No hiker should be without his or her compass. Even more importantly, every hiker should know how to use one. They can be a little confusing if you don’t know how to use them, but they sure can get you out of a pinch if you get lost. A global positioning system or GPS is great, but it needs power. A compass does not. So when those batteries run out in your GPS, you may be wishing you’d have brought a compass and know how to use one.
The very first thing you need to know is your directions. North is the most important when it comes to a compass, but you should also know that in a clockwise fashion, the order is North, East, South, and West. There are a few types of compasses. There is the kind that attaches to a map and the kind that you hold. The kind you hold is used for people who want to go fast. It contains a compass needle, compass housing, orienting lines, and an orienting arrow. The compass needle has a red part and a black part (or it may be white). The point is that the red part always points towards the earth’s magnetic north pole.
If you don’t want to go north, you’ll need to rely on the compass housing which has a scale. The scale goes from 0 to 360 or 0 to 400. These are degrees. If you want to go between them, you use a mix of directions. For example, if you want to go between North and East, you say you want to go Northeast. In that case, you’d find where on the compass housing northeast is then turn the compass housing so that northeast on the housing goes exactly where the direction of travel arrow meets the housing.
Then you’ll hold the compass in your hand, flat, so the compass needle cannot turn. Then turn the compass so that that the needle is aligned with the lines inside the compass housing. Be sure that the red part of the compass needle always points north. If it points south, then you’re going to go the exact opposite direction. Also, be sure you’re not carrying something magnetic that will throw it off. If you’re carrying something like iron it may disturb the arrow. Literally, anything metal could mess it up. Even the soil can be a problem, but that’s rare.
As soon as you feel confident about where you’re going, walk in that direction and keep watching the compass. Also, if you feel like you’re going in the wrong direction, look for the sun. At noon, the sun is in the South if you’re in the north, so if you want to head north and you see the sun, there’s a problem.
You don’t always need to be hiking to need a compass. If you have a map, and you’re lost, a compass can save your life, especially if you are in one of the many national parks. You at least have to know a general direction that you must go to get there. As soon as you know what general direction it is, use the compass housing so that the direction you want to go in is where the travel arrow meets the housing. The only issue is that it’s not a very accurate way of finding your destination. If you want to find a general area and you know how to use a compass, you’ll get there every time. However, if you’re looking for a particular spot, such as hiking trails in Pennsylvania or hiking trails in Washington, that’s another story.
Now, your compass is only as good as your map. If you can use them both, you’ll be able to navigate in any new terrain safely and efficiently. Here’s how it works. Suppose you’re trying to go from A to B. You’ll put your compass on the map where you are to the edge of the compass is there at point A. The edge you use is the edge parallel to the direction of travel arrow. The direction arrow has to point from A to B. Keep the compass on the map steady then align the orienting lines and the arrow with the lines going north on the map. When you have the edge of the compass aligned from A to B, turn the compass housing so the orienting lines in the compass housing are perfectly aligned with the lines on the map going north. When you feel good about your compass housing, take the compass away from the map and read your direction off the housing where the housing meets the direction arrow. Make sure the housing doesn’t turn before you get where you need to go!
Now, all you do is hold the compass flat so the needle can turn, then turn yourself and your hand until the compass needle is perfectly aligned with the lines inside the compass housing. Again, don’t let it point South. The red part has to point north. As you walk, hold the compass in your hand with the needle aligned with the orienting arrow. Then simply aim in the direction that the travel arrow is pointing and keep aligning it to some object you can reach. Then walk there, and keep choosing a new object to reach until you get to your destination.
There is something called magnetic declination that occurs when the compass points towards the magnetic north pole but the map is pointing towards the geographic north pole. Those are not the same places. Then in other cases, on hiking maps, there are UTM grids. This type of grid doesn’t actually have a north pole. However, the lines are usually pretty close to other norths. So, just be wary of which type you’re using, and make sure everything lines up.
The most important thing for you to do is practice, practice, practice! Don’t choose to start practicing midway on the Appalachian mountains. Start by practicing out back, and then move up to some woods you are well acquainted with. And always keep in mind that you won’t always hit exactly what you’re looking for. Plan to go a little off course. Aim for a general direction, and use your intuition alongside your compass to get you where you need to go!