Illustrated Tutorial On How To Use a Compass

Can it possibly get any worse than a situation in dense fog? What if you have not got a compass? I have a few advices you could learn.

Finding the Directions Without a Compass

You are lost. I mean really lost. Standing in the middle of nowhere, and you have no idea where to go.

If you are really in trouble, remember two things first of all: stay calm, think rationally, and you can survive a long time without food. What you need is to drink.

Further thoughts about extreme survival skills is beyond the scope of this page, seek advice elsewhere beyond this introduction.

This page deals with the situation of finding your way, without the aid of a compass. What you have, is the sun, the stars, and the nature around you.

This page is mainly about the northern hemisphere of the earth, actually north of 23.5.

The methods described do of course apply to the southern hemisphere as well, but in some places there may be a need to swap north and south to get it right. I hope you are able to figure it out.

For a start, it may be a good idea to climb a hill, and get a good look around. Try to see traces of human activity. If you see nothing, you should try to figure out in what direction would be the best to travel. If you have not got a map, try to draw one if you can of the terrain in front of you, and try to mark off where north is, using the methods below. If you have got a map, try to determine where you are. Remember, you do not want to climb more hills than you have to. Also you should carefully consider not to climb if you are very tired. In that case you should consider staying where you are. Consult other sources for information on how to make it easy for rescuers.

Let us start with the most accurate method. This method requires that you have a pretty clear sky, though, and takes a lot of time. One of the advantages is that you do not need any equipment. You would need a straight pole about 1 meter (or a yard) long, two small sticks or rocks, another stick (or rock) that needs to be a little sharp, and something that can act as a string.

Figure Showing Initial Position

In the Morning

In the morning, at least before noon, the trick starts. Stick the long pole in the ground, upright. The ground around the pole needs to be horizontal. Now, you can place one of the little sticks in the ground exactly where the shadow of the pole ends, like on the figure. Then tie the string to the base of the pole, and tie the little, sharp stick, to the other end, so that when the string is stretched it reaches exactly the little stick standing there in the soil. Then, scratch half a circle in the soil with your sharp little stick, and wait... Wait.

Wait until the evening. During the day, the shadow will get shorter and shorter, until noon, when it gets longer again. At noon, when the shadow is at its shortest, you may want to mark the point. The shadow is now pointing north (if you are north of 23.5 north). It is however not very easy to see exactly when this is, but it is useful anyway. Finally, the shadow reaches your circle again, and when it does, place your other little stick at the spot where the shadow ends. If you have not got a string, you could use a pole that has the right length, or try to come up with some other improvised solution. Just make sure what you draw is a circle.

Figure showing final arrangement

In the Evening

Now, the line from the first stick to the second is west-east, like on the figure. Actually, you may want to mark points regurlarly, because any two points that have exactly the same distance from the base of the pole will give the West-East line. If it is partly cloudy, this may be a good idea.

There is a short, fast version of this one as well. This is only approximate, though, and the further away from the equator you get, the more inaccurate is it. You do not need the sharp stick and the string. Just wait 20 minutes between placing each of the sticks, and the line between the two sticks will be approximately west-east, like on the figure. Often, you would not need anything more accurate.

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