In a time when almost every vehicle and many mobile phones seems to be equipped with a Global Positioning System or GPS, the knowledge of how to read a compass almost seems to be a dying art. And yet knowing how to point yourself in the right direction with a compass can be a very useful skill.
The first compass was really just a sliver of magnet floating on a bowl of water. Such primitive magnetic compasses date to at least the 13th century. It was how caravans crossed the desert wastes and how ancient mariners explored the uncharted seas. We are still using the same basic tool today.
A hand-held compass has a magnetized needle that lines up in the general direction of the Earth’s magnetic north. Here’s how to use a compass: hold it steady and level. Don’t hold your compass near any metal on your body. A belt buckle or cell phone could cause a false reading. Most compasses have one of the ends of the magnetized needle marked as the “North” end. Sometimes an inert glow-in-the-dark material is used. Turn the compass until that floating needle with the North tip settles on the North on the compass dial. You now know where North, South, East and West are located.
A more advanced form of compass is the orienteering compass, with is generally made of clear plastic, often with the needle floating in a sealed compartment filled with a mixture of water and alcohol. The orienteering compass may be placed on top of a map, then rotated until it indicates true North. You can then turn the map until the North on the map aligns with the compass. You now know in which direction you need to travel and where landmarks are located (even if you don’t know exactly where you are).
For campers, hikers and kayakers, a compass is an inexpensive device that can be useful and even entertaining. And knowing how to read a compass might even save your life in an emergency.
Ian Fitzell is the editor of Camping Sky, a blog dedicated to upscale family camping.