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The compass

A good outdoors compass will do more than simply show which way is north. It can help you to work out a bearing on the map and then follow it on the ground. Or you can use it to record the direction to a feature you can see (perhaps a hill-top or a church spire) and use that to help work out where you are on the map.

To benefit from these features you need a compass with a baseplate on which the compass needle itself is mounted in a rotating housing. The rotating housing has a dial on which degrees (from 0 - 360) are marked. By rotating the housing a bearing from the map can be recorded and 'locked' into the compass. It is then much simpler to follow that bearing as you walk.

Variation
Compass needles do not point to 'True North', the direction to the North Pole. This is because 'Magnetic North', to which the compass points, does not lie at the Pole but some way from it - a few hundred miles in fact. More complicated still it slowly travels around the Pole, changing its position every year. The grid lines on most maps point, broadly speaking, towards True North (strictly speaking they point to Grid North). The map usually shows the variation between Grid North and Magnetic North at the date of publication and how that variation will change in ensuing years. When you take a bearing from a compass or put one on it, you can make the appropriate adjustment.

Fortunately Britain is well-placed at the moment not to suffer from too high a variation between True and Magnetic North. For the most part the variation can be ignored, unless you are navigating to a very fine degree of accuracy.

Learning how to use a compass
A good outdoors compass can be bought in most outdoor shops - expect to pay between £10 and £20. Ones made by Silva are the most popular. It is a good idea to have a string or lanyard so you can hang it round your neck or attach it to your rucksack; compasses are easily dropped and lost.

There is a useful instruction sheet on how to use a baseplate compass on the Scouts website. There is also some good information and videos showing how to use a compass on the Ordnance Survey magazine website.

Useful publications

Tippettbook.jpg
Navigation for Walkers: The Definitive Guide to Map Reading
 is a very readable and clear introduction to all the important techniques for navigation in the outdoors. It focusses primarily on map reading and the use of the compass, although the 2nd edition now has sections on digital mapping and GPS.

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