To explore, ditch the GPS and use old-fashioned compass

Ann Cameron Siegal

THE WASHINGTON POST – The sun rises in the east and sets in the west.

Which way does your front door face? Which direction is your school? The library? Your best friend’s house?

Being able to visualise directions adds order to your surroundings and keeps you from getting lost. The magnetic compass – used in navigation for hundreds of years – is a tool that helps you find your way. Good beginner hiking/orienteering compasses can be found online or in outdoor sections of many stores for less than USD20.

To get familiar with how a compass works, hold it flat in the palm of your hand and turn your body in various directions. Watch as the floating needle moves. Its red end always points to the Earth’s magnetic north (not the same as the North Pole), which is zero degrees on a 360-degree scale. East is 90 degrees; south is 180 degrees; west is 270 degrees.

A trick to remembering the order is to think “Never Eat Soggy Waffles”. The first letters of those words are the compass points clockwise from the top.

Henry Gunlock mastered compass use as a Cub Scout.

“When other technology fails, knowing how to use a compass is like having an extra trick up your sleeve,” the 12-year-old from Alexandria, Virginia said.


In fact, the American Hiking Society urges you to have a paper map and a compass during outings in unfamiliar places.

“GPS devices consume battery power faster than you realise, and electronics and water don’t get along well,” said Wesley Trimble, the creative director of the organisation.

Sometimes prominent landscape features such as mountains or major rivers can help you orient yourself. For example, in Alexandria, the Potomac River is to the east; in DC and Fort Washington, Maryland, it’s to the west.

One thing you can do with a compass is find your bearing – the direction you are facing. At the top of the compass baseplate is an arrow showing your direction of travel (DOT). Hold the compass flat in your palm, about halfway between your waist and your face with that arrow facing away from you. Rotate the compass dial so the red part of the floating needle lines up over the red orienting arrow, which also points to N for north. It looks something like a skinny shed, so think, “Put red in the shed.” Now look at the degree markings on the side of the dial under the DOT arrow. That is your bearing.

You can also find the direction you want to go. If you want to go east, hold the compass flat with the DOT pointing away from you, then rotate the dial so E (90 degrees) lines up below that arrow. You’re not done, though.

You now have to orient your compass to north – not by turning the dial, but turning your body until “red is in the shed”. Now your DOT arrow is pointing east. Head in that direction by looking at a distant point, such as a telephone pole, a building, a tree, etc. Repeat the procedure for each new direction.

Henry’s brother Jack, 14, uses his compass knowledge in the Civil Air Patrol cadet programme’s reconnaissance rescue exercises. “There are many obsolete technologies now, but not the compass.”

“The more you use a compass, the more you get familiar with visualizing directions,” said Trimble. As you get better, you can learn more advanced activities such as creating a compass-based treasure hunt and using your compass to follow maps.


Try this three-point compass exercise for beginners:

Mark your starting point with a rock or other object. Be sure you have a wide space in your yard or a park.

With your direction of travel arrow pointing away from you, turn the dial so 40 degrees lines up with the DOT arrow.

Now, without moving the dial, turn your whole body to “put red in the shed”.

Focus on a point beyond the DOT arrow and walk 10 steps toward that.

Now, turn your dial so 160 degrees is lined up with your DOT arrow.

Still holding the compass flat and the DOT arrow straight ahead of you, turn your body until red is in the shed again.

Now walk another 10 steps to a point straight ahead of the DOT arrow.