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How to Navigate with a Compass when Traveling

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Having a map and compass will do you no good if you don’t know where you want to go, getting to where you want to go is a crap shoot if you don’t know where you are, and knowing where you are is pointless if you don’t know what direction you’re facing. Unless I’m marching a wayward path, in travel I need to know these three keys of navigation.

Having a destination is easy, it is rare that someone is going to set off without any clue as to where they want to end up. Once arriving in a village or city my destination is usually a hotel, a campsite, something I want to check out, a place to buy food or other supplies, an interesting district of a city, an area of an event etc . . . But to get to where I want to go I first need to know where I’m at. For this, I use maps. Either I buy a map, pick one up at a tourist information center, or I previously check out the lay of the land using Google Maps or another online system. I will often hand draw simple maps into a notebook that outline where I will arrive in a city (i.e. bus/ train station) and where I want to go. Then, upon arrival, I need to orient myself to my maps and find the route that I want to travel from point A to point B. For this I use a compass.

I find that I use my compass far more in urban areas than I do out in the wilderness or countryside. I admit that it may look awful funny to see me taking bearings on a compass in the middle of a raging city, but this is the best way I’ve found to orient myself in such a setting. In point, when out in wilderness areas there are often natural indicators of direction — the sun, river flow direction, moss on trees, big landmarks like mountain ranges, highways — but in cities many of these either don’t exist, have been manipulated by humans, or are blocked from view by big buildings. In point, it is never more easy to go vertigo than in a big city. For this reason I carry a compass.
When I arrive at a station in an unfamiliar city the first thing I do is walk out to nearest road and take a compass bearing. I find out the cardinal directions in relation to the the city’s building pattern and discover what direction I need to go in order to get to my destination.

So if I know that a bus station is in the northeast of a city and the hotel I want to go to is in the center, I know that I need to travel southwest. I usually try to travel in a particular direction until I intersect the nearest major street that my destination is located on. From here, finding my way is easy.

I usually prepare by taking notes that look like the following:

Bus station in NE of city. Travel SW until Zhongshan street. Turn left. Hotel is on the right just after Dongfeng street.

This method of navigation can also be used for public transportation as well. If you know the direction that you want to be heading in then it becomes more difficult for a taxi driver to take you in circles (read Taxi Travel Tip). If you approximately where your destination is in relation to your current position then you can jump on a city bus without necessarily being familiar with it’s route. If you know the cardinal direction you want to head in you can hop on a subway with only a quick consultation of its stop map. Also, if you see something interesting along the way you can easily return to it later as you’ll know approximately where it is located.

What type of compass to use

From years of doing archaeology fieldwork I’m a chauvinist for Brunton compasses. But, I have to admit, for general travel purposes it really doesn’t matter what brand of compass is used — just so it points out the cardinal directions properly. Any smaller sized, sighting or pocket compass should do the trick. A general hiking/ camping compass is perfect.

Conclusion

If you know where you want to go, where you are, and what direction you’re facing navigating the urban areas of the world is simple. All too often travelers rely on public transportation to magically whisk them to where they want to go without necessarily knowing where they are truly going. Knowing where you stand and where you’re going gives a traveler more power and versatility on their journey.

Take control of your travels, use a compass.

Buy a Brunton Compass

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Filed under: Navigation, Travel Gear, Travel Tips

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 76 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3054 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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