How to Use a Compass

Basic North South East West compass


A compass or a compass rose on a map is often simply two lines and four letters, but they are critical for every map and form the basis of all modern directional navigation. Knowing how to use a compass and basic mapping skills are taught to persons of every age all around the world. Scouts and Guides have multiple badges that cover mapping skills – this is valuable stuff!

outstretched arm in forest holding compass

So what if you’ve never known how to find north? We’re here to help you! Read on for how to be an expert with a map and compass.


What is a Compass?


First off, what is a compass? According to National Geographic, “A compass is a device that indicates direction. It is one of the most important instruments for navigation.” Traditionally compasses were made of a combination of a magnetized needle, plastic, metal, glass, and come in all shapes and sizes. These are still used by many explorers today. Often you’ll see a simple map compass built into diving or fishing gear.

Woman's hands holding compass up to the sky

Today most map users find digital compasses offer more convenience and can be installed directly onto their phone or tablet. Mobile apps like Avenza Maps have extremely accurate location tracking with a built-in compass to help navigate on digital maps.


The Avenza Maps default is for the north arrow indicator on the compass to be red and the compass will point true north based on your GPS location, even without a cellular signal. If you turn your body while holding your phone, the compass should spin to remain pointing north. Cool huh?

Hand holding compass against mountain scene

When using a compass to navigate, the direction-of-travel arrow tells you which direction to point yourself to move forward. In Avenza Maps, the direction-of-travel arrow is blue and located outside of the 360-degree marking ring. This is also known as an azimuth circle. Often mapping will be discussed in terms of degrees, so this ring helps for reference.


Orienting the Map


Orienting the map using a compass and map simply means finding your heading direction. When working with paper maps you may have been taught to “put the red in the shed”, meaning to rotate both map and compass together until the compass needle is “boxed” in the red orienting arrow. With Avenza Maps, your phone becomes both map and compass, making orienting as easy as turning until facing the direction of the bearing value. Remember, the top of your phone should be pointed away from you!

Orienting a map with a compass

Lock Orientation is a feature available with an Avenza Pro subscription. When engaged it allows you to rotate the device or enter the orientation angle you wish to use. There is also an option to lock the orientation to the North position.

locking orientation in the Avenza Maps App 

All About Bearings, Compass Heading, and Course


Bearing is basically the angle between your destination and the direction you are facing. In Avenza Maps, the bearing value is strictly used in conjunction with the navigation activity. The bearing value is calculated by measuring the angle between your current location and the feature being navigated.

 Navigation in the Avenza Maps App

Compass Heading

The compass shows a heading readout in its center. The compass heading uses a sensor within your device to determine which direction the top of your device is facing relative to north.

By default, the app uses True North as a reference point, but this can be changed to magnetic north by going to the Map View Settings.

As an example, the outlined value of 185° would indicate the top of the device was positioned in an approximate southerly direction. (Also, if you’re looking at the image below and wondering why the current location looks interesting, learn more about what3words.)

what3words in the Avenza Maps App


The course field to the right of the compass reports your current direction of travel. As you change position, the course value continuously updates to report your current travel direction. This value is similar to bearing in that it is relative to your position. When stationary, the course value will remain blank. The course value will populate as long as you are changing locations.

From the image below, the course value signifies the user is currently travelling at 78°, an east northeast direction.

Course field within the Avenza Maps App