Using Compass Bearings

compassmapWhen you first start out orienteering, most of your navigation will be on trail and a compass is only needed to orient your map. However, once you start going up in course difficulty and venturing off-trail, you will need something to help you figure out the direction you should head. This is where your compass will become a vital aid in helping you find a control that is off-trail.  

Following a compass bearing is a very useful way for the orienteer to  determine which direction to go. It will also help you keep on track to reach the next control. 


Measuring a Compass Bearing

Look closely at the leg from Control 9 to 10.  Control 9 is the corner of a fence, and Control 10 is a pit in an area of runnable forest. This would be an example situation where using a compass bearing is highly recommended.  There are no handrails to the control and not a lot of other prominent features with which to reference oneself.  In this example, the location of Control 9 does also offer a good attack point for Control 10.  Below are the steps you would follow in order to proceed with measuring a bearing from the map.

Step 1 – Align the compass base plate along the line of travel.  In this case, as illustrated on the left,  your intended line of travel would be from the location of Control 9 to Control 10.  Make sure that the direction of travel arrow on your compass is pointing in this direction.





Step 2 - Rotate the compass dial until the meridian lines in the compass are in a parallel alignment to the north lines located on the orienteering map.  You now have the bearing you need to follow, set on your compass ready to go.


Important Note:  In this example, the compass needle is shown oriented to north.  However, when you are measuring your bearing, don't focus on the needle. Just make sure to line up the meridian lines first. The compass needle will become important when you are ready to follow the compass bearing as described below.






Following a Compass Bearing

Precision compass work requires concentration and the careful application of correct techniques.  As with some other aspects of orienteering, don't rush this stage.   If for example you have not paid attention to aligning your meridian lines correctly north to south, you may make what is commonly referred to as a 180 degree error.  This is when you end up travelling exactly in the opposite direction from your intended control.  This can be a mistake that will be very costly in time. It is important to take your time here and practice this technique over and over before attempting to do it quickly.

Step 1 – Take the compass off the map and place it directly in front of you.  Make sure that the baseplate of the compass is held at your waist and is positioned directly perpendicular to your body.

Step 2 – Now turn your body until the north side of the compass needle lines up centered within the orienting arrow and pointing to 'N' on the compass dial.   Once this is complete the direction of travel arrow should point out the path you need to take in order to find the control.  Note:   It is very important not to bend your wrist so that the needle can align itself.  Focus on turning your body only.


Step 3 – Sight with your eye up from your compass and select an easily identifiable object in the distance about 50 to 100 m ahead of you.  This could be a distinctive tree or other recognizable feature.

Step 4 – Move swiftly to this feature, glancing down from time to time and checking the location of your compass needle to ensure it stays oriented to north on your compass.  Once you have reached your initial target, re-align the compass again to your body, allow your sight to travel upwards and repeat the process by selecting another target that is in-line with your compass bearing.  Keep going until you are in visual range of the control flag.


Using a Compass

Here is an excellent video produced by the South London Orienteers (SLOW) that will show you how to measure and follow a compass bearing. The orienteer in this video (Hector) is using quite a fancy baseplate compass, but all the principles are the same. Later in the video, he will show how this works when using a thumb compass.



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