How to Properly use a Compass

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How to Properly use a Compass

For anyone who has spent time wandering in nature, it's hard to argue that the compass is anything but a vital piece of survival equipment. Yes, yes, I know we've all got Google Maps on our phones now, and you can buy a GPS device for a couple of hundred dollars, but knowing how to properly use a compass is a key tool in your survival arsenal. And it's not going to die on you when the batteries run out or you head out of range. There are two main types of compasses. Inside your car, or in the handle of that cheap ‘survival utility knife’ you were given as a kid is known as a Button Compass. It's basic, and really only good to determine which way is North when you've gotten turned around in the woods. What you need to buy is an Orienteering Compass, which has a needle that always points to magnetic north. They've also got a dial which you can rotate to indicate the direction you must walk, and align to your map. Before heading off on any hike, it's imperative to let someone at home know where you're going, and when you expect to return. Carry a backpack with at least enough gear to last overnight, and have a good-quality map of the area which you can orient yourself to before you start the hike.

Taking a bearing from the map

Once you know your location on a map, you can use it to set a bearing and head in your intended direction. Perhaps you're heading to a particular landmark, this is the way to ensure you'll stay on track. Using your compass, position it on the map so the base creates a line from your current position, to the landmark you're aiming for. Keeping the compass flat, rotate the dial until your compass and the orienting arrow point to true north. Take the bearing (it's on the compass base plate), then lift your compass and holding out in front of you, turn until the magnetic needle spins and aligns to the orienting arrow on your compass. You're now facing the direction you need to go.

Taking a bearing from a landmark

You're lost. Out in the distance you see the smoke from a campfire, but the forest is so think you're not going to be able to see the sky once you start moving towards it. In this situation, you can use a landmark to navigate. Hold the compass in front of you, and point the direction of travel arrow at your landmark, in this case it would be the source of the smoke. Rotate the dial, until the north arrow aligns to the red needle on your compass. Your bearing is the index point on the base plate of your compass. Use this bearing to identify a landmark which is not too far away, and is directly in your line of travel. Once you pick a point, put your compass away and walk to it. Once you reach this first landmark, hold out your compass again and pick another landmark, continuing this process until you reach your final destination.

Using your compass to get ‘un-lost’

For whatever reason you've got no idea where you are. Perhaps you took a spill and woke up completely disoriented hours later. The trail is long gone, and everything around you all looks the same. The trick now is to use your compass to triangulate your position, and figure out where you are. Take a look around, and find two landmarks that you can also see on your map. Perhaps it's a mountain ridge, a set of power lines, or even a river out in the distance. If you can find the same landmarks on your map, this is going to work. Use the last technique we learnt to take the bearing of the first landmark, positioning the compass on your map so the long side is pointing at the landmark. Now rotate your compass, until the orienting arrow and compass needle align to north on your map. Draw a line along the base plate of the compass until it hits the landmark on your map. You're standing somewhere along this line. The next step is simple, you just need to repeat the process with the second landmark. Where the two lines intersect is your approximate position, and you can do this again with a third landmark to add a little more accuracy to your triangulation.

Which north is the right north?

Practically, there are three ‘norths’ you need to know about. The ‘true north,’ is where the north pole is, and for all intents and purposes you can ignore this one when you're navigating. The second is ‘grid north’ and sits at the line running along the top of your map. All Ordinance Survey maps use this line, which assumes the world is flat, and the line that runs along the top is north. The final one is ‘magnetic north’ and this is where the compass needle on your compass will spin to. It's affected by the magnetic field of the earth, and depending on your location you may need to make slight adjustments in your bearings when you're navigating. The official term is declination, and while most topographical maps will list the necessary adjustment information in the bottom corner, it's best to double check the latest calculations for your area before you set off on a hike.

Don't make these mistakes

A number of pieces of survival gear can interfere with a compass's accuracy, so ensure you're not using your compass next to any metal objects, batteries, or any items that are magnetic. It's also quite common for new hikers to forget to orient their compasses to their map before starting to travel, which will send you off-course very fast. Including an orienteering compass to your bug-out-bag is a great survival tip, so long as you know how to use it properly. Before a crisis strikes, buy a good topographical map of your area, and take it with you on a few training runs so you can get used to compass navigation before you have to depend on it. Although it's one piece of equipment that you may not need to use very often, its invaluable to a survivalist and can prove to be a life saver when you do need it.