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How to Use a Compass when Traveling

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This travelogue entry on how to use a compass when traveling is part two of a series on navigation.

I always travel with a compass. I find that I use it almost everyday, no matter if I am in the countryside or in the middle of a large city. Pulling my compass out of my vest pocket, flipping it open, and checking my cardinals has become an act of second nature.

Like a police officer who touches the butt of his pistol with his elbow at obsessive intervals, I check my orientation with my compass. I suppose a traveler checking his direction of travel is akin to a cop checking his implement of power.

Though sometimes when I pull my compass out in front of other travelers they seem to react towards the action with jest:

“What, do you think you are going on an expedition or something, what do you need a compass for?”

“No, I am not on an expedition, I am in a city and the buildings are hemming me in like a mouse in a box. I can’t see the sun so I have no friggin’ idea how to orient myself to this map without knowing what direction I am facing.”

And then I proceed to figure out our orientation — which makes a map usable — and I get us to where we are going.

Use of compass to navigate in urban areas

Check compass to orient yourself in cities

Check compass to orient yourself in cities

It is in the middle of a big foreign city, rather than in the wilderness, that the compass is of most use for a traveler. When I am outside where there are plenty of natural indicators to orient myself with, a compass is often not as useful.

If I can get a clear view of the sun and I know what time it is and a rough idea of my latitude, I can tell with a moderate amount of precision what direction I am facing. At night, I know that the Big dipper points to the North Star and the Southern Cross is in the south.

It is when I am in the middle of a major metropolis — where I am cut off from the signs of the natural world by tall buildings, smog, traffic, the interiors of malls, pedestrian tunnels, the inside of train stations, people getting in my face trying to sell me junk, and the entire assemblage of civilization — I have no idea what direction I am facing.

And a map is just a hodge podge of nonsense if you are not oriented to it. So I use a compass.

I remember all of those times when I walk up out of a subway station or out of a major railway station with no idea what direction is which. I see streets but have no idea where they are going to. The sun and stars are blanketed behind the cloak of city buildings and city lights, I look for some sort of orientation.

I see a street sign: “Ah, ok, I am on Toe Tickler Alley.” I find Toe Tickler Alley on my map. “Hmm, now what side of Toe Tickler Alley am I on.”

There are a few ways to find out:

  1. I can walk in one direction long enough that I find another landmark that I can place on a map (like an adjacent street).
  2. I can ask someone and show them the map, though I know that maps more often than not just confuse local people more than they do travelers. Locals often don’t use maps, and can’t read them. To avoid being mobbed by a group of helpful people who can offer little help, I don’t ask for directions while referring to a map.
  3. Take out my compass, and, with a single look, I know what way to turn.

Cities that have street names that you can read are the best case scenario. More often than not, I cannot read the street signs in the countries that I travel in. Most often, the city does not have any street signs at all.

So whenever I come out of a major railway station, up from the subway, or am otherwise disoriented in a city, I just take out my compass and I can better find my position in relation to where I would like to go.

“Ok, so I am on the north side of this railway station and I want to take a road that goes east then another that goes south.”

Now I know that I need to take a right out of the station and then another right to go south. It is easy. If I have a compass I can generally always mark my provenience on a map in regards to major landmarks that are also on a map — such as train stations, tall buildings, monuments, rivers, major highways, a certain street.

Compasses also help me return to a certain point that I come from. When I walk out of my place of accommodation in a large city, I pull out my compass and check my orientation.

“Ok, so the street that my hotel is on runs roughly east and west, there is a large building with an ugly tower a few blocks down to the west and there is a river that runs sort of parallel to the hotel’s street a few blocks to the north.”

I am thus roughly oriented to the surroundings of my home area of a city. If I go to another part of the city, I can check my rough direction in accordance to my neighborhood. If I go to a market to the southeast, then I know that to get home I go northwest.

I also occasionally take bearings on highly visible landmarks when walking in the nether regions of cities that are difficult to navigate, but I will publish more about doing this in another entry into the navigation series.

Using a compass to check transportation

Compasses are also helpful when taking taxis or pubic buses.

If I know that I want to go in a roughly easterly direction, and the taxi driver is taking me really far to the west, I know that there is a problem — and I then have the backup to set my situation back upright. Or if I have a compass I can make sure that the taxi driver is not running the meter by driving me around in circles. The city streets of most cities outside of the New World are a knotted up series of mazes — which makes it nearly impossible to know where you are going in a taxi. But with a compass you can give yourself a rough impression if you are being taken for a “ride.”

City buses often run along routes that are somewhat aligned to the cardinal directions. If you want to go somewhere in a city that is to the south of where you are, and you get on a bus that is going far to the north, you then can inquire into the possibility that you mistakenly stepped onto the wrong bus. Knowing your orientation is also helpful when trying to figure out what side of the street to stand on to catch a bus going in the right direction.

Compass when traveling conclusion

In travel, I very rarely find myself in situations that require me to really use somewhat complex compass orientation methods. Most often, I just use the compass in my pocket to orient me to the cardinal directions and to give me a rough impression of where I stand.

Another entry in this series on navigation will focus on orienteering and wilderness travel, but, for the most part, traveling usually only requires the most basic usages of a compass.

A simple Brunton compass like this is good for travel

A simple Brunton compass like this is good for travel

Orientation and self sufficiency

If I can provenience myself in a city, then I often do not need to ask directions or drop money on a taxi. If I have a rough impression of where I am and where I am going, I put myself in control of my travels. I like to rely on other people as least often as possible on the road, and I have found that carrying a compass makes me far more of a self sufficient traveler.

Living for yourself, relying on yourself is perhaps part of the romance of traveling.

Traveling, or so I assume, is what happens in between point A and point B. I like traveling — I crave the distance “in between” — and I want to know as much about my route as I can. So I use a compass.

Buy a compass

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Filed under: Navigation, 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 3053 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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