How to Calculate Compass Headings


Compasses haven't changed much for centuries. The navigation device still are useful for outdoors enthusiasts making their ways through the woods or outback. Therefore, it can be very useful to learn how to calculate compass headings, even today.

Things You'll Need

  • Map or chart
  • Silva or other compass

Compass Basics

  • Learn the basic parts of a Silva or other brand of compass used to plot courses and take headings. Note the magnetic needle which is the foundation of how the compass works because the needle always points to the magnetic north pole of Earth.

  • Locate the 360 degrees of graduations around the perimeter of the needle-bearing housing.

  • Observe and operate the movable direction indicator on which the compass rotates.

Setting the Course

  • Lay out a map (or chart if in a marine situation) of the area you are in.

  • Use the compass to determine which way is north.

  • Orient the map or chart so the top (north) of the map is pointing due north.

  • Find your location on the map.

  • Position the compass directly over your position on the map.

  • Hold the needle housing of the compass to keep the compass needle pointing due north.

  • Rotate the movable direction indicator until it's pointing toward your destination.

  • Look at the graduation markings on the perimeter of the compass housing and the index mark on the direction indicator. This shows the compass heading you will need to maintain to travel to the destination.

Tips & Warnings

  • The magnetic pole of Earth is not centered directly under the true north pole of Earth so compass readings aren't perfectly accurate. However, in most places the difference, called deviation, is minor, so using true north and magnetic north interchangeably doesn't result in great errors. Maps of areas with a significant deviation usually indicate the deviation in degrees and using that information, you can calculate the actual heading you need to travel based on the heading you determine with the compass

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  • Photo Credit compass on a map 3 image by Sergey Mostovoy from
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