How To Walk On A Compass Bearing

Walking on a compass bearing uses your compass to direct you in a straight line to your desired location. You walk relative to magnetic north and can use either your map or the ground around you to determine the correct direction. You must take care to account for obstacles between you and your objective, as a bearing will not take these into account.

I’ve written previously about how to take a bearing, so I wont go into too much detail on actually taking a bearing in this post. However, the effectiveness of a bearing – and your ability to follow it accurately – is all down to accuracy and practice. Take care when orientating your map, and make accurate movements when taking the bearing. Practice taking plenty of bearings when you can and then focus on the factors below to assist you in reaching your desired location.

So, you’ve practiced and perfected a bearing, how best to use this information and walk on a bearing?


Once you know you’re walking in the right direction, be sure to continue in that direction. Take the compass, and orientate yourself to the direction of travel arrow. It is good practice to hold the compass with both hands and brace your elbows into your sides to keep it as fixed as possible. When taking the bearing on your map, always take note of the distance covered by that leg. It may be as little as 200-400m or less in rough and difficult terrain.

It is always a good idea to use easily identifiable features to start and end your legs on. If you’re not sure what a leg is, take a look at this post which explains how to choose a route and navigate along it efficiently. If you’re navigating to a point on your map with no obvious feature, it becomes more difficult to know when you have reached it.

Once you reach that distance, stop. Especially in bad weather or at night, you can do more damage by continuing on your bearing and getting completely lost. If you can see where you are supposed to be, then fair enough, but if your navigation is up to scratch you should be standing on top of your objective after walking the required distance.

Photo by Spencer Gurley on


How best to monitor and measure the distance as you cross the ground though? It can be a difficult thing to do accurately and will take practice to perfect. One method that I use to ensure I stop at the end of the leg is to count my paces.

I know that I take 70 double paces per 100m. I know this after walking a known 100m distance. I actually did this on a running track several times and then took an average. I was sure to keep an easy even pace throughout the measurements. A double pace is every time my right foot hits the ground. If you go out an measure your paces, take an average and you will know how many paces or double paces it takes you to walk 100m.

Now that you have established this, it is an easy calculation to work out how many steps you need to take to reach your objective. If the leg you are navigating is 300m long, I know I need to count to 210 double paces. At that point I will stop, knowing that I have covered the required distance. Remember to make allowances for the roughness of the terrain and any incline/decline in your route.

Keeping count of your paces can sometimes be difficult, especially when you are keeping an eye on your compass, looking for obstacles and the many other distractions around you when hiking. The way I do this is that I have a small string of beads attached to my compass that I use to count in blocks. I have 10 beads on the string, each worth 20 paces. Each time I count 20 paces, I release 1 bead onto the string. In the above example, I would release all the beads, then count another 10 paces before stopping on top of my objective feature.


The other way of calculating distance is to use the old DISTANCE = SPEED X TIME calculation. For example, I know that on a flat path, at an easy pace, I will cover just over 1km in 15 minutes (or 4km/hr). Using Naismith’s rule (which I explain more in this post) I can allow for the gradient in the route, and I will know that 300m will take me 270 seconds on the flat – or 4 and a half minutes.

Applying this to walking on a bearing, as we know the distance, we can calculate the time to walk it over flat ground. Using Naismith’s rule, you can add a minute for every 10m of vertical height and lose 30 secs for shallow descending ground. You will then have a good estimate of time required. It’s then a case of using your watch and stopping at the required time.

At the appropriate time that I have calculated, I will stop and take stock of my position in relation to where I thought I would be. I’ll use ground features and the obvious feature that I was aiming for to correct my position if required. I can the take another bearing to the next point and repeat the process.

Photo by Mau00ebl BALLAND on

Top Tips

  • Know your distances. Pay attention to the scale of your map and know how far away things are from one another.
  • Count your paces. Use beads, a clicker or even stones in your pockets to keep track of your count.
  • Use average speed to confirm your distance travelled applying Naismith’s rule where necessary.

If you’re accurately following your compass, you can be really accurate with your navigation, keeping track of your progress on the map and on a route card. Practice makes perfect with this one, lots and lots of practice.

Happy hiking!

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