How to Use a Military Compass

A military compass is sometimes called a lensatic compass or an engineer compass. It’s something service members know how to operate but if you’re interested in camping, hiking, or trailblazing, it’s a beneficial skill to have in your arsenal.

A military compass can be used to find your bearings, set a course, or follow a course. It’s made up of its base with a ruler on the left side, the cover that can be opened to display a thin metal wire, and the floating dial. The dial shows north (360), east (90), south (180), and west (270) and the clear cover over the dial has a luminous line that matches up to the degree or direction you’re moving toward, called the azimuth.

In order to accurately operate a military compass, you’ll need a topographic map and a protractor, as well.

Understanding How to Use a Military Compass

Let’s go over the definition of an azimuth since it’s likely you’ve never heard this term before. An azimuth is a mathematical term denoting the direction you’re traveling in. And for reference, if you’re traveling in the opposite direction, it’s called the back azimuth.

To find your azimuth:

  • Lay your topographical map on a flat surface and use the legend to find north.
  • Find out where you are on the map using land formations like lakes or mountains.
  • Draw a straight line from where you are to where you want to go.
  • Place the protractor on the map so that its top is pointing north.
  • Place the center of the protractor at the point where the line you drew crosses the vertical line on the map.
  • Where the drawn line meets the edge of your protractor is the degree number (or your azimuth).

In order to use your military compass properly from there, you’ll need to orient the map to face true north. The needle on your compass dial will always be pointing north, so when placing the compass on the map, the needle on the compass should match the map’s north in order to orient yourself.

Say your azimuth was 170 degrees. Once you know that you’re facing north, rotate the compass so that the luminous line is over the 170-degree mark. Then turn the dial cover so that its line is over the north-facing needle. This dial line makes sure you’ll always know which way is north as you start to move.

The luminous line should stay at the 170-degree mark and you should check on it every 100 meters or so. Using the metal sighting strip, it’s also a good idea to note a landmark that you know is in the right direction. Once you come upon it, find another landmark further away and continue to follow that in order to keep you on track.

And that covers the basics of how to use a military compass. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll always have a backup when GPS fails or batteries die. Especially beneficial for those who like to take the road less traveled, a military compass is a piece of equipment that, when used properly, will get you anywhere you want to go.

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