Practicing With The Compass

Before you count on your compass skills in the wilderness, test them in the city. The best place to practice is a place where you already know all the answers, like a street intersection where the roads run north-south and east-west.

Take a bearing in a direction you know to be east. When you have lined up the declination arrow with the magnetic needle, the number at the index line should be 90 degrees, or within a few degrees of 90. Repeat for the other cardinal directions, south, west, and north. Then do the reverse. Pretend you don't know which way is west. Set 270 degrees (west) at the index line and hold the compass in front of you as you turn your entire body until the needle is again aligned with the declination arrow. The direction-of-travel line should now point west. Does it? Repeat for the other cardinal directions. This set of exercises will help develop precision and self-confidence at compass reading and also is a way to check the accuracy of the compass. And if you make a mistake or two, well, no harm done.

Look for chances to practice in the mountains. A good place is any known location—such as a summit or a lake shore—from which you can see identifiable landmarks. Take bearings as time permits, plot them on the map, and see how close the result is to your actual location.

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