Daily TipsWatch

How to use the watch OS 9 Compass app’s Backtrace to retrace your steps

The watchOS 9 Compass app shows you the direction your Apple Watch is pointing, your current location, and the elevation. You can also create Compass Waypoints as you go and retrace your steps with Backtrack — with some caveats.

To wit: the Compass app is available on Apple Watch Series 5 and later, and Apple Watch SE. The Compass Waypoints and Backtrack features, however, are available only with watchOS 9 on Apple Watch Series 6 and later, Apple Watch SE, and Apple Watch Ultra.

Also note that The presence of magnets can affect the accuracy of any compass sensor. Apple’s Leather Link, Leather Loop, Milanese Loop, and earlier Sport Loop watch bands use magnets or magnetic material that might interfere with the Apple Watch compass. The compass isn’t affected by Sport Loop bands introduced in September 2019 or later, or any version of the Sport Band.

Okay, let’s backtrack to the Backtrack feature. 

Backtrack in the Compass app can track your route and then help you retrace your steps if you get lost.4 

Before you start a Backtrack session

Before you start, go to Settings > Privacy & Security > Location Services on the companion iPhone and make sure these settings are turned on:

  • Tap Compass, then make sure Precise Location is turned on.
  • Tap System Services, then make sure Significant Locations is turned on.

How to retrace your steps

  1. Open the Compass app on your Apple Watch.
  2. Tap the Backtrack button (which looks like a set of footprints). The Backtrack button becomes a pause button and Compass begins tracking your route. You can continue using the other features of the Compass app. Backtrack stays active even if you open a different app on your watch. If you lower your wrist, the Compass app returns to the forefront because your Backtrack session is still active.
  3. Tap the pause button when you’re ready to go back to where you started, then tap Retrace Steps. Your starting location appears on the compass.
  4. Start walking in the direction that you came from, indicated by the bouncing arrow, following the white line in the Compass app back to where you started.
  5. Tap the animated Backtrack button when you’re finished, then tap Delete Steps.

You can also start Backtrack from the safety screen. Press and hold the side button until Compass Backtrack appears. Drag the Compass Backtrack slider to the right to start Backtrack.

If you forgot to turn on Backtrack when you started and you get lost in an area where your other navigation tools aren’t working, Backtrack might be able to retrace your path back to its starting point.5 Simply tap on the Backtrack icon to start the Backtrack session, then allow the Compass app to use your historical location data if a prompt appears.

(This how-to is based on my experiences and info on Apple’s support pages — where the images sometimes come from.)

Dennis Sellers
the authorDennis Sellers
Dennis Sellers is the editor/publisher of Apple World Today. He’s been an “Apple journalist” since 1995 (starting with the first big Apple news site, MacCentral). He loves to read, run, play sports, and watch movies.