In the modern world more and more people are dependent upon their electronic devices to get them from point A to point B. But what happens when those devices stop working? It can happen either through a natural cause such as a geomagnetic storm, or something man-made like electromagnetic pulse (EMP), a terrorist [cyber] attack, or war. What the majority of people do not realize is that the GPS satellite network is owned and operated by the US Department of Defense. In a case of martial law or an act of war on US soil, civilian access to GPS may be restricted. There are also times when you may be going on an adventure where clear line of sight to the GPS satellites is not possible, such as heavy forest, mountains and jungle locations; all cause problems acquiring GPS signal. And there is always human error that has to be considered, such as leaving the GPS turned on and running the batteries out, breaking the GPS unit, or losing it. Without the knowledge of how to use more traditional navigational methods, your likelihood of survival is decreased.
This article has been broken into several sections, proceeding from the simplest compass navigation to the more complex issues of dealing with maps and magnetic declination. Also included is a section on primitive navigation, which is the worst-case scenario when you have no gear at all with you. The objective is to take my military and survival knowledge on navigation and put it in an easy-to-use guide for anyone from an absolute novice to outdoor enthusiast to use.
Learning how to use a compass is easy and could one day save your life.
Every compass has the four directions, North, East, South and West, which are represented with N, E, S, and W on the compass dial. There are a lot of different types of compasses out there, but regardless of their design and purpose they will always have the four directions on them.
The easiest compass to use is a simple map compass that consists of a dial and direction of travel on the base. Within the dial will be the four directions N, E, S, and W, an orientation arrow, orienting lines, and the compass needle. It does not get much simpler than this. Most compasses will have two different colours on the compass needle: some are white and red while others are red and black and some are white and red with a dot of white at the tip of the red. So which way is north when there are so many colour variations?
- Red & White with glow-in-the-dark white – White is north.
- Red & Black – Red is north.
- Red & White with white dot at tip of red – Red is north; the white tip is glow-in-the-dark material.
For this tutorial red and black will be used for the compass needle, keeping inline with the basic map compass. The red portion of the compass needle will always point to magnetic north, no matter which way the compass is facing.
To go in any other direction other than to the magnetic north, you will need to move the direction of travel arrow to the direction you wish to go. The compass dial will have a scale; most are from 0 to 360 degrees, but there are compass dials that range from 400 to 0 degrees. The degrees are used for navigation between the four directions. For instance if you wanted to go half way between N and E on a dial with 360 degrees it would be a direction of 45 degrees. This sounds easy enough, now how to do it:
Hold the compass out away from yourself but in a position that is comfortable and where you can still read the compass. You will want to make sure there is no metal around the compass as metal will throw off the reading.
With the compass held as flat as possible, let the needle find magnetic north; then turn the dial, aligning the N with the tip of the red part of the needle.
Carefully turn the base of the compass to align the direction of travel arrow to the desired direction you wish to go in. Be sure to keep the red part of the compass needle pointed at the N or else you will go in the wrong direction. It is a common mistake to turn the whole compass rather than just the base. It is often a good idea to redo the reading to make sure you come out to the same location on the compass twice before heading off.
Now that you have a reading, walk in the direction of the direction of travel arrow, while keeping the red part of the compass needle pointed to the N. Always be sure to check your course several times to avoid getting off course. Ideally a check should be done at around 80 meters (262.46 feet); checking frequently means less course correction.
Don’t make the mistake of staring down at the compass and walking through the wilderness; you will find that you will walk into something, off something, or trip and get hurt. By checking frequently you will be able to navigate the wilderness, reducing the risk of injury. The easy way to do this is to use landmarks that are in your direction of travel. That way you can look at the landmark to keep you close to your course.
How do I really know I am going the right way? There are primitive navigation methods that can be used to ascertain the four directions. When using a compass but when doubt still remains, look at the position of the sun. In the northern hemisphere where I am located, at noon the sun is in the south; if you are on the southern hemisphere, for you the sun would be in the north. So if you are in the northern hemisphere and need to be heading north but the sun is blinding you, then stop! You are going south, the wrong direction! Just reverse this for the southern hemisphere; if you are wanting to go north and the sun is on your back, then do a 180 degree because you are facing the wrong way. Using these primitive navigation tricks with a compass will give you the confidence you may lack.
In Northern Hemisphere sun at noon is South
In Southern Hemisphere sun at noon is North
Easy way to remember is the sun is pointing to the equator.
This method will help you get out alive if you are in the wilderness without a map, but yet you know that in a given direction from your current location there is a road, town, river or another object that is big and hard to miss.
There are inherent issues with this method of navigating. It’s not very accurate: if you were looking for a small campsite deep in the wilderness, this method would not help you. But it will keep you from going in circles, what happens to most who are lost in the wilderness; the key to getting out is going straight. A good rule is to bring an accurate and appropriate-scaled map with you to any location you are not familiar with.
Compass with Map
You have your basic compass that was used in navigating with just a compass, but you were smart and also brought a map; this section will teach you how to use your compass with that map, to find small sites with precision navigation.
When using a compass with a good map, your odds of survival and making it out greatly increase. You can look at the map to determine major navigational obstacles as well as most likely areas of rescue or self-rescue. This is an important lesson that should be learned by anyone going into the wilderness; not only will you be able to safely navigate the terrain and make it precisely where you meant to be, but you will make it there alive.
In this example to navigate using a map you will be on a wilderness trail at point Alpha kilometer / mile 0, and your objective is to reach point Charlie kilometer 43 / 26.71 mile without going through Bravo point. This will mean you will have to leave the trail and go cross-country. To determine your course, lay out the map and take the edge of the compass that runs parallel to the direction of travel arrow (the longest edge is usually the parallel edge) placing the bottom corner of the edge on point Alpha and the upper corner of the edge on point Charlie. Point Charlie can be located any place along the edge and not necessarily at the corner. An alternative easy-to-remember method is to use the direction arrow of travel as a way to line up the compass so it points from Alpha to Charlie. It is very important to make sure that the direction of travel arrow is pointed towards the other checkpoint, in this example point Charlie; failure to align the direction of travel arrow to your checkpoint will result in going the wrong way. There is great debate on whether or not one should draw a line on the map to mark the direction of travel. When I was in the military, my maps were placed in a waterproof map case, and with a special waterproof pencil I could draw lines, make notations, etc. without damaging the map, but since most people likely will not have such luxury it is not a good idea to draw a line; it does not add anything to the precision and often puts the map at risk of being damaged and covers up important details. You should make the investment in a waterproof map trail case; it will keep your maps dry and you can further tie it to your pack so you won’t lose it on the trail.
No one will complain if you take the time to recheck your work; it is very important even with a map to redo the reading and make sure it is right.
With a direction of travel set you might think you are ready to head cross country. That would be a wrong decision; the compass has to be oriented to the map before it is useful. To do this lay the map flat or stabilize your map case.
On your map there will be lines that run North to South; these lines are called meridian lines. On your compass dial you will see similar lines that run from the N to the S; these lines are called orienting lines. To orient the compass to your map you will need to line up the compass orienting lines to the map meridian lines. In order to do this, carefully turn the dial of the compass while keeping the edge / direction of travel arrow aligned from point Alpha to point Charlie. Ignore what the compass needle is doing for now. Be absolutely sure that the North on your map is also N on your compass dial when the orienting lines have lined up to the meridian lines; if not, your reading will be wrong. Both the meridian north and orienting north have to match up; all maps designate the direction of North; find it so you know which way to line up the lines. It is also important to make sure the edge of the compass base or the direction of travel line remains in alignment between the two points. Failure to check these things will result in course navigation errors.
With the meridian and orienting lines aligned properly and our compass edge or the direction of travel arrow still aligned on the two checkpoints, we have our compass bearing. I like to make a note of the compass bearing; it is a personal preference, because it is extremely important that once you have the bearing, the compass dial or base not move; movement results in a different bearing and consequently navigational errors. With a compass bearing you can store your map safely and navigate using the compass only, as in the first section. The difference here is you are actually navigating with a bearing to a precise location.
Holding the compass as flat as possible, you need to turn your whole body until the red part of the compass needle aligns with the N on the compass dial. Do not turn the dial or the base of the compass. Remember always make sure red is in the north position, or you will never reach the destination. To walk with the compass and navigate, take a minute or two; hold the compass out in front of you while keeping the red compass needle pointed to the N and not turning anything on the compass; look down the direction of travel arrow and pick out something that stands out that is in line with the compass bearing. This will be your landmark so you can walk safely through the wilderness. It is important to pick something that is easy to see in the middle-ground. Repeat and check your direction like before at around every 80 meters (262.46 feet) and you will make it to checkpoint Charlie without having to go through checkpoint Bravo.
Compensating for Magnetic North
The compass needle points to magnetic north, which is where the magnetic fields of the earth align at the northern magnetic pole. This is often mistaken for the North Pole. The North Pole is actually very far from the magnetic pole. It is important to note that the magnetic pole moves often from year to year. The difference between magnetic north and true north is called “magnetic declination”. Because the location of magnetic north moves, it is important to figure out the magnetic declination before leaving home or see if there is a notation on your map as to what the magnetic declination is.
Why should you be concerned with this? Topographical maps are situated to true north rather than magnetic north, so your compass bearings will be off by the amount of the magnetic declination. As well, most modern maps, especially hiking and trail maps, use a grid called the Universal Transverse Mercator (UTM). This UTM grid is used for charting a location that lies between 84 degrees North and 80 degrees South, which covers most of the earth’s surface. Note that the UTM grid does not have a real north pole; however, the orientation of the grid matches closely to the meridian lines of maps.
How this grid correlates to your map is pretty clever: typically the average hiking map will have a 2 centimeters grid setup; with this distance the map scale is 1:50,000, therefore on a 2 centimeters (7/8ths of an inch) grid distance the actual distance is 1 kilometer (0.62 miles). This is very useful when planning an extended tour in the wilderness to determine how far a person can go in a day or where resources or locations are in terms of distance from your current location.
As great as the UTM grid is, to use it properly as a navigational tool you need to know how much difference there is between the UTM grid and magnetic pole. Plotting a course is the same as in the Map with a Compass section, with the added complication of making sure not to align the orienting lines to the east – west UTM grid lines. Now for the tricky part … once you have your compass bearing, you need to account for the number of degrees of magnetic declination. Sometimes this will mean adding degrees, and other times it may mean subtracting degrees. These degrees come from the angle between the UTM grid lines / meridian lines and the magnetic north location.
By now you will have concluded that magnetic declination varies by your geographical location; this is why it is important to figure this out ahead of time before departing. If you have forgotten to do this before heading out to the wilderness, don’t panic.
To figure out the magnetic declination in the wilderness, look at your map grid from your current location and note the grid azimuth. Did I just lose you? Okay, here is what you need to do: find where you are on the map, then measure the angle from the nearest north meridian / UTM grid line to your location. To do this ideally you should have a protractor.
Now that you have found where you are on the map and have your grid azimuth, now look for a very distant distinctive feature; the further away the object is, the more accurate your declination will be. With your compass, aim the direction of travel arrow at the landmark. Now turn the compass dial so that the red compass needle points to N, and when the compass needle is correctly aligned, look at the degrees on the compass dial where the base of the direction of travel arrow is. Note this number, for it is the magnetic azimuth.
To find magnetic declination, take your grid azimuth and subtract your magnetic azimuth; the result is the magnetic declination.
If visibility is an issue in determining a landmark, there is still a way in which to find the magnetic declination. A method used in the military: with your compass edge, draw a straight line passing through your current location on the map and your destination and extend the line across any of the map borders. Now take your compass to where the line you just drew intersects with the map border, positioning the direction of travel arrow in alignment with the line you drew, then align the orienting line with the map edge while making sure that map north and compass north are both in the same direction. The magnetic declination will be the distance from the north orienting line to your direction of travel line.
If the map marker for magnetic north is to the right of the true north line, then subtract the declination value from the magnetic north bearing you took for your destination. If the map marker is to the left of true north, then you will need to add the declination value to your magnetic north bearing for your destination.
For example, in my location the declination is 6 degrees easterly; if my bearing for my location was 140 degrees, I would need to subtract 6 degrees from 140, which would give me a bearing of 134 degrees, which would allow me to use the map that has not been adjusted for magnetic north. If I were in the west and my declination was -10 and my bearing was still 140 degrees, I would need to add 10 degrees to my bearing, making it 150 degrees.
On a lot of modern maps there will be located somewhere a line that points to MN (Magnetic North) and another line from the base of the MN line that points a star symbol (True North), and between these two lines will be a number in degrees, which is the magnetic declination at the time the map was made. You may also notice a GN symbol; this represents the UTM grid (“grid north”) , and the line with the GN indicates the declination of the UTM in relation to true north. Because magnetic declination changes, it is important to make sure your map is up to date with the correct information.
How bad can it be if you are only off a few degrees? Well, it can be downright disastrous; an error of 1 degree after 16.09 kilometers (10 miles) will result in you being off course by 280 meters (920 feet). If you compound this error by ten degrees after the same distance you will find yourself off course by 2.79 kilometers (1.73 miles); in a wilderness situation that is the equivalent of being on the moon and will be completely devastating to the person.
Using the methods described here, anyone should be able to navigate their way through the wilderness safely and confidently, but it is important to practice, navigating at home while you can rather than trying to learn these skills when you are in the wilderness and lost.
What if the worst-case scenario happens? You are so lost, with no hope of finding your way without your trusty compass and maps. It now has become a real issue of survival. It may seem as if there is no hope of ever getting out of the wilderness. I will explain various means of finding your way when you have absolutely nothing to navigate with.
The shadow-stick compass is a very old and tried and tested way to get a general direction, much like navigating with a compass and no map. Put the stick in the ground free of vegetation, take a small stick or stone, and mark the end of the shadow. Now wait 10 – 15 minutes and then mark where the end of the shadow is now. You will notice it has moved. Draw a straight line between the two small markers that mark the end of the shadow. This will tell you the east – west line. The first small marker is the west direction and the second small marker is the east direction.
To find the north – south line, look east and draw a line perpendicular to the east – west line. To the left will be north and to the right will be south. Or if you can’t remember what is left or right … the line moving away from the sun is north in the Northern hemisphere, but if you are in the Southern hemisphere, the north and south direction is reversed and the line moving away from the sun is south.
The longer you wait to place the second marker, the more accurate the shadow stick compass becomes.
If you find you have to travel at night, the shadow compass will still work with a bright moon. The advantage of the night shadow compass is that you can further verify your observation with the use of the stars.
Stellar navigation is not that hard and it is a fun time to learn about the various constellations and the stories behind them, which makes this a great activity in which to include children in the learning process. In the Northern Hemisphere to find north you need to locate a star called Polaris, which is the North Star. To find Polaris is simple: find the Big Dipper (just about everyone can find that), and the two stars that close the dipper part furthest from the handle point to Polaris, which is the first star in the handle of the Little Dipper. Polaris will also be a fairly bright star. However, this method will not work if you are above 70 degrees latitude or are in the Southern Hemisphere. The cool thing about the stars that even in the Southern Hemisphere there is a way to navigate. You will need to find the Southern Cross, which is a constellation of four stars called Crux. Two of the stars in Crixa constellation point to the Southern pole. The Southern Cross looks like a cross with a fifth star off center from the lower portion of the cross. For people in Australia, this is depicted upon the flag of Australia.
To find your east – west direction, you need to find the constellation of Orion, which can be seen in both hemispheres. In Orion’s belt are three stars: the lowest of the three stars is West and the highest is east. On a clear night one can see the whole constellation of Orion including the bow; his bow always faces west; therefore, just remember Orion always looks west.
Should you find yourself unable to find Polaris either because of heavy cloud cover or because the terrain works against you, there are other methods that can be used. The first method is using a single stick. Find a bright star that will be easy to find later. While lying on the ground, look up at the star and point the stick directly at it; since it is important to repeat the same observation position several times, you may wish to use a rock to mark the placement of your head when you observed the star the first time. Ideally you will want to wait an hour, checking on your star every 15 minutes and noting the direction of travel. If the star is tracking to the left, you are facing north; if the star tracked up, you are facing east; if the star tracked right, you are facing south, and if the star tracked down, you are facing west.
This same method can be done using two sticks like the shadow stick compass. You will want two large sticks that are a meter to a meter and a half in length (3 to 4 feet). It is important to have one stick larger than the other. Place the larger stick in the ground. With the first stick in place, sit on the ground by the stick. You now take the shorter stick and aim the top of it in line to the top of the bigger stick, which will in turn aim at a bright star. As in the one-stick method, wait an hour, checking the star positioning every 15 minutes. The second stick in this example takes the place of the stone and provides you with the exact same observation position. Just as in the one stick method, if the star is tracking to the left, you are facing north; if the star tracked up, you are facing east; if the star tracked right, you are facing south, and if the star tracked down, you are facing west.
Another method that can be used to determine direction is called the “Watch” method. If you have an analog watch, hold it out in front of you as you would hold a compass. Use a twig or something to cast a shadow directed to the center of the watch. Now for the tricky part: you need to turn the watch until the shadow splits the distance between the hour hand and 12 in half. When this happens 12 will be pointing South and 6 will be pointing North. If you are in the Southern Hemisphere, this would be reversed: 12 would be pointing North and 6 would be pointing South.
Should you find yourself out in the world without your trusty analog watch or you just have a digital watch, this method will still work for you. Simply draw yourself a clock face on the ground. With your big circle in the dirt draw a line that points to the sun; this will be the hour hand. When you have done that, draw a line to the 12 position where it would be in relation to your hour hand on your dirt circle. Halfway between your dirt hour hand and 12 is South.
Any of the methods described in the foregoing will get you going in a general direction; when done properly they are as accurate as navigating with just a compass with no map. So if you know your survival depends on going in a particular direction, for example if the interstate highway is to the east of your location about 4 miles away, this will get you there. It won’t help you find pinpoint locations.