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How Does A Compass Work?

YBO Know-HowBy Tom Watson

People often say you should carry a compass when you go into the woods so you won’t get lost. How does that work? If possible, hold a compass in your hand while you read this.

The Earth is like a huge magnet spinning in space. There is an imaginary magnetic rod through its center — from the North Pole to the South Pole.

A magnetized piece of metal — like the light, free-swinging needle on a compass — is attracted to the North Pole of the Earth.

Compasses have a circle-shaped face to imitate the shape of the earth. From any point on earth you can turn in a full circle and look in all directions — North, West, South and East.

PhotoPhoto: Braxton Hengel takes a compass reading.

Circles are divided into degrees. A full circle is 360 degrees. If you draw a circle with these degrees marked on it and put a swinging magnetized needle in the exact center, you have a working compass.

Most compasses have a dial with an outline of an arrow. This is called the “orientation” arrow. There is often a travel arrow indicating the direction of travel, too.

Each degree of the circle is a point on the compass. The “0” degree and “360” degree mark are the same point. They represent “North.” The moving compass needle always points North.

Using other points on the compass — East (90 degrees), South (180 degrees) and West (270 degrees) and all the points in between, you can use your compass to find any direction on Earth.

Once you know where North is, you can then find any other direction from that point.

Pretend you are standing in a field on a cloudy day so you can’t see where the sun is (sun rises in East, remember). You have a compass. The needle will be pointing North. Turn the compass dial so its orientation arrow is exactly in line with the needle.

Suppose you have to find a road that is West of you. With the compass pointing to the North at 0 degrees, West is to your left at 270 degrees on the compass dial.

Turn the dial so the directional line is set at 270 degrees. Turn the compass so the needle aligns with the arrow on the dial. The compass is now oriented to the North so your directional arrow is pointing in the direction you want to travel.

The next step is to find a landmark — a tree, a rock, or a building — that is directly along that line (called a sight line). That is the direction you want to walk, towards the landmark.

Back ToYBO Home PageOnce you arrive at your first landmark, use your compass again to continue finding landmarks further along the same 270-degree line. Keep doing this until you come to your destination. That is basically how the compass works.

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