36 How to Make a Com­pass While Camp­ing

A few sim­ple items can point you in the right di­rec­tion

Modern Pioneer - - Contents - By Charles Wi­tosky

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).

Tell Di­rec­tion

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...




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