How To Make A Compass In The Woods

Man with a compass

No one thinks that a simple hike will end up in a survival situation. When reading news accounts of people who have become separated from a group, or who disappeared during a hike, you often hear friends and family talking about what an experienced outdoors person they were. The truth is, nature doesn’t care. 

An unexpected change in the weather can take someone by surprise. An accident, a fall, or a wrong turn that resulted in being completely lost can happen to anyone. The difference between an experienced outdoors person and a novice is preparedness. It may not always result in the best possible outcome, but it gives you an edge that can help you find your way out, or survive until someone can find you. 

Knowing which direction you are going can make all the difference if you are ever lost in the wilderness. Let’s talk about compasses, and how you can make one if you ever find yourself lost in the woods. Here’s how to make a compass in a survival situation.

Why Do I Need A Compass?

How to make a compass in the woods

Instead of asking why you need a compass when out hiking, the answer is “why wouldn’t you need one”. If you become lost on a trail, the woods can look so similar that you have no way of knowing where you actually are. 

If you’re thinking “but what about the sun?” remember, the sun may not be visible through the tree canopy in certain areas, or a storm may come up obscuring your view. Before you leave your compass behind when packing for a trail, picture the worst-case scenario.

If I Brought A Compass, Why Should I know How To Make One?

Lost in the woods

The more you know, the better prepared you are. It might seem like knowledge that you will never need, but if you make frequent camping or hiking trips, there is a chance that at some point you could end up without your gear. 

You could be robbed on a trail, lose your things in a fall, or any number of odd scenarios. Just like you should know how to make a shelter, you should be well versed in other techniques that can help you if you find yourself in a survival situation. 

How To Make A Compass

So the worst has happened and now you’re lost in the woods without your compass. What can you do? The first step in any survival situation is to keep calm. Take note of which supplies you have left, and start to make a plan. 

How much daylight is left? Determine if you need to find immediate shelter, and try to figure out where you are, and which direction you need to go.

With any luck, you have not lost all of your gear and still have access to your first aid kit. If you happen to have a sewing kit on you, this is just as useful. 

What you will need:

  • A needle or razor blade
  • String
  • A leaf
  • Water
  • Bottle
  • Thread
  • Magnet

If you have these things there are two types of compasses you can make. For both, you will want to magnetize your needle or razor blade. You can do this by rubbing the magnet in one direction about 30 times. If you do not have a magnet don’t panic. 

You can still magnetize your needle. Simply use your hair, or any wool or fur you may be wearing, and rub it against the eye of the needle about 100 times. This will also work to magnetize the needle or razor blade. 

Find a way to orient your directions so you can mark which portion of the needle is facing north. If you are familiar with the geography of the area this can help you orient yourself enough to make an educated guess.

Once you have magnetized your makeshift compass point, you have two choices. If you are near water, and there is no wind, you can place your needle on a leaf. Float the leaf in the water. The needle will pull the leaf clockwise or counterclockwise as it orients itself.

The other method requires a bottle or a jar. Thread your needle or your razor blade. Secure the thread to the top of your bottle so the needle is dangling. The needle will pull north-south.

The bottle method is advantageous in that you do not need to find a pool of water, the needle will not be at the whim of the wind, and best of all, you now have a portable compass.

How To Read A Compass

Compass and a knife

No compass, be it makeshift, or the most expensive compass in the world is helpful if you aren’t sure how to read it. There are intricacies involving compass reading, but for our purposes, all you really need to know are the basics. 

The compass is marked with the four cardinal directions, North, South, East, West. There is a magnetized needle inside that points North, no matter which direction you are facing. If you are using a manufactured compass, there is an orienting arrow. 

When finding your direction, you turn the compass until the orienting arrow and the N marking are lined up with the needle. This shows you which direction you are actually going. 

With your makeshift compass, once you have an idea of which direction North is, you will need to use an educated guess about which direction you are facing. While this is not ideal, it may be enough to help you reorient yourself, and find your way out of the woods.

How To Verify Your Direction

There are a few other things that can help you find your direction if you are lost in the woods. In addition to your compass, they can help verify the direction you are going. 

Some of these signs are dependent on latitude, and these indicators are all for locations North of the Tropic Of Capricorn.

Moss on a tree
  • Look at the moss. Moss typically grows in the shade, which means moss will be on the north side of the trees.
  • Spider webs are typically on the south side of trees.
  • This method is only good if you can find a sunny area. Place a stick in the ground, with a marker of some kind to show where its shadow started. Keep an eye on it for about 30 minutes. Note the way the shadow moves. This will give you an idea of east and west.

Conclusion

Sunrise in the woods

Don’t let “experience” or bravado overshadow your common sense. Make sure you are prepared before you even think about entering the woods. 

Always make sure you are equipped with the proper gear. Know ways that you can compensate for gear that may have been lost in an accident. Preparation is the key to survival, and if the worst happens, you want to be as prepared as possible. Knowing ways to find your direction if you have the misfortune to be lost in the woods, increases your chances of survival. 

Before you venture out again, make yourself a wilderness compass to see how they work. Besides a survival tool, they are an interesting way to experiment with compasses. Hopefully, you will never need the skill except to impress people at parties.