36 How to Make a Compass While Camping
A few simple items can point you in the right direction
A few simple items can point you in the right direction
When you’re camping, you need it if you get lost. When you’re hiking, you need it to know which direction to travel. When you’re exploring (or searching for treasure), you need it to confirm you’re pointed toward your destination. When you’re planning to build a house or set up camp, you need it to decide which way your bedroom or sleeping bags must be oriented. What is it? A compass.
The compass was supposedly created in China during the Han dynasty, though back then it was allegedly used for occult purposes to communicate with higher beings or the universe itself. Perhaps this is because a magnet spins and turns without human intervention. It wasn’t until the Song Dynasty in the 1000s that the compass was used for navigation. This could be attributed to the fact that the Chinese were some of the earliest explorers and scientists (along with the Egyptians and Greeks). Today, GPS units are all the rage, but a good old compass is still something everyone should carry while walking fields and forests. If you find yourself without one, here’s an easy way to make one using just a leaf, needle, magnet and body of water.
“At its core, a compass is just a magnetized piece of metal elevated above the ground so that it can spin …”
The Magnet and how it Works
The magnet, which powers a compass, is a remarkable tool. Simply put, it’s a piece of naturally occurring metal that detects Earth’s geomagnetic field. This geomagnetic field begins in the earth’s core and extends toward outer space. This metal is magnetized so that one end always points toward the Magnetic
North Pole, and the other toward the Magnetic South Pole.
This metal was first discovered by the Greeks by way of lodestones. The word “magnet” comes from the Greek magn tis líthos, which means “stone that comes from magnesia.” The Greeks discovered that magnets are in tune with the earth’s geomagnetic field.
At its core, a compass is just a magnetized piece of metal elevated above the ground so that it can spin, and one end of it can point toward the Magnetic North Pole. Note: The difference between Magnetic North (where the compass points) and True North is 500 kilometers or about 311 miles.
The only other components of a compass are its markings, which show the way north, south, east and west.
Lost Without a Compass
So, you’ve found yourself in the woods without a compass. This may be by accident, or it could be a choice, perhaps to test your ability to survive off the land. Regardless, you can find your way back home with a needle and a magnet.
Of course, you’ll want to carry a small, button-like magnet for the express purpose of showing that it’s not absolutely necessary to bring a bar magnet or a horseshoe magnet, as long as you know which end of it is north and which is south (see sidebar, “How to Test Your Magnet’s Polarity,” pg. 39).
Next, you’ll need a standard sewing needle, roughly 2.5 inches long. Any needle is acceptable, but finding the right weight balance can be tricky. It must be heavy enough that it can move the weight of a leaf on water, but not so heavy that it weighs the leaf down. Bringing multiple needles is recommended.
Finding the Appropriate Pond or Lake
It’s important to note that the season and location heavily dictate the body of water you’ll use. We took our pictures in North Carolina in the middle of January. Not a single lake, pond or stream had a trace of ice, but if you’re located in Minnesota, finding a lake that isn’t covered by at least 7 inches of ice is unlikely. Conversely, in North Carolina
in July, most water has a film of algae covering the surface that prevents the free flow of water, particularly around the banks. The lesson here is to always do your research. In Minnesota, you’d either have to dig a hole in the ice, or more wisely, carry an actual compass in the winter.
Selecting the leaf is also important, but nowhere near as difficult. All you need is a leaf—dead or alive—without any holes in it. It’s important that it doesn’t break apart as soon it hits the water.
Magnetizing the Needle
The size and strength of your magnet will dictate how much you need to rub the needle on it. The magnets we used came in bulk and are used to post things on a refrigerator—a far cry from a super magnet, but they work.
Rub the eye of the needle on the magnet’s Magnetic South Pole. Do this for 15-30 seconds. If your magnet is brittle, some shavings may actually attach to the needle. This is a good thing; it lets you know that your needle is absolutely magnetized.
Once you’ve magnetized the eye, rub the point of the needle on the magnet’s Magnetic North Pole for the same duration. If you’re unsure about whether you’re giving the two ends opposite polarities (such as if you’re using a circular magnet and there’s no clear delineation of poles), run the already polarized eye around the edge of the magnet. At a certain point, the magnet will repel your needle (you’ve found the opposite pole).
Finally, set your leaf on the water with the needle on top of it. Watch the leaf closely; it should point north. Be observant and make sure the needle is moving the leaf. You should be able to tell this by the speed at which the leaf turns (faster means that the needle is likely turning the leaf).
Now that we’ve discussed how to create a compass in a pinch, give it a try. A little practice will help should you find yourself in a situation where navigation is critical. Good luck!
(above) The magnet is lined up so that the south side of the compass is pointing directly at it. (opposite) 1. These tools are needed to test a magnet’s polarity. 2. The needle must be magnetized. 3. This is the author’s magnet with both north and...
4. (above, clockwise from the top) 1. A clear body of water on which a leaf can easily float is needed for the author’s DIY compass. 2. A solid leaf with no holes in it floats properly. 3. The author tests the leaf. 4. The author’s compass is placed in...