Learn to Point North and to read a compass

During our H.E.A.T courses, attendees often share an all too common experience – the alarming feeling of being lost.  However, by using some simple navigation techniques , understanding how to point north and learning how to read a compass, you might become temporarily unaware of your surroundings in a hostile environment … but never lost.

If you think you are lost, stop travelling and take stock of your surrounding.  You should be able to recall your point and time of departure, your destination and have a rough estimate of the distance you have travelled and in which direction.  If you are flying, you might know your approximate ground speed and flying time.  These two indicators should give you an idea of the area in which you have landed.

When you realised that you are lost, and have no global position system (GPS) or compass, climb the nearest high point and study the surrounding terrain in a full 360° circle noting all the prominent features and objects.  Depending on the movement of the sun and the moon (which always rises on the East and always sets in the West), determine how to point yourself North.

If you have a map, use the knowledge of your approximate position and picture how you relate to the landscape you see around you.  Look at your map and identify an object or feature that you also recognise on the landscape in front of you.  Orientate your map by turning it northwards, the direction which is recorded on the edge of most maps by an arrow and the character N.  Now, identify the object on the map that you can also see on the landscape and draw a line on your map between the identified object and your approximate position.

Turn the map so that the line you have drawn points to the object on the ground.  This will orientate you to know which direction you are facing and give you a clear understanding of how the physical landscape relates to the representation of the landscape drawn on your map.

This will provide you with the ability to choose a line of march following features on the map.

If you do not have a map, you can make one by drawing on a piece of paper or on the ground or alternatively you can memorise the salient features before moving on.  Always know how to point North during your travel.

On your map record the position of the sun, the direction of tree shadows and prevailing winds.  Note down the location of rivers, forests, buildings, settlements, tracks and roads.  Then, select certain features along the route you want to follow and travel from feature, to feature keeping a record on your map or by memory.

If you have a compass, use the feature system as described above.  Determine the bearing you want to follow and choose two prominent objects (trees, rocks or features) aligned with that  bearing.  Before reaching the first object, select a third object ahead of you and along your line of march.

On reaching the second object, pick a fourth feature along your line of march and continue in a leap frog fashion.   Periodically, look back along the route you have travelled.  In this way, you can check that you travelling in a straight line and therefore on the same bearing.  You will also be able to recognize salient features, should you have to retrace your steps.