Survival Myth: A Compass Always Points North

May 4, 2012

Navigation, Survival Myths

Map & Compass Skills are essential

Getting Lost. It’s been described as an almost claustrophobic episode where the woods are closing in on you. You feel the world encroaching into your space from all directions and you just want to get out of there.

For others, not knowing where you are or how to get back to your vehicles feels like someone is chasing you; like you’ve got to hurry to find your way back. The day is slipping away at an increasing rate and you know that the trail is just around the next bend or over the next ridge. It’s got to be, doesn’t it?

When lost, your heart beats fast and your mind is clouded. Often, your judgement is not sound during those times. You miss or simply disregard opportunities that could help. It’s important to STOP – Stop, Think, Observe, and Plan.

It’s at times like these that survivors make mistakes. They don’t plan according to their new reality. They disregard knowledge and skills that they have because they are too panicked; there is too much adreniline in their system. For example, some survivors have ignored what their compass reports, convincing themselves that it cannot be right. But it is.

Or is it?

A Magnetic Compass

Man has used compasses for navigation since approximately the 10th century. Compasses first appeared in China but quickly spread to India and Europe. The new technology afforded mankind a much more robust and accurate way to get from one point to another. Prior to compasses, people relied on landmarks and the stars for navigation.

For many years, a compass was essential for travel. Without one, travelers had to rely on guides or primitive directional techniques. Until recently, compasses were still the primary tool for navigation where there are no roads. Within the last decade, however, the Global Positioning System (GPS) has largely replaced the compass as the tool of choice.

But a good magnetic compass is still of great value today. Electronics can fail: they can break, they can run out of batteries, their signal can be obstructed. A compass is a wonderful device for navigation that everyone should learn how to use. It doesn’t require batteries and there are few components that can fail.

Limitations of a Magnetic Compass

A compass is a good tool. Learning its basic use is not difficult. But it’s like a lot of other skills. Mastering a compass takes time, practice, and training. You must learn how to use a compass and work within its limitations in order to be effective in your navigation.

For example, many people falsely believe that a compass always points North. Always. Without exception. But there are times when this is not exactly true, or at least not completely accurate.


A compass contains a small magnetized element that aligns the arrow of the compass with the earth’s naturally occurring magnetic field. Since the magnetic field is generally north-south, the compass will point northward and we can use that knowledge to navigate.

Like all magnetic devices, a compass is subjected to fields other than the earth’s. Compasses can be affected by strong electromagnetic fields, by naturally occurring magnetic deposits, and by metal.

For instance, placing a map across the hood of your car and then using your compass to orient that map will not work. The compass will be affected by the metal in the hood. The same holds true for tables with metal supports.

When using a compass, care must be taken to eliminate the outside interference from the compass.


A compass works on magnetic north which is approximately 1,000 miles from the North Pole. Most maps are oriented to True North (the North Pole) rather than magnetic north. So, depending on where you are in the world, True North and magnetic north may be a little or a lot different.

mapFor example, the U.S. city of Memphis, Tennessee, has a zero degree declination which means that magnetic north and True North are essentially in the exact same direction. However, in Seattle, Washington, magnetic north and True North differ by 16 degrees. That’s significant.

If you are traveling by map and compass, it’s important to adjust for declination. Good maps designed for orienteering will indicate what the declination adjustment is for the map so you can adapt your calculations accordingly.

Trust Your Compass, Not Your Instincts

I don’t mean to imply with this post that you shouldn’t trust your compass when navigating or when lost. You can and should trust it. More than one person has compounded his predicament by ignoring the compass because “It can’t be right.” It’s like pilots who have flown their small planes into the ocean because they trusted their feelings rather than their instruments.

Most of the time your compass is right and accurate. Use it. Trust it. Just make sure you really do know how to use it and compensate for its limitations.

I’ll write more on orienteering with a map and compass in future posts.

Got a navigation story you’d like to share? I’d like to hear it. 

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13 Comments on “Survival Myth: A Compass Always Points North”

  1. Stu C. Says:

    Very good article. I am of the opinion that people rely on GPS too much nowadays, especially in my line of work (USMC Infantry) The ability to understand and use a compass can mean the difference between getting out of trouble on your own, and having to have search parties sent for you. Modern compasses are great but they need to be checked periodically, the same goes for maps, mag north can change over time 🙂 Great subject, great article, great site


    • Joe Says:

      Thanks, Stu C! I couldn’t agree more. And thank you for your service to and the personal sacrafices you make for our great nation.



  2. Jarhead Survivor Says:

    I completely agree with Stu. There are many times I’ve seen dependence on modern electronics cause problems. People get so used to them that they let the old skills and methods slip and when the batteries run out there’s hell to pay!

    My little brother was an 0311 and he had some great stories about 2nd Lt’s getting lost because they didn’t know how to read a compass.


  3. richard ramey Says:

    Most maps are 5 – 10 yrs old. Magnetic declination is not constant. Every 3-5 yr it changes a degree or two. If traveling long distances for different azmeiths (sp) this can set you way off course. You need to call in and double check what the current reading is.
    If using grid for a map you need a grid “protractor” If using long. & lat. You need a long/lat “ruler” for map work.
    If using declination it is best to get a compass that you can adjust it for declination. If not every time you take a reading you have to do the math to adjust for it. This at times could be easy to forget to do.
    Silva ranger is a good compass fir the mirror that you use for sighting can also be used for emergency’s. It can be adjusted and has a cover plus a flat bottom and measurements for map work.


  4. Leo Says:

    On maps, magnetic declination, shown in degrees and is very important to the date on which was printed the map, because the decline varies with time, the adjustment should be done by multiplying the decline in the amount of years old map.


    • richard ramey Says:

      That will throw you way off. Dont multiply nothing.!!!!!
      It does not keep going forward and its not every year that it changes. You might be in a cycle that reverts back.
      It might be three years before it changes 1../degree.
      Call or use web for the U.S.G.S. (united states geological survey).


    • Joe Says:

      Magnetic north does move a little each year and over time that can make a difference. But it’s not predictable and there is no need to multiply anything to compensate for the age of the map. Please don’t take offense but I think you are a bit confused about , Leo.


      • richard ramey Says:

        Yes, sorry if post too strong against multiplying. I had never heard that and did not.want.people thinking that is something a person should do. Sorry for.strong words.



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