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How to Make a Compass in the Wild

How to Make a Compass in the Wild

Anyone who has ever been trekking in the great outdoors will be able to tell you that when you are lost out there without cell phone reception, a map or a compass, panic settles in fast. Now imagine night is falling and food, water and shelter is nowhere in sight. How do you even attempt to get back to civilization?

Most would say that travelling in the outdoors without a survival pack (with a compass) is absurd, but the truth is accidents happen and survival packs can get lost. So, no matter how prepared you are going into the wild, you should always have some basic knowledge of wilderness survival to help you get by without any equipment.

One of the most important things you need to be able to do is navigate, and the most logical option for this is a compass. So, let’s investigate how to build a compass in the wild, to find your way home.

The needle and string method is the most basic, uses the least amount of tools and is thus most practical in a real crisis.

  • Remove a piece of string from your clothing.
  • Find a small piece of wire – a pin or needle.
  • Magnetize the piece of metal by rubbing it repeatedly in one direction with silk, wool or hair.
  • Suspend the needle from the string in a wind free space. It will point to magnetic North and South.
  • Using the sun, determine which end points North and mark it on the needle.

Now you know the most basic way of making a compass, let’s look at some other methods to build a field compass. For all of these methods, the basics remain the same – you will need a pivoting device and a piece of magnetized metal. The difference lies in the type of pivoting device you use and how you magnetize the metal.

How to pivot your needle

The purpose of the pivot is to allow the needle free movement and depending on how much gear you have with you, there are several options for you to choose from.

  • The floating leaf. Placing the pin on a small floating leaf allows it free movement. You will however need a small container with some water to make this compass portable.
  • The cork. In a similar way, if you have a piece of cork or the plastic lid of a bottle, you can stick the needle through the cork or bottle top and allow it to float on the water.
  • The string and tin. By tying the needle to a string and suspending it into a tin can, or bottle, you can create a more portable magnet with protection from the wind.

How to magnetize the metal

Using wool or hair to magnetize the piece of metal is very basic and can be used in extreme circumstances. There are however better ways to create a needle magnet, but they require a bit more equipment. Just remember that the metal should be ferrous, so either iron, nickel or cobalt.

  • Using a Magnet. Magnets can be used to make magnets. If you are lucky enough to have a magnet with you, it can be used to magnetize your needle. Simply rub the needle in one direction with your magnet several times to magnetize it. In an emergency, you can find magnets inside cell phones and car speakers.
  • Tapping. If you tap a steel or iron object against the one end of the needle repeatedly, it will become magnetized. Usually a knife blade will do the trick. Stick the needle in a piece of wood and tap on the other end to magnetize it.
  • Battery and wire. If you have a small battery with you, it can be used to electrically magnetize your needle. Simply wrap the needle in a little bit of paper, then wrap some electrical wiring around the needle and connect one end of the wire to the positive battery pole, and the other to the negative pole.

The flow of electricity will magnetize the needle inside the paper after a couple of minutes. The needle will heat up due to the flow of electricity, but that is normal.

How to make a survival kit for the wilderness

Although it is great to know how to make a compass in the wild, I am sure that we wall would rather come prepared. The best way to do this is to pack a great wilderness survival kit. It is important to note that as survival kit should be light and compact and should not be a burden to carry or impede your movement.

A survival pack should be something that you can grab n the run, and that you should be able to carry with you wherever you go. It should only contain the most essential survival items to keep you alive for a short period of time.

So, for those of us that were not in the scouts, or have forgotten what the scouts taught us, here is what should be in your survival kit and why. (Source: Wilderness Awareness School).

  • Compass. Most people these days prefer to carry a GPS with them to navigate. These are easier to use and much more accurate. The reality is that a GPS is a piece of electronic equipment that can drop and break or run out of battery life. You should thus never rely solely on a GPS, but rather include a small pocket compass in your survival kit.

Make sure you know how to use it as well!

  • GPS. Knowing the limitations of your instruments helps you prepare for their downfalls. Having said this, I also have to attest to the ease and comfort of having a GPS with you in the wild. Prices of these instruments have dropped over the last few years and they are much more affordable and should be included in your survival kit.
  • First Aid kit. Living with a scratch or some mosquito bites is not going to prevent you from reaching your destination and your first aid kit should therefore focus on caring for real emergencies. Quality first aid kits can be bought at drug stores or the American Red Cross.

It should contain amongst others a solar blanket, a triangle bandage, surgical blades, butterfly sutures, disinfectant and painkillers.

  • Water purification tablets. Keeping hydrated is vital to your survival in the wild, and although you can function for a couple of days without proper food, one day without water can kill you. Finding water is often not the problem in the wild, with rivers, dams, lakes puddles and streams being quite common.

Unfortunately, drinking unclean water can lead to diarrhea and dehydration. These tablets sterilize the water to make it safe to drink.

  • Fire starting equipment. These usually include a butane lighter, waterproof matches or a magnesium fire-starting tool. Fire is important as it provides light, heat and protection in the wilderness.
  • Knife. A small but sharp multifunctional knife, such as an army knife, is pr the most useful. It is also important to make sure that you know how to sharpen your knife in the wild.

I hope this information has been useful in preparing for emergencies in the wild. Be prepared and in any emergency, stay calm and think logically – it could save your life.