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How to Use A Compass

How to Use A Compass

  • Charlie Pankey

Found this beginners Guide to compass reading.  Good resource if you are just learning how to find your way.

Kjetil Kjernsmo's illustrated guide on

How to use a compass

Using the compass alone

This is a very easy lesson, and I would say, not sufficient for those who would like to travel safely in unfamiliar terrain.

the directionsThe first thing you need to learn, are the directions. North, South, East and West. Look at the figure and learn how they are. North is the most important. 
There are several kinds of compasses, one kind to attach to the map, one kind to attach to your thumb. The thumb compass is used mostly by orienteers who just want to run fast, and this is the kind of compass I normally use.
But not in this tutorial. I would recommend the third kind of compass. Let's take a look at it:

drawing of compass

You see this red and black arrow? We call it the compass needle. Well, on some compasses it might be red and white for instance, but the point is, the red part of it is always pointing towards the earth's magnetic north pole. Got that? That's basically what you need to know. It's as simple as that.

But if you don't want to go north, but a different direction? Hang on and I'll tell you.
You've got this turnable thing on your compass. We call it the Compass housing. On the edge of the compass housing, you will probably have a scale. From 0 to 360 or from 0 to 400. Those are the degrees or the azimuth (or you may also call it the bearing in some contexts). And you should have the letters N, S, W and E for North, South, West and East. If you want to go in a direction between two of these, you would combine them. If you would like to go in a direction just between North and West, you simply say: "I would like to go Northwest ".

rotated compass housingLet's use that as an example: You want to go northwest. What you do, is that you find out where on the compass housing northwest is. Then you turn the compass housing so that northwest on the housing comes exactly there where the large direction of travel-arrow meets the housing.
compass arrow alignedHold the compass in your hand. And you'll have to hold it quite flat, so that the compass needle can turn. Then turn yourself, your hand, the entire compass, just make sure the compass housing doesn't turn, and turn it until the compass needle is aligned with the lines inside the compass housing.
Now, time to be careful!. It is extremely important that the red, north part of the compass needle points at north in the compass housing. If south points at north, you would walk off in the exact opposite direction of what you want! And it's a very common mistake among beginners. So always take a second look to make sure you did it right!
A second problem might be local magnetic attractions. If you are carrying something of iron or something like that, it might disturb the arrow. Even a staple in your map might be a problem. Make sure there is nothing of the sort around. There is a possibility for magnetic attractions in the soil as well, "magnetic deviation", but they are rarely seen. Might occur if you're in a mining district.

When you are sure you've got it right, walk off in the direction the direction of travel arrow is pointing. To avoid getting off the course, make sure to look at the compass quite frequently, say every hundred meters at least.
But you shouldn't stare down on the compass. Once you have the direction, aim on some point in the distance, and go there. But this gets more important when you use a map.

There is something you should look for to avoid going in the opposite direction: The Sun. At noon, the sun is roughly in South (or in the north on the southern hemisphere), so if you are heading north and have the sun in your face, it should ring a bell.

When do you need this technique?
If you are out there without a map, and you don't know where you are, but you know that there is a road, trail, stream, river or something long and big you can't miss if you go in the right direction. And you know in what direction you must go to get there, at least approximately what direction.
Then all you need to do, is to turn the compass housing, so that the direction you want to go in, is where the direction of travel-arrow meets the housing. And follow the above steps.
But why isn't this sufficient? It is not very accurate. You are going in the right direction, and you won't go around in circles, but you're very lucky if you hit a small spot this way. And that's why I'm not talking about declination here. And because that is something connected with the use of maps. But if you have a mental image of the map and know what it is, do think about it. But I think you won't be able to be so accurate so the declination won't make a difference.

If you are taking a long hike in unfamiliar terrain, you should always carry a good map that covers the terrain. Especially if you are leaving the trail. It is in this interaction between the map and a compass, that the compass becomes really valuable. And that is dealt with in .

Using the compass in interaction with a map

This is the important lesson, and you should learn it well.
It's when you use both compass and map the compass is really good, and you will be able to navigate safely and accurately in terrain you've never been before without following trails. But it'll take some training and experience, though.

I am not covering map reading here, guess you would have to consult other sources for that, but the lesson will be useful if you have a sense of what a map says.

First, a quick summary of what you will learn in this lesson:

  1. Align the edge of the compass with the starting and finishing point.
  2. Rotate the compass housing until the orienting arrow and lines point N on the map.
  3. Rotate the map and compass together until the red end of the compass needle points north.
  4. Follow the direction of travel arrow on the compass, keeping the needle aligned with the orienting arrow on the housing.

Here is our compass again:

drawing of compass

 

The principles are much the same as in lesson 1 but this time, you are using the map to tell you which way is correct instead of your intuition.

Take a map. In our first example, we look at a map made for orienteering, and it is very detailed. Well, not really. We look at a fictitious map I drew myself, but never mind. To the point. map with compassYou want to go from the trail-crossing at A, to the rock at B. Of course, to use this method successfully, you'll have to know you really are at A.
What you do, is that you put your compass on the map so that the edge of the compass is at A. The edge you must be using, is the edge that is parallel to the direction of travel arrow. And then, put B somewhere along the same edge, like it is on the drawing. Of course, you could use the direction arrow itself, or one of the parallel lines, but usually, it's more convenient to use the edge. At this point, some instructors say that you should use a pencil and draw a line along your course. I would recommend against it. First, it takes a lot of time, but offers no enhancement in accuracy of the method. Second, if you have wet weather, it may destroy your map, or if it is windy, you may loose it. You should keep your map (preferably in a sealed) transparent plastic bag, and if it is windy, tied up, so it can't blow away. But most important is that any drawings may hide important details on the map.
CAUTION!Time to be careful again! The edge of the compass, or rather the direction arrow, must point from A to B! And again, if you do t his wrong, you'll walk off in the exact opposite direction of what you want. So take a second look. Beginners often make this mistake as well.

map with orienting
lines alignedKeep the compass steady on the map. What you are going to do next is that you are going to align the orienting lines and the orienting arrow with the meridian lines of the map. The lines on the map going north, that is. While you have the edge of the compass carefully aligned from A to B, turn the compass housing so that the orienting lines in the compass housing are aligned with the meridian lines on the map. During this process, you don't mind what happens to the compass needle.
CAUTION!There are a number of serious mistakes that can be made here. Let's take the problem with going in the opposite direction first. Be absolutely certain that you know where north is on the map, and be sure that the orienting arrow is pointing towards the north on the map. Normally, north will be up on the map. The possible mistake is to let the orienting arrow point towards the south on the map.
And then, keep an eye on the the edge of the compass. If the edge isn't going along the line from A to B when you have finished turning the compass housing, you will have an error in your direction, and it can take you off your course.

When you are sure you have the compass housing right, you may take the compass away from the map. And now, you can in fact read the azimuth off the housing, from where the housing meets the direction arrow.
Be sure that the housing doesn't turn, before you reach your target B!
The final step is similiar to what you did in lesson 1. arrow
aligned

Hold the compass in your hand. And now you'll have to hold it quite flat, so that the compass needle can turn. Then turn yourself, your hand, the entire compass, just make sure the compass housing doesn't turn, and turn it until the compass needle is aligned with the lines inside the compass housing.
CAUTION!The mistake is again to let the compass needle point towards the south. The red part of the compass needle must point at north in the compass housing, or you'll go in the opposite direction.

It's time to walk off. But to do that with optimal accuracy, you'll have to do that in a special way as well.
Hold the compass in your hand, with the needle well aligned with the orienting arrow. pointing at a treeThen aim, as careful as you can, in the direction the direction of travel-arrow is pointing. Fix your eye on some special feature in the terrain as far as you can see in the direction. Then go there. Be sure as you go that the compass housing doesn't turn.
If you're in a dense forest, you might need to aim several times. Hopefully, you will reach your target B when you do this.

At this time, you may want to go out and do some training, so you could check out some .

Unfortunately, sometimes, for some quite often, it is even more complicated. There is something called magnetic declination. And then, for hiking, you wouldn't use orienteering maps. And this is the issue for .



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