How to use a compass?

1:28 p.m. on December 5, 2009 (EST)
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Hi everybody my name is Greenhorn and this is my first post. I've been reading a lot here though and you guys seem to know your stuff. I have collected the ten essentials and I bought a Silva compass. It has a plastic base about 1.5" by 3" with cm and inch scales, a needle with a white end and a red end and a round part that seems to turn all the way around with a red "N" and numbers up to 360 on it. I have a topo map of the area I live in. I was out trying it out yesterday trying to determine how to "orient the map" and use the compass to get back home but I gave up in frustration.

Since the compass is considered so important by you guys, I was wondering why it is considered essential if it isn't easy to use? I though maybe I could just set it so it would always point to home???

How would I actually use it to determine if I was on the right trail or not? Its kinda forested here. So far everything I've read said "to take a class" but I don't know where to do that here. Can someone tell me how to use a compass and map, or is this like an insider thing that if you don't know how to use it, its not of much value and if so why is it considered essential? Does my location affect it at all?


2:19 p.m. on December 5, 2009 (EST)
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A compass is fairly easy to learn how to use, but teaching you here is beyond most of us. You are right, though, if you don't know how to use it, it won't do you much good.

While a class is the best way to do so, you can also learn from books like "Land Navigation Handbook" published by the Sierra Club or from websites like this one-

I would start here for the basics. This particular site belongs to a Norweigan guy and he also has some links to other instructional sites.

I am sure there are other sites out there and if you go to Amazon or B&N, look for books on navigation. Here is link to Amazon's stock of books on navigation.

I have an old edition of the Sierra Club book and it is pretty comprehensive and easy to understand. I'm not familiar with the rest of them, but maybe someone else can recommend another one to you.

For classes, I would see if you have a local chapter of the Sierra Club that might offer one. Sometimes stores like REI offer basic classes.

Some people have replaced their compass with a GPS, which is a whole other discussion. There is a thread here on the GPS v. compass topic.

2:27 p.m. on December 5, 2009 (EST)
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You could try some YouTube Videos, too.

5:09 p.m. on December 5, 2009 (EST)
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Tom and Tom thanks a bunch for your indulgence, I am sure that millions of users are wondering the same thing I am. You are kinder than you think.

But after watching some of the very instructional videos, (REI is the best) I find them too theoretical. Lets say I have a map and I lay it on the ground. I set my caompass on it with the NS grid aligned with the center line on my compass and say the "N" at the top. Where I live the compass actually points 18 degrees to the east so I guess I would turn the compass ring clockwise so that 342 (360-18) was on the center line. Then I would turn the map and compass TOGETHER so the red needle pointed to the red (N) and then the map would be "oriented to true North". Is that correct?

Then without moving the map I take the compass and draw a line from where I am to where I want to go and I turn the compass so the side edge of the compass (One that runs front to back) is on that line (that I drew) with the "front of the compass (the end of the larger plastic side) is pointing towards where I want to go. Now if I pick up the compass and turn it so the needle stays pointing to the "N" and sight along it from back to front, it is pointing at my destination. Is that right?


11:24 p.m. on December 5, 2009 (EST)
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Answer to first question, yes.

Answer to second question-it depends. If you are working from the map from a known starting point to another known point on the map, yes. If you are in the field and want to go to a point in the distance, you orient the compass the way you described and start walking.

For example, using my Silva 7, a plate compass, if I want to walk to a point on my map, I determine the bearing for that point, due East, for example, I set the bezel with 90 degrees at the plate arrow, orient the compass so the needle is pointing North, then walk in the direction of the arrow on the plate, keeping the needle pointing North. Where it gets tricky is when you have to make detours around objects such as streams, bluffs, etc.

If I just want to go from point A to point B, I take the bearing of point B, which means determining where it is in relation to me, then do the same thing as before-follow the arrow.

If I am wrong here, Bill will correct me.

12:16 p.m. on December 6, 2009 (EST)
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I have a few books on using compass with map. I still favor Bjorn Kjellstrom's "Be Expert With Map and Compass." It covers the subject clearly. It has sample maps included so that you can follow the steps he discusses, step by step, using the same map he is describing. There are others, more modern, but none better IMO. You can ignore the chapters on orienteering if you wish -- I've never engaged in the sport so I just breezed through them.

I know Kjellstrom's book is not everybody's cup of tea. I just haven't found a better one yet.

2:54 p.m. on December 6, 2009 (EST)
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Although books are great, you may want somebody to actually walk you through this which is why the youtube videos might be a good idea. Not sure if you are in Seattle but if you are, Mountaineers has great navigation class that helps.

It is not rocket science but the basic idea is (touching lightly on the basic principle here)

-one of the needles below is to adjust your delineation (the earth moves around a bit so we have to adjust the North point on the compass, this year it is 17degrees)

-the iidea of the compass in the wild is to make sure where your bearings are which means where you are located and also where exactly you should be going to. point a to point b. plain and simple. so lets say you are at point A and your bearing to go is 82 degrees E. -you set your compass to that point and make sure the needle points there till you get there

This is a simple e.g. but the reason things get complicated is that in the willd you dont have much of a reference point. i.e a tree is a tree is a tree. right. So it is important that you always use a compass in conjunction with a map.

i would suggest this-use it in the city. from your home to maybe a cafe that you can walk to, that is if you can get your hands on a map that tells you where in degrees that cafe is walking distance from your house-adjust your bearings on the compass to that degree and keep walking. This is a simple example to get your head around what a compass does exactly. God knows I was baffled by it till my instructor took us in a small room and told us to point at the columns in the room and give him the bearing. Things fell into place then.

11:09 p.m. on December 6, 2009 (EST)
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Hi and thanks. I was wondering how I would follow my compass to the coffee shop since I can't walk in a strainght line to get there? How do I follow a compass bearing going around square city blocks? Besides wouldn't I have to walk at whatever bearing the streets took anyway? What do you do in the wilderness when theres a hill or rock outcropping? Can I average the bearing of the streets or something?

Its kinda far to drive to portland for a class. Do you like the Mountaineers? I've heard that they're pretty stuck up and require beginners to take the omplete set of classes from them regardless of ones previous experience.


9:12 p.m. on December 7, 2009 (EST)
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Those are just some simple excercises to get the basic idea behind a compass. I strongly believe that most things are intimidating because we dont understand the basic principles behind it. It certainly was for me, I had no idea how a compass is used but I would carry it to all my hikes :)

Ah good ole Mountaineers. I like the group and do a lot of hiking with them. Sure there are always some not so good apples but most of them are very helpful and it is a lot of volunteers who devote their time for others, which I really respect. Btw, it is in Seattle.

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