You may be asking yourself, what is a compass? A compass is a navigation tool that shows direction and location. It is used by people to find out where they are or where they are going, whether that be while on a trip or during a hike. A compass has a suspended magnetic pointer that points to the North Pole polarity. A scale marks the directions relative to where the northern point is. Knowing what a compass is and how to read one will help you navigate from any point to find your way.
What Is a Compass Used For?
One of the most basic navigation tools is the compass. Many hikers wouldn't dream of hitting the trails without one. It doesn't require batteries and works with or without a map. No matter which way you turn, the arrow will always point to the north. But magnetic north is not pointing to true north (or the North Pole); maps reference true north.
Since magnetic and true north are not the same,
declination is utilized. This is the difference between the two, and it will vary by location. When using a topographic map, you will see two straight lines - one with a star showing true north and the other showing magnetic north. But this is not accurate for all locations or times. Once you know the declination, you will have accurate coordinates.
Traveling by Compass
When traveling using a compass, there are two methods you can use: map and sight.
To use the map method, place the compass and the map on the ground. Mark your position and your destination and draw a straight line between the two. Place the edge of your compass on the line with the arrow in the direction you will be traveling. Twist the azimuth ring (the ring with degree marks) until north shows on the map and the orienting arrow lines up with it. Remove the compass from the map and turn until you see the red magnetic needle and the orienting arrow lined up. That is the correct direction.
To use the sight method, point with the travel arrow on the compass to the direction you are heading from your current position. Rotate the azimuth ring until the red magnetic needle and the orienting arrow line up and are pointing north. Continue on this path so that the needle and the housing are intact. This is the correct direction.
Why Do We Use Compasses?
The compass was invented in China in the second century. It was used to align building and structural elements with the surroundings. In the 11th century, the compass was used for navigation. The first compass from China was made of a bowl of water that had a floating magnetic needle.
Persian astronomer Al-Ashraf used a compass for astronomy in 1282. It was further developed using the magnetic pull of the Earth and a time-keeping mechanism. This calculated the way to Mecca for Islamic prayer. It served as a timekeeper to show the hours of the five daily prayers.
What is a compass used for other than navigation? It can be used for construction and building when marking borders and landmarks. It is used to measure vertical and horizontal lines for maps, and it is also used in the US military and in mining operations to help with underground navigation.
How to Use a Compass to Find Your Bearings
Above all other tools a hiker could have, the compass helps a hiker find his or her way through the wilderness. What is a compass used for in the wilderness? You could be in the middle of nowhere and select a destination knowing you can get there with your compass. It's a secure feeling to know this when you are unsure of where you are. One of the most important things to remember is that the needle is always pointing to the magnetic north, and you will need to use declination to find your path.
What Is a Compass Going to Do When You Take a Heading?
When you don't have a map, what is a compass going to do to help you find your way? When using a compass without a map, you need to take a heading. This will allow you to go in a general direction using landmarks to navigate. Lakes, ponds, unusual trees, large rocks, and hillsides can all be used as navigational aids.
Here's what you need to do when taking a heading: Determine which way you want to go. Level your compass, allowing it to point north. Keep the needle pointing north while rotating the body until the large direction-of-travel arrow is pointing toward your destination. Choose a topographical landmark you can easily identify in the direction you wish to travel.
Look away from the compass and go toward the object you have selected. When you reach the object, find another landmark in the direction you are heading and continue on your journey.
The opposite way to do this is to point the direction-of-travel arrow toward the direction you wish to travel. Rotate the center of the compass until the north markings and the north needle align.
The great thing about taking a heading is that if you were to look at your compass and walk on your path, you would find a point on your path that is impassable. Choosing a landmark in the direction you are heading allows you to put the compass down and head toward that landmark. This allows you to walk around any obstacles on your path.
What Is a Compass Going to Do When You Take a Bearing?
This method is more time-consuming. It is also more versatile. A bearing is 1 of 360 points on a compass. It is the direction you travel from where you are to another location relative to magnetic north. You measure the bearing on a map or in the field.
If you can see the place where you want to end up, hold the compass in your hand, making sure it is flat. Point the direction-of-travel arrow toward your destination and turn the housing so it aligns the red end of the magnetic needle with the pointed end of the north arrow. Next, read the bearing on the index line. When you begin your hike, do the compass shuffle, putting it flat in your hand. Make sure the bearing reads the same as your reading from the index line. Shuffle your body so that the north compass lines and the north needle align. The direction-of-travel arrow points to where you desire to go.
If you can't see the place where you want to end up, place your compass on the map. Align the compass edge along the line of travel you want, and rotate the compass housing so it aligns north-south lines with the north-south lines of the map. Now, make a note of the bearing. Stand at the starting place of your journey and set the bearing to the index line of the bearing you just took. Hold the compass level and do the compass shuffle. The direction of travel arrow points to your destination.
Casting a Shadow
If you find yourself without a compass, there are other methods to find your way; they may not be very accurate, but they will help you get to a general area. The stick method uses the sun to find your direction. Place a stick or a branch from a tree in the ground. Make sure to choose a level location where you can see a shadow clearly. Mark the top of the shadow.
Wait 15 minutes, and the top of the shadow will move. Mark the new position. Draw a straight line through the two marks. This will be the approximate east-west line. Stand with the west mark to your left. North will be in front and east to the right. South will be behind you.
The shadow method cannot be used in areas above 60 degrees latitude, which includes Alaska.
Checking the Time
A watch can be used as a compass as well. It can be off as much as 24 degrees and won't work everywhere. If you only have a digital watch, draw a watch on a circle of paper and draw hands with the correct time.
Point the hour hand at the sun and draw an imaginary line halfway between 12 o'clock and the hour hand. This line points south. During daylight savings time, the north-south line is between 1 o'clock and the hour hand.
Before noon, use halfway to the right side of your hour hand, and if it's after noon, use halfway to the left side of your hour hand.
Get a Helping Hand from Mother Nature
Moss will grow on the north side of a tree because it gets less sunlight. However, it can actually grow on any side. In northern climates, flowers tend to face east in the morning to soak up the most sun. In the Sonoran Desert, the barrel cactus grows toward the south.
You may have asked, "what is a compass?" at the start of this article. As you have read, there are many items that can be used as a compass. Such a simple invention has given man a great tool by which to navigate. We hope that you gained some knowledge about this simple tool that will help you in your future travels.