December 21, 2019

You’ve probably used a compass before, right? Even if you haven’t, you must know what they are. Everyone is familiar with the main points of a compass. Those being North, South, East and West. This piece of kit has been around for a while. It might seem simple, but when it first came out it was a great piece of technology that absolutely revolutionalised navigation and helped explorers discover new places and map the world.

While those new places have already been found, that doesn’t mean there aren’t any uses for a compass. They’re still really useful if you like going on exploration expeditions of your own. Perhaps you enjoy the fun of orienteering, or maybe you just don’t want to get lost in the woods when you go rambling.

The thing is, these days smartphones can do a lot of the work of a compass. That’s almost making the traditional tech go obsolete. But it shouldn’t. Compasses are still useful and you can’t get a phone or wi-fi signal in the middle of the wilderness. A compass won’t pack up when it runs out of battery, either. It doesn’t have a battery. But how exactly does a compass work? If you want to know, then you’re in the right place. In this article, we’re going to look at how a compass works so you know a bit more about this great piece of tech.

How does a compass work?

Compasses are designed to tell you which way north is at all times. That means you’ll be able to follow a map with more ease, or find your way in the direction you want to be going. When you know where north is, you’ll automatically know where all the other directions are too. But how exactly does a compass help you? With magnets. That’s how. Let’s have a look in more detail…

A compass works by aligning itself with the earth’s magnetic field. All magnets have two poles, and the compass works by aligning its north pole with the south pole of the earth’s magnetic field. The north pole of the magnet is drawn to the earth’s magnetic field.

You then move your compass by hand so that the north on its dial matches up to the way the magnet is pointing. Then you’ll have a clear reading of where north is. You’ll then therefore know where south and all the other points are too.

Compasses are accurate and have been helping people for hundreds of years. However, they aren’t always completely accurate, especially as you get further north—and that’s for one reason. The earth’s magnetic north pole is actually about a thousand miles from the geographic north pole. That means compasses will point towards magnetic north but this isn’t in the same place as the true north point of the earth. The magnetic north pole is in Canada. This doesn’t really cause a problem if you’re a long way from either of these places, but the closer you get, the less accurate your compass will be. As you can imagine, being in between these points will give you a very inaccurate reading.

If that doesn’t sound complicated enough, magnetic north doesn’t even stat in the same place. The magnetic field of the earth changes over time. It has moved about 1,000km towards Siberia over the last 100 years.

So if you’re navigating near either of these points, you’ll need to know where the differences are so that you can make allowances. But for most amateur explorers or orienteerers, this isn’t a problem.

Your compass might also be inaccurate at the top of a mountain or at very high altitudes (like in an airplane).

So really, a compass isn’t that complicated. You don’t need batteries, charging points, or any other piece of technology to get one to work. Other than perhaps some charts to work out the difference between true and magnetic north if you’re anywhere near them, compasses are super-straightforward. That’s why they’ve been popular for centuries, and continue to be so.

What to do if you’re lost with a compass

If you get lose but you still have a compass, then you should be able to get home safely as long as you have a good general idea of what is in each direction. If you’ve got a map, even better. However, it’s important to never go walking somewhere where you might not be able to get back to safety. Always have other safety measures just in case, like a phone, GPS tracking, flares, or even enough food and shelter.

Use your map and work out which direction north is. You can then easily compare this to your map and look for any landmarks so you know where you are. You should also have some idea of where you’ve been and which direction you came from. You can then use the compass and map to navigate to the nearest road or place of population. This should help you get found again or make sure you aren’t lost.

What to do if you don’t have a compass

If you don’t have a compass or it has broken, then you still have a few other options. While this might go against the ethos of orienteering, if you’re dangerously lost then use your phones. Call the authorities or at the very least, get Google maps up and find your way to safety. If there’s no signal or battery, you should try and trace back the way you came and especially if you remember any landmarks or other points of interest. As a last resort, you can use flares if you have them, or anything else that can alert authorities to your location.

Now you know a bit more about how a compass works, you can start using one with an extra sense of enjoyment.

About the Author James S

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