How to use a compass

Discover the basics of using a compass and how orienteering can be a fun activity for youth to navigate.

How to use a compass

Digital navigation has taken finding locations and mapping to a new level of finding your way outdoors. GPS units and cell phones are equipped to help people find their way through city streets, country roads, to deer stands and in wilderness tracts. These are wonderful and useful tools, yet a compass still remains the very basic means of navigation. Developing knowledge of fundamental compass use is important to finding your way outdoors whether on foot, paddling or motoring. Understanding how to properly use a compass can open many new adventures and may save many as well.

Orienteering is the sport of finding your way to a location or variety of locations across the country with the aid of a map and compass. The basic premise is to use the compass to travel in a direction determined in advance by using specific techniques to go in that direction. A compass is a relatively low investment, does not require batteries, is lightweight and easily fits in a coat pocket. A good working compass can be purchased for as little as $10.

Using a compass requires understanding two basic principles: a compass needle always points to magnetic north, and a circle of 360 degrees is used to determine direction. Magnetic north is not true north. In most of Michigan, magnetic north is approximately 4-6 degrees different than true north. The adjustment to compensate for this is called declination. However, in most applications it is not significant enough to cause a big error, but compensating for this difference provides a more accurate reading to find a location. Directions are marked in degrees on the compass circle with north being 0 and 360 degrees, east being 90, south being 180 and west being 270. Given this, a northwest direction would be 345 degrees and a southeast direction would be 135.

Using a compass correctly is relatively simple. The circular dial with degree readings on a compass turns. Turn the dial to the degree reading you wish to travel. This degree reading should be at a spot on the compass where there is a large red arrow outside the dial on the plastic base or it says “read bearing here.” Always hold the compass level and with that travel arrow pointing directly away from you. Next, rotate your body so that the magnetic needle (red portion) aligns into the outlined arrow inside the dial. The large red arrow outside the dial on the plastic base points you in the direction you wish to travel. Go!

The most common mistakes made happen regularly. For some reason, people want to follow the magnetic red needle. If you do, you will always go north! Also, people have a tendency to not hold the compass level or pointing directly away from you. This is important to avoid getting an inaccurate reading. Lastly, holding the compass close to iron or steel will cause the needle to point in various directions that are not north. This can result from being too close to an automobile, a watch or belt buckle. Deposits of iron ore have also been known to cause a compass needle to misbehave.

Orienteering is a valuable skill that has many practical applications along with being fun. It can help you locate a favorite fishing spot or find your way across some woods while mushroom hunting. Orienteering courses can also be designed for a fun activity to involve youth in some outdoor survival skills. Whatever use you have for a compass, it is a skill you will use for a lifetime and be glad you know! Michigan State University Extension encourages participation in new experiences that are safe and expose youth to science involvement with 4-H Science: Asking Questions and Discovering Answers.

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