The compass is one of the quintessential tools for wanderers, explorers, backpackers, hikers, and the occasional troop of Boy Scouts, and it is common in many survival stockpiles as well. But do you know how to use a compass properly, so that you can navigate across trackless wilderness to your destination?
Why a compass is needed
Obviously, to navigate when you’re lost. But there is a little more to it, mostly concerning how you tend to get yourself lost in the first place. You see, without a path or series of landmarks leading us to a specific destination, you tend to wander about aimlessly, letting your natural senses and memory guide you. Unfortunately, your body tends to take a longer stride on your dominant leg, which will result in you walking in circles unless you have a destination to make for. This is why a compass is so critical: it gives you a definite, unchanging direction to make for, keeping you from wandering or circling about, and allowing you to hopefully make it back to your food and shelter.
There are tools that can and should be used in conjunction with a compass, primarily a topographic map, but sometimes you don’t have the luxury of carrying a map with you. Therefore, it is important to know how to use your compass both with a map and in the absolute worst case scenario, when you only have that little magnetic device in your hand and nothing else to work with. The next part will deal with combining a map and compass, so this part will introduce you to using a compass without a map.
First, let’s look at the different compasses you might have with you, and how useful they each are.
Parts of a compass
Let’s look at the different parts of the compass so you can use them to aid in your navigation.
As you may have noticed, a compass is really much more useful with a map available, and they’re built to be used with them. However, you can still use them without one, so let’s see how you do it.
Determining where you need to go
Without a map, you cannot simply determine where you are then point your compass towards your destination. Instead, you’ll need to figure out if there is a closer landmark that you can use to determine your final destination, and hop from landmark to landmark until you can hopefully arrive back at your shelter. To do this find an area of high ground like a hill, cliff, or even just a tall tree. If you might get lost attempting to find the high ground, orientate your compass towards it before you set off and lose sight of it. Once you’ve arrived, you’ll be able to make your best guess from that position as to where your shelter is, or at least which landmark is in the proper direction. Then you can set your compass for the next landmark, and so on until you’re near home.
Orientating the compass
Of course, that all depends on being able to set your compass properly. Fortunately, that is pretty simple once you know how.
Why a topographical map, and where do you get one?
As the name suggests a topographical map shows the topography of an area, which is essentially the terrain of the area on the map including mountains, valleys, forests, plains and prominent landmarks. When navigating, it is essential not only to know the most direct route to where you’re going, but also what obstacles are likely to be in your way. It would be unfortunate to walk for miles only to realize that you have to cross a 40 foot wide chasm just to get to your destination! A topographical map lets you plot a series of waypoints from your starting location to your destination, taking into account lakes, rivers, forests etc so that you can avoid major pitfalls and use certain unique terrain features to your advantage.
Although many map companies sell topographical maps, the easiest source of free maps is the U.S. Geological Survey database. The USGS has been working since the late 1800′s to create detailed maps of the entirety of the United States, including many, many topographical maps. If you want actual prints you’ll need to purchase them from their store, but this link will take you to a search bar that allows you to find many recently updated maps of various areas of the U.S. and download them in PDF format for free! As the most common map scale is 1:24000, I recommend you search by that scale for your downloads. Be aware that some maps may be “historical”, which means that their declination gauge is out of date and there may be recent geographic changes not marked on that map.
You may remember from the previous article that many of the features on the common baseplate compass are intended to be used to help draw lines and determine distances using a topographical map. As it turns out, many maps (particularly from the USGS) tend to have features that allow them to work well with compasses as well.
Using the map and compass together for detailed navigation
Now that you know that these are present, and their basic function, you can start to combine the compass and map together. The method below is to be used the first time you enter a new area with an uncalibrated compass.
Of course, if you run into a situation where you have to deviate from that straight line (for example, if that line runs over a huge canyon or river) stop and set your compass towards a notable landmark that you can see on the map that will take you around the obstacle. Then orient yourself again from that position towards your end goal. Travel in the straight line, leapfrogging from landmark to landmark as needed.
A quick point about magnetic declination measurements
When notations are made concerning degrees for declination, East and West are not usually marked as such. In the case of the USGS gauge, you can see if it the MN line is pointed right (east) or left (west) for yourself, but other maps are not so kind. They will just list the degree, with a positive or negative number indicating east or west. When changing from Magnetic North to True North, West is negative, and East is Positive. Thus, -60 degrees is 60 degrees west, while 30 degrees is 30 degrees east. This can be important when trying to use maps that don’t leave a convenient visual gauge to work with.
And there you have it: how to use a compass and map to find your way home. I would strongly recommend practice for this as well, as it can be confusing until you start working a bearing out for yourself. Try downloading a few maps from the link above for your local area, and see if you can guide yourself with a compass. In a world where GPS units may not function and the internet won’t be able to guide you wherever you need to go, a compass and map can be of immense value to you, so take the time to learn the skill while you can!
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