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Compass Learner's Guide
Compiled for the Troop by Scouter Darcy Chapin, 2nd Strathcona

Scouter Darcy Runs His Compass Course

Program Link:

Voyageur Outdoor Skills Award - Requirement 9a,c



The compass and its parts1:

The Compass and its Parts

Compass needle: Points towards magnetic North.
Compass housing: The housing is marked with North, South, East, West, and the numbers from 0 to 360.
Orienteering arrow: Rotates with the compass housing. When using a map, this arrow needs to be aligned with the map's North (true North). When following a bearing, this arrow needs to be aligned with the compass needle.
Direction of travel arrow: Points in the direction that you want to travel.
Bearing: Direction, especially angular direction measured from one position to another using geographical or celestial reference lines.

Simple navigation without a map:

The compass housing is marked with the numbers 0 to 360. These numbers represent direction in degrees (). North is considered to be at 0 (or 360), East is at 90, and so on.

Compass Points

Let's say you would like to go in a certain direction, East for example. Turn the compass housing so that the 90 number (or the E) lines up with the direction of travel arrow. Next, hold the compass out in front of you, with the direction of travel arrow pointing straight ahead (away from you). Now, turn yourself until the North end of the compass needle is lined up with (or on top of) the orienteering arrow. Look where the compass's direction of travel arrow is pointing. This is where you want to go! Finally, just walk in a straight line following your compass's direction of travel arrow. You are walking East (magnetic East that is)! Your direction of travel (East or 90) is also called your bearing.

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True North versus Magnetic North:

True North is what is commonly thought of as the North Pole. Looking at a globe, true North would be at the very top, in the middle of an icy continent. True North never changes over time.

Magnetic North is more complicated. The Earth is not a simple solid magnet. Scientists believe that the Earth's magnetic field comes from its liquid core. The liquid core moves and generates electrical currents, and these currents create the Earth's magnetic field. Since the core is liquid, the core itself and its electrical currents change over time. This causes the Earth's magnetic field to change slowly, and we can observe this change by looking at historical positions of Magnetic North.

The North magnetic pole is in Canada! Early explorers started measuring the position of the pole in 1831. In recent years, Canadian Government scientists have measured the position of the pole every few years. The maps below show how much the pole has moved 2.

Location of Magnetic NorthMovement of Magnetic North
The North magnetic pole has been moving an average of 10km per year over the last century! Today, the magnetic pole is located somewhere near Ellef Ringnes Island, in Canada's far North. The pole is always moving, but it moves slowly enough that it only needs to be accurately measured for maps or charts every few years.

Maps and Charts:

Maps and charts always use true North as their reference point. All of the latitude and longitude lines (maps and charts use lines of latitude and longitude to give us a way to express location) on a map or chart are drawn in relation to true North. The longitude lines (which are drawn North-South) all converge at the true North Pole.

So what good is a magnetic compass? The problem is magnetic compasses always point to magnetic North, while maps and charts always use true North. A bearing measured on a chart won't be the same as a bearing measured by a magnetic compass.

Fortunately, maps and charts provide us with a correction factor called magnetic declination (or sometimes called magnetic variation). The correction factor is simply added (or subtracted) to a bearing to convert the bearing from degrees magnetic to degrees true, or from degrees true to degrees magnetic.

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Declination on Charts:

Charts intended for navigation will show the declination in different ways. Some charts use isogonic lines to show the amount of declination in a certain area. Isogonic lines join points on the map having the same declination. The following map shows the isogonic lines in Canada 3.

Isogonic lines in Canada

Other charts use a simpler way to show declination. The chart has two compasses drawn on top of each other. In the two-compass drawing, the North arrow on one compass points to true North, while the North arrow of the other compass points to magnetic North.

Some charts might not show any declination information. If you are using one of these charts, you should find out the declination for the area before you begin your trip.

Declination in the Burlington Area:

Near the city of Burlington, in 2002, the declination is about 10W. This means that if we stand in Burlington and look towards the true North Pole, magnetic North would appear to be 10W (or 10 to the left) of where we were looking. The drawing below shows how we would see true North and magnetic North if we were standing in Burlington.

True vs. Magnetic North

This means that to make use of a true bearing measured from a map, we must add 10 to it before we can follow the bearing with a compass. There is an easy way to remember this fact:

Declination West, Magnetic Best.

This saying reminds us that whenever the declination is West (as is the case for our area around Burlington), the magnetic bearing will always be larger than the true (chart) bearing. So, to convert from a true (chart) bearing, to a magnetic bearing, we always ADD 10.

To convert a magnetic compass bearing to a true bearing (since charts use true North), we must remember that the magnetic bearing is always the largest. We would therefore SUBTRACT 10 from the compass bearing, and this would give us the bearing to be used on the chart.


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This page, and all contents, Copyright 2002 Scouts Canada
, 15th Burlington and 2nd Strathcona Scouting Group, except where source noted.
Select graphics courtesy of the Web Diner
Photo Credit: Scouter Bill Kowalchyk
Material Source Credits:

Page last revised Monday September 10, 2012.