The Orienteering Compass

compassmap Map reading is definitely the primary skill required of an orienteer.  Indeed, it is quite possible to complete a basic level orienteering course without the aid of a compass.  However, as soon as navigation gets more complex and you step off a trail, a compass will become a must.

There are many models of compasses available, although they all perform the same basic functions. The purpose of this section is to introduce two common orienteering compasses and their features to help you select the right one for your orienteering adventure. Actual compass skills will be covered in more detail later.


Types of Orienteering Compasses

There are two main styles of orienteering compasses: the baseplate and the thumb compass. If you are just starting out, it is recommended that you choose a simple baseplate compass. They are less expensive and generally easier to use. Some orienteers will continue to use a base plate compass, but most experienced orienteers may eventually switch to using a thumb compass.

Simple Baseplate Compass. A simple base plate will enable you to quickly establish the direction of magnetic north and has a rotating dial for measuring a compass bearing on a map. There are several companies that make some very good quality base plate compasses that can be purchased for a small amount of money.  A small sample of what these compasses look like is located below. 

A baseplate compass with a cover is not recommended for orienteering. Speed is large part of the sport of orienteering and orienteers seldom have the time to pause, bring their compass to eye level and sight a bearing using the sighting line. Also, there is no need to get a compass that requires you to set declination (adjusting north to north on a map) as all orienteering maps are already oriented to magnetic north.  

Thumb Compass.  As the sport of orienteering evolved, another style of compass emerged which took into account a natural tendency for the orienteer to hold the map and compass together in the same hand, while leaving the other hand free to help balance or climb over objects. Also, the tip of the compass near the thumb can be used to easily track the orienteer’s location on the orienteering map. 

The thumb compass is popular amongst those who have participated competitively in the sport of orienteering for some time.   Experienced orienteers may choose to use a thumb compass, because it may offer the following advantages:

Using a thumb compass, however, takes practice.  The novice orienteer may find it difficult at first to follow their bearing line accurately until they learn how to hold the thumb compass correctly in alignment with their body.

Some thumb compasses don’t even have a rotating dial. This can make for an even speedier way to quickly establish direction.


The Role of the Orienteering Compass

Regardless of the type of compass used, the compass can be a very accurate aid to help the orienteer establish direction.  Unless involved in a specific training situation, the compass is always used in conjunction with a map.  In essence, the compass will be used by the orienteer to do two things:


Parts of a Compass

All compasses share some basic characteristics. It is helpful to be able to be able to identify specific parts when first learning how a compass is to be used.

How to use a Compass

How to use a compass will be explained in the Basic Skills section. For basic navigation, a compass is used primarily to help orient your map to north. In the Advanced Skills Section, you will learn how to use the compass to measure a bearing and establish direction.


Explore the next page to learn more about how to try out orienteering.