agency staffs, Search and Rescue team members, hunters, hikers, skiers, fishermen and equestrians. He regularly teaches classes through the Community Education programs at Central Oregon (Bend) and Chemeketa (Salem, OR) Community Colleges.

As a volunteer, Blake teaches navigation and survival classes, to students in the local school district and conservation groups. He is a member of a Search and Rescue team.

Contact Information :


Phone: 541 280 0573;



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