How to make a compass in the wild

When things go wrong out in the wild, they can quickly spiral out of control. And like it or not, there is a good chance you could find yourself without your gear. That’s why practicing your skills and knowing how to improvise are both vital to your ability to survive in the wild.

So, what happens if you find yourself out in the wild, without cell service, without a compass, and without a way to navigate? Don’t worry, even if you don’t have a compass, there is a way to still get your bearings.

Did you know that you can use a needle, or a bit of metal wire to make a wilderness compass?

It’s something that most elementary school kids have probably done as part of a school science experiment, and it’s something you can do during an emergency.

Making a Simple Wilderness Bush Compass

A DIY Wilderness Needle Compass

Here’s How to make a DIY Compass out in the Wilderness:

Option 1: While most of us probably aren’t going to have a magnet with us while out in the field, if you did for some reason have one ,you use it to make your compass. Simply take the magnet and touch the south pole of the magnet to the point of your needle. Then touch the north pole of the magnet to the eye of the needle. You can also do this with a bit of wire.

Grab a leaf, or something light that will float, and place the needle on the leaf. Float it in a puddle of water, and you have yourself a makeshift compass.

Option 2: OK, so chances are you’re not going to have a magnet out in the wilderness; so instead, use a little bit of silk or wool from your clothing to magnetize the needle. Rub the needle back and forth from eye to point about 100 times; the needle will now be magnetized.

Now float the needle on the leaf, or piece of paper and you have yourself a crude wilderness compass.

Seeing a Homemade Compass In Action

The scientific principles are actually pretty simple, and chances are if you have younger kids they may have done something like this in science class…

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  1. Neodynium magnets are currently the strongest known magnets and can usually be purchased readily.
    A neodynium magnet of about 1cm square(~1/2inch) can have a carrying force of a few kg and can magnetise a pin for a compass in seconds.

    • Just remember The idea of rubbing silk on a needle making it a compass is incorrect, a myth. The bad thing is this information has spread all over the internet and it is incorrect. This is mixing up static electricity with electric and magnetic field properties.

      Most any needle is already somewhat magnetized from being around electrical wiring or devices in the home. As power is turned on and off, electric fields present from switching electricity nearby magnetize the needle.
      So somewhere along the way, from someone who remembered STATIC ELECTRICITY in school, (where rubbing silk on a PLASTIC rod or comb made it pick up bits of paper..) somehow the notion came along that rubbing a needle with silk would make it magnetic and usable as a compass.
      No one ever checked before they rubbed the needle, so they assumed it worked.
      It takes an electric or magnetic field to do this, NOT static electricity!

      This myth has spread to outdoor websites, survival websites, all over the place, they teach it in books, like “The Dangerous Book for Boys” but it is totally incorrect. I wrote the author of that book too, explaining it to him and advised him to check with an electrical professor at any college.
      It is difficult to disprove something so drummed into every persons’ mind. The movie, “The Edge” even had it.
      It is just wrong to keep spreading the myth, we need to get this set right.
      Gary Hartman (retired Electrical Engineer)
      P.S. see my book, “Kids’ Book of Adventure Projects” the compass Chapter, Silk Does Not Make a Compass.

      • Thanks Gary what a pest that is ‘ just thinking of trying to correct the situation psounds near imposible i suppose the consulation is the teckno that allowed miff to spreed aĺlso gives us gps ph ect ghopefully misinformd and misfortune dont come across a flat battery. speaking of witch you wouĺd explain be tter than me how to magnatise from copper wire coild around pin conected to a current id be interested in any ways moff yousing static ellectricty rather than a battery . once a magnet has been made im wondering could the magnet and copper wire be yoused to generate power to charge a battery by hand . thank you . and allso thanks for barering with my speling

        • Charley, Actually a moving magnet through or past a coil of wire does generate electricity, basically a permanent magnet generator. AC generators in powerhouses do not use permanent magnets though, they excite sections of windings around a metal rotor which swings past Stator windings to pick up the field and produce electricity. Amazing principles and the A.C. Generator was invented by Tesla!

      • I have just tried it; the effect of surface tension was way more powerful than the very limited magnetism!

  2. Imagine you are in your home, you have picked up a needle and are rubbing it with silk. The refrigerator kicks off behind you, you turn on the light over the sink to float your needle on a cork in the sink.. and it does SEEM to work!!
    NO, NO, the needle was already magnetized from the influence of electric fields in the electrical devices in your house! Static electricity IS NOT electromagnetic energy, and it only is a demostration for rubbing a plastic comb or rod, to pick up bits of paper. Do not get confused, this myth is running all over the internet and is WRONG!!

  3. Always can try the shadow tip method

    Step 1. Place a stick or branch into the ground at a level spot where a distinctive shadow will be cast. Mark the shadow tip with a stone, twig, or other means. This first shadow mark is always the west direction.

    Step 2. Wait 10 to 15 minutes until the shadow tip moves a few inches. Mark the new position of the shadow tip in the same way as the first.

    Step 3. Draw a straight line through the two marks to obtain an approximate eastwest line.

    Step 4. Standing with the first mark (west) to your left, the other directions are simple; north is to the front, east is to the right, and south is behind you.

    (1) A line drawn perpendicular to the east-west line at any point is the approximate north-south line. If you are uncertain which direction is east and which is west, observe this simple rule-the first shadow-tip mark is always in the west direction, everywhere on earth.

    (2) The shadow-tip method can also be used as a shadow clock to find the approximate time of day.

    (a) To find the time of day, move the stick to the intersection of the east-west line and the north-south line, and set it vertically in the ground. The west part of the east-west line indicates 0600 hours, and the east part is 1800 hours, anywhere on earth, because the basic rule always applies.

    (b) The north-south line now becomes the noon line. The shadow of the stick is an hour hand in the shadow clock, and with it you can estimate the time using the noon line and the 6 o’clock line as your guides. Depending on your location and the season, the shadow may move either clockwise or counterclockwise, but this does not alter your manner of reading the shadow clock.

    (c) The shadow clock is not a timepiece in the ordinary sense. It makes every day 12 unequal hours long, and always reads 0600 hours at sunrise and 1800 hours at sunset. The shadow clock time is closest to conventional clock time at midday, but the spacing of the other hours compared to conventional time varies somewhat with the locality and the date. However, it does provide a satisfactory means of telling time in the absence of properly set watches.

    (d) The shadow-tip system is not intended for use in polar regions, which the Department of Defense defines as being above 60 degrees latitude in either hemisphere. Distressed persons in these areas are advised to stay in one place so that search/rescue teams can easily find them. The presence and location of all aircraft and ground parties in polar regions are reported to and checked regularly by governmental or other agencies, and any need for help becomes quickly known.

    • Mathew the stick compass I would trust has perfect strait stick strait up and down into deed center of circle so long as the sun apex’s( miday may be not 12/ but litrally middle of day ) if you can get a mark either side of the circle a line will give you a east west start. any how in the sourthen hemis mos mold growth will be found on surface’s faceing south if you arnt at see and its deed flat no rock clump of any thing and cloudy wind is very yousfull

  4. About the needle rubbing thing…

    I first saw it in the Tarzan cartoon series.
    The needle is rubbed against another metal(in their case, an axe). I tried it too but with a fork. The needle was magnetized. Try it for yourself.

  5. If you have an nail, some wire, and a small battery you can magnetize the nail by winding the wire around the battery in a coil. Place one end of the wire on one side of the battery and the other on the other end of the battery. This will create an electromagnet and the nail will retain some of its magnetic properties permanently, ready to be floated on something in water. It will point north/south.

  6. In response to magnetising a needle using an ax or fork.
    Only very hard metals can be a magnet (not talking about an electromagnet). A fork and probably an ax will not maintain a magnetic field. Most steel needles ( that will break before they permantly bend) will contain some magnetic properties. Holding the needle and hitting it on one end will tend to aline the magnetic domains, thereby magnetizing it. Pointing the needle in the north/south direction while hitting it is even better.

  7. Just curious,besides the shadow tip, is there another way to use materials in ‘ nature ‘ to accomplish the leaf method? What if you don’t have a wire, needle, or magnet… is there another way to use the leaf method? I mean, who walks around carrying a needle on them? Something in the wild that would work. Say a hair, piece of clothing, etc. Just curious.
    In the movie ‘ Predators ‘, they use a leaf compass on the alien planet that doesn’t show true north, but rather spins. Now when they use it, it doesn’t look like wire or a needle. ( 15:28 ) See youtube. I know Hollywood is suspension of disbelief, but still… curious.

    • Many outdoors men and women carry needles with them. Especially carpenters. Stick one through the leather divider in your wallet and its will always be there for sewing, sutures, removing splinters and yes, even for makeshift compasses.

  8. The rubbing of needle to charge with static electricity has always worked for me, wool, and even you hair works just fine. Magnetized by stopping with a rock 50X works well too. Mr. Hartman is entitled to to his opinions, of course, but rubbing it on wool has never failed me in over 55 years of teaching this method.Note: sewing needles generally float on hard water without leaf or other flotation devise.

  9. As long as we are discussing make shift compasses… When in the northern hemisphere, on sunny days, with analog watch, point the hour hand towards the sun. The north-south line bisects the angle between the hour hand and the 12:00 position (Standard time) The north-south line bisects the angle between the hour hand and 1:00 position (Daylight savings time). You can also push a stick in the ground to cast a shadow that points to the sun. Determine which end of the north-south line is north, remember that the sun rises in the east until noon and sets in the west after noon.

    On Cloudy days:

    Place a stick at the center of an imaginary watch face. Place an hour hand on the shadow, when the watch is held above the stick, bisect the angle between the hour hand and the 12:00 position. This demarcates the north-south line.

  10. To get the needle once magnatized ,body oil from creese at nose or behind ears put on needle an lower carefully in water, it will float an point North.

  11. How do you know which way is North and which is South on the wire? It doesn’t have an eye.

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