Making a Homemade Compass

I become a trifle nauseated at the thought of people hauling their electronic gizmos into the woods. The entire point of the exercise revolves around escaping modern society, even if just for a little while. It’s a return to reality in a world obsessed with virtual reality.

Somehow – unless genetic prestidigitation has taken place and you can now grow cell phones and GPS from modified seeds – the use of thingamabobs that do your thinking for you are utterly out of place in the wilderness.

I’m not a fanatic. I have no problem with modern knives, guns, tents, sleeping bags, lanterns, ropes, backpacks, etc. I’m not one of these zealots that believe in eating tree bark and mice when you could just as easily haul in a couple of steaks and a bottle of Courvoisier. Heck, even though fire pistons are pretty cool I’d much rather start a fire with a match or camping lighter.

Which brings us to the compass. Yeah, I’m sure your tablet or smart phone has GPS technology. That’s great if you’re lost in Manhattan and trying to find Union Square. It’s just silly if you’re in the northern Rockies and seek to discover the route to a rarely visited alpine lake.

Learning how to correctly use a compass is a skill, a science, and an art. They’ll help you get where you’re going; they’ll help you find your way out of where you don’t want to be. The guy who is toting a nice Silva, Brunton, or Suunto is the guy who I want in my camping party. I’m a big fan of the Wenger Swing-Out compass watches. There’s something to be said for knowing what time is it while determining which way is north.

But what happens when you lose your compass? What happens when you need to determine a direction and your compass has fallen off its lanyard and is bumping along the bottom of a rocky creekbed?

Easy, you make your own. Building a compass from scratch takes literally minutes. Building a GPS-endowed cell phone from scratch requires a lab, a factory, and a bunch of grossly underpaid workers in third-world countries. To construct a floating-needle compass here’s all you need to do.

Take a needle and a small magnet from your backpack
(you do have a needle and a little magnet . . . right?). Stroke the magnet over the needle from the eye to the point. Stroke in one direction only (don’t run it back and forth). This will magnetize the needle. As an aside, you can also magnetize your knife blade prior to embarking. Scrape it along the needle and forget about toting around a magnet.

Run the needle through your hair to make it a bit oily
I suppose, if you’re bald, you can apply any sort of grease to the needle (butter, Chapstick, whatever).

Get a bowl and fill it with water
Set the bowl down until the water is still, and gently place the needle on the water’s surface. If you don’t have a bowl you can place the needle on the surface of a puddle. Any still or stagnant water will do. The needle ain’t picky.

The needle will float, and slowly begin to turn
Within a short time it will line up in a north and south orientation.

Between that, the position of the sun, and a little common sense you ought to be able to navigate your way in the general direction of wherever you’re headed.

You didn’t need a GPS . . . and when you return to civilization you’ll have a nifty story to post on Facebook.