In the modern technology age where we have different types of GPS devices get the job done fast without much effort and skill, it may seem needless to learn how to use a compass.
As an avid camper, let me assure you: learning how to use a compass is not a needless skill. I would go as far as saying that if you intend to hike, camp, or explore wild nature, knowing how to use a compass could be the difference between life and death.
A hiking GPS or your phone can go off because of low battery, bad signal coverage can make it useless, or it can get lost or fall and break.
If you have been curious about how a compass works, this guide has all the answers to your compass usage questions.
To know how a compass works, you first need to understand each of its parts.
The base plate
The base plate is the flat surface used to mount the rest of the compass. It’s rectangular, stays level, and supports the compass, helping you always get accurate readings.
Furthermore, it also helps you draw lines on a map. From the picture above, you can see that the base plate has a kind of ruler with scales. These help you measure distances on your map.
The compass housing
This is usually a plastic container with a compass needle placed inside a liquid (mostly alcohol). This liquid allows the needle to rotate freely inside.
The compass needle
The needle is a magnetized piece of metal with one end normally painted red to mark ‘North.’ It sits on a fine, almost-frictionless point, which helps the needle rotate easily through the liquid.
This is the rotating ring surrounding the compass housing/capsule and features degrees markings from 0 through to 359 and compass points, i.e., North, North East, East, South East, South, South West, West, and North West. Some compasses have both degrees and points markings; others have one of the two.
The orienting arrows/lines
This one is located within the housing of the compass and usually rotates whenever the bezel rotates.
To get a bearing, align the orienting arrow with the compass needle. The orienting arrows also help make sure that the compass needle is always pointing north, which helps give you the direction of travel.
The direction of the travel arrow
You’ll usually find these marked on the base plate, and you should always check it to see if it is pointing towards the direction of the intended destination. You can also use it as an index line to read the bearing.
The index line is sometimes an extension of the direction of the travel arrow; at other times, it is a black line inside the bezel or on the base place. Its primary function is to help you take your compass bearing.
These lines are located within the compass housing. They are meant to align with any horizontal lines on the map to ensure you align with the grid north—the top of your map. You don’t want to take a direction reading when your compass and the map do not have a harmonious orientation.
Now you know the most important parts of a compass. With that out of the way, the next thing you need to do to master how to use a compass is to understand common compass-usage vocabulary.
Let’s discuss that below:
Compass Vocabulary You Need To Know
As I’ve mentioned, to use a compass well—whether on its own or with a map—you need to understand common compass-usage terms.
For example, when using a compass or map, there’re three types of north you need to know. They include:
The other terms you need to know to become a master at using the compass include:
Magnetic declination is the number of degrees between the true north and the magnetic north. It can be towards the east or to the west.
If it is towards the east of the true north, we say the declination is positive. If west, we say it’s negative. Declination changes based on time— over time—and location because the earth rotates and revolves around the sun.
On a map, the compass rose is a symbol of a circle with points within it, showing the north, south, east, and west points. On other maps, it shows the north-east, north-west, south-east, and south-west.
These are horizontal lines on the map. They show how far the north or south is from the equator lines.
On the other hand, longitude lines are the lines that run vertically—from the north to the south. They show how far east or west you are from the prime meridian.
The map’s scale
The scale shows how zoomed in you are in an area you are exploring. You’ll typically find it written as a ratio, 1:x. For example, if your map uses a scale of 1:24000, it means that 1 inch on the map is equivalent to roughly 24000 inches on the ground.
These lines trace the geographic features, indicating elevation. They help you know the height of the land features around you.
To understand these lines, you need to learn more about maps. However, they can help you know if you should prepare for an up-climb, flat land, or a downward terrace.
Now that you know the parts of a compass, the vocabulary, and the basic elements of a map, it is time to put your skills to use by learning how to use a compass.
We will look at this in a step by step manner.
How To Use A Compass: A Succinct, Step-by-Step Guide
Let’s dive right in:
The first step is to determine where you want to go. For example, if it is a hill, face it.
Hold your compass flat in your palm in front of you.
Find out which way you are facing. Look at the compass needle to see where the red point is facing. That is the magnetic north.
Rotate the bezel so that the orienting arrow points towards the magnetic north. The direction of the travel arrow should align with the compass point on the bezel, which shows where you are facing, giving you your bearing.
Start walking in the direction of your bearing. When you deviate from the path, the compass will show how far west or east you’ve gone off your bearing. Whenever you get back on the right track, the compass will also show you.
How To Use A Compass With A Map
Let me be honest with you:
A map is nothing more than an extra travel tool meant to make your adventure or journey more effortless. You can navigate well enough without it, but you will navigate better with it.
If you happen to have a map, here is how you can use it with your compass.
Prepare everything you need: a map covering your entire travel/exploration area, a good compass, and a piece of string.
Find a level surface and place your map on it while the north on the compass faces upward. You can use the string and map’s scale to figure out the distance you will be traveling.
Put your compass on top of the map and clear away any metal that could interfere with the magnetization of the needle of the compass.
To get the bearing, determine where you are on the map—label it Point A—and where you want to go—label it Point B.
Look for two easily identifiable landmarks on where you are going and then find them on the map; something like a mountain, hill, or something unique in that location will do. Mark these as L1 and L2.
Hold the compass flat in your palm in front of you while facing your direction of travel. The direction of the travel arrow should be pointing towards L1. Rotate the bezel so that the north aligns to the northern end of the compass needle.
Position your compass on the map while the edge touches L1 then turn the base plate map’s easting lines are in line with the orienting lines that are inside the compass. Easting lines are vertical grid lines on the map. Draw a line through L1 using the side of the compass base plate as a guide.
Use the side of your base plate to line up Point A and B with the direction of travel arrow pointing towards point B. If your compass base plate is too short, use a string to create the line and place the base plate alongside.
Turn the bezel to ensure the north or the 0 degrees—if your compass is in degrees—points to the grid north. Also, make sure that the orienting lines align with the easting lines on the map.
Account for the magnetic declination. For example, if your map indicates that the magnetic declination is -14, add 14 degrees from your bearing to account for the difference between the magnetic north and the grid north.
Doing this will help you know your exact direction. Also, remember always to add a negative declination and subtract a positive one.
Lift the compass off the map and hold it flat in front of you, with the direction of travel facing away from you.
Rotate your entire body with the compass until the orienting arrow aligns with the northern tip of the compass needle. Don’t move the bezel.
Once the arrow and the needle align, find the landmark you noted on the map, then start your journey until you reach Point B.
And just like that, you will reach wherever you want without ever getting lost.
To summarize how to use a compass:
- Know the basic parts of the compass.
- Know the vocabulary of a traveler, which are the standard terms of using a compass and map.
- Use your compass to find direction.
If you intend to use a map, I recommend taking some time to learn how to read and use a map. It will become a lot easier to understand the second part of this article if you already knew how to use a map.
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