How to Get Un-lost Using a Compass

You Are Here

Let’s say you’ve been merrily rolling along doing some off-roading in your 4×4 for the past couple of hours. You are well away from the established trail when suddenly, with a loud pop, you are no longer rolling or merry. You find yourself lost in an unfamiliar area, and since you can’t conjure up a replacement tie rod out of thin air, you’ll be walking out. You have a map, but it’s a road map, not a topographical map—you are somewhere in the large green block labeled Mystic Expanse State Park, and other than that you just don’t know your location. Your fancy smart phone has a GPS app that could help, if the battery wasn’t dead. The temperature is cold, the days are short at this time of year, and you can’t afford to wear yourself out walking in big circles following tracks and trails in an attempt to retrace your path into these woods. It’s time to grab some bottled water, a compass you found in the glove box, and start walking. It’s too late to learn about declination and the “compass-to-cheek hold” method now, isn’t it? You need to use a simple, reliable way out of the woods and get yourself un-lost.

You Are Here
“You Are Here.” You have no clue where “here” is.

First, you need to pick a place to walk to. There are two options here: water or road. Streams and rivers are a good choice if you are going to take days to get back to civilization—the fresh water and potential food found there make the risks worthwhile. But Mystic Expanse isn’t that big, it should only take you a day or so to walk out if you can stay headed in the same direction. Let’s say there’s a road to the southwest you want to try for. Roads, like rivers, are a good objective because they travel across large sections of territory. Even if you don’t know exactly where you are, you’re likely to eventually stumble onto the road you’re traveling toward as long as you’re heading in the right general direction. To the southwest you must go! Now what?

Basic Compass
Remember, red points north! This basic compass is just $5.08.

Take a look at your compass. Some have N, S, E, and W plainly marked. Some have just one arrow, which will point toward magnetic north. And some have a needle that points to both north and south—make sure that you know which end of the needle points north or you will travel in exactly the opposite direction you wish to go! If your compass has a red half of the needle, that’s north. If you are unsure about which end of the needle is north, hopefully you can spot the sun and you know the time of day. If it is morning, the sun will be rising to the east. Put the sun somewhere to your right and you’ll be facing in the general direction of north. If it is evening, the sun should be to your left if you are facing north, as the sun sets in the west. If you apply this simple test and your compass needle isn’t pointing in a direction that makes sense, then it is possible that your needle is being attracted to something local to you instead of north.

Bravo Two Zero compass
Sean Bean’s compass needle probably points straight to that grenade launcher.

Compass needles are attracted to anything magnetic. If a magnetic item is close enough to the compass, the needle will swing to point to that item instead of north. The magnetic item doesn’t have to be large or powerful, just close. For example, in the movie “Bravo Two Zero,” Sean Bean’s character has a compass duct-taped to the side of his M16, so he just has to glance down every once in awhile to check his bearings. Pretty cool high-speed commando stuff, except it won’t work at all! Anyone who has taken a military land navigation course has been taught to hand their weapon to someone else before reading their compass. I once had a terrible time trying to orient a compass to a map correctly until I realized that everything was sitting on a pickup truck’s tailgate. Whoops! If your compass needle is pointing in a direction that makes no sense, start looking for potentially magnetized steel on or about your person. Does the winter jacket you’re wearing have zippers on its sleeves? Are you wearing a metal wristwatch? Even the staples holding together a map book can throw off a compass needle, if they are close enough to the compass.

By holding the compass level with its needle able to spin freely, you get a good north reading and now you know the direction of magnetic north. If you have a very basic compass, like the type built into the aluminum handle of our “Bushmaster” survival knife, you’re just going to have to turn your body until the needle indicates that “north” is over your right shoulder to travel southwest. You’ll be traveling very generally in that direction and you’ll want to stop and check the needle frequently. If you have a nicer compass with a marked housing that can be turned, simply turn the housing until the direction you want to go points towards the front of the compass, then turn your body until the needle lines up with the “N” marked on the housing, and away you go. Same difference, really. Somewhere to the southwest of Mystic Expanse State Park is a dirt road, leading to a gravel road, leading to 2-lane blacktop with traffic on it.  Wave down a friendly old farmer and you’ll be back to civilization none the worse for wear.

Military Style Compass
This military style lensatic compass is much more precise and easy to read.
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