An experienced backpacker should be able to display varying degrees of competence in many outdoor survival skills and techniques, one (but not only) being navigation. Being familiar with using a compass should be an essential practice before deciding to trek a 10+ kilometer trail through unfamiliar geography. This is even more vital if you are the leader of a group. Nowadays, GPS systems, such as a handheld Garmin, are being used to electronically substitute the classic handheld compass. Regardless, it is wise to learn and form a habit of using a compass while on trail. There is always a possibility of technology failing but it ensured that a reliable compass will not. Learning how to navigate by compass will not only guide you to your destination but will also be the staple to getting you out of a difficult situation if you have suddenly become lost.
Compass Parts and Cardinal Directions
The first step in using a compass as a navigational device is being able to identify specific parts as in what they are and how they work. Luckily, even with the most advanced compasses, there is not many parts too it. A typical compass will be about the size of your palm and will lie nicely in your hand. The bevel (also known as the dial) sits on top of the base plate. You will notice the dial is measured out into 360 degrees. These measurements are used to set specific bearings. In the middle portion of the dial lies the magnetic needle and the orienting arrow. You will notice the magnetic needle is submerged within a liquid. Make sure when navigating using a compass that there are no air bubbles within this fluid. This may disturb taking a proper bearing. On the top portion of the base plate, the ‘direction-of-travel’ arrow is positioned in the centre. The ‘direction-of-travel’ arrow focuses and leads you in the right direction, as long as the correct bearing is set. Your compass may also include scales. Scales are typically used with a topographic map for measurement and setting clear-cut bearings.
The cardinal directions are actually something you likely learned at a young age. They include the directions of north, east, south and west. A simple acronym to help you remember the cardinal directions is ‘Never Eat Shredded Wheat’. When backpacking and using a compass, a good rule of thumb to remember is that the direction of north will have a bearing of 0º or 360º (a complete circle or 360º turn of the dial). East will be situated on 90º, south on 180º, and west will bear 270º. So, when in doubt, depending on which direction you need to get back on track, setting these bearings will help guide you in the right path. If you can’t remember which bearings represent what cardinal direction, typically a small letter (i.e.,’N’ for north) will be in the place of that specific bearing (360º).
Dialling and Following a Bearing
Now that you know parts of the compass, you are ready to set and follow a definitive bearing. With the compass’ base plate set flat on your hand, twist the dial to the desired bearing of your choice. For example, lets set it to 75º. Even before you begin dialing your bearing you should know that you will likely be traveling in a north-east direction. 75º is between 0º (north) and 90º (east) so one can assume this is the right case. This type of thinking will come with time and practice. If you are having trouble dialing a specific bearing you can find a ‘Read bearing here’ line labeled on the centre of the base plate. This may help give you an accurate reading. Make sure your bearing of 75º is lined up with the ‘Read bearing here’ line.
Move your feet until the red magnetic arrow (submerged in fluid) lines up perfectly inside the orienting arrow located on the base of the dial. If you have successfully shuffled yourself so that the red magnetic needle is set within the orienting arrow’ then well done. Second step is complete. A term to remember this step is ‘red is in the shed’. This basically means that the red magnetic needle is inside of the orienting arrow.
From here, a majority of beginners tend to believe that they must travel in the direction of the red magnetic needle. This isn’t the case. If the red magnetic needle is lined up inside of the orienting arrow then the individual will travel in the direction of the ‘direction-of-travel’ arrow. Again, make sure ‘red is in the shed’ and follow the ‘direction-of-travel’ arrow.
It is awfully difficult to use a compass and walk safely at the same time especially trekking through tough geography. Pacing allows for backpackers or hikers to pace or walk a certain amount of steps before they re-adjust their bearing, and proceed once again. This method is completely fine! Another method that can be used is called leapfrogging. It allows for backpackers to travel longer distances before re-checking their bearing. Pick an object in the distance that aligns with your bearing. It could be a tree, a bigger rock, or something along those lines. Do not choose anything that is moving. Use the object as a guide and move yourself in that direction. Re-check your bearing and proceed to leapfrog once again until you get to your destination.
Magnetic North vs. True North vs. Grid North
The position of the red magnetic needle fixed within your compass will always be persuaded by magnetic north. Magnetic north is a specific area of earth’s magnetic field that differs over time.
If you were to draw a line on earth from its two poles, north and south, then true north (where Santa Claus lives) would be indicated. This line would resemble a curved shape due to the earth’s spherical body and surface.
Grid north is a flat representation of the north direction and can be found on every single map. It is different from true north because grid north does not take earth’s surface into account. A map, on the other hand, is flat, not curved.
Ultimately, the angle between magnetic north and true north should be measured and applied using a method called declination. This will ensure you that you are truly heading in the right direction.
Adding Declination to the Equation
The information above is important because a compass with the bearing set to north is not truly pointing in the north direction. It is pointing in the direction of magnetic north. Declination is the difference in angle between magnetic north and true north and it varies from place to place and over a period of time. It is used to adjust your compass so that you have a true picture of which way north really is. Declination can be adjusted on your compass (if it comes with this feature). A make-shift key is included and can be used to turn a small dial on the front of back of the compass. Magnetic declination for your area can typically be found online or on an updated map (usually located on the bottom). It will vary from where you are based at in the world and will determine which way you turn the declination dial on your compass.
The Days of Getting Lost Are Over
There you have it. A brief run down on how to navigate by compass. An extremely important and necessary skill to learn for backpackers of any level. The days of getting lost are finally over for you. Go try it out!