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Learn how to take a bearing.

This is a short blog to help you learn how to take a bearing at home. It's not aimed at teaching you everything you need to know - just some basic understanding and then a quick step by step guide. Get the kettle on, grab your map, compass and a marker pen or pencil. (only use a marker on a waterproof map)

A good start to using a map and compass together is understanding how the three Norths work together. The three Norths are

True North: The North Pole. The northern most point on planet Earth. The top of the world.

Grid North. North on your map. The top of the page. The easy way to figure this out is if the names of the mountains are the correct way up. Grid North is roughly in line with True North.

Magnetic North: The direction that the red part of your compass needle always points to. If you are in Britain, it is nearly in line with True North but it is also constantly and very slowly moving. This is important to know if you plan on using a compass abroad. The difference between true North and magnetic North is known as magnetic variance.

In short, there are different kinds of north. They are all closely linked and when you're in the UK in 2020, magnetic and true North are essentially in the same direction. While we are learning, we assume our compass always just points us to North.

The compass.

A Silva Expedition 4 compass

The key parts of the compass needed for a bearing are listed below.

  • The Baseplate. The flat, rectangular surface of the compass that sits on the map. It has all the information for measuring distances and holds the housing.

  • The Housing. The circular part that fits in the baseplate and holds the needle and bezel.

  • The Needle. This sits inside the housing on a pivot and has one red end and one white which float in a liquid. The red end always points to Magnetic North.

  • The Bezel. This is the dial that you spin. It has N, E, S, & W written on it, and numbers going up from 20 to 40 and so on. It has lots of small lines between the numbers. Each line represents 2° from North with North being either zero or 360°. East is 90°, South 180° and West 270°. The only thing you need to care about right now is the N.

  • Orientating Lines. These are the half black/half red lines inside the housing. To make life easy, I call these the Compass Grid Lines.

  • Orientation Arrow. The big red arrow inside the bezel that points to N, or compass grid North. Both the arrow and the grid lines are fixed and move with the bezel.

  • The Bearing Line. This is the long line that runs up the left hand side of the compass from the bezel. Not all compasses have these. The Silva Expedition 4 does and is why I recommend them. Using it makes taking a bearing more accurate and easy.

  • Direction of Travel arrow. This is the little black arrow that is drawn onto the baseplate and points to the top edge of the compass. Whenever you take a bearing from point A to point B on your map, it ALWAYS runs in the direction of this arrow.

Have a look at your own compass and see if you can identify and name each of the key parts.

The way you take a bearing is actually quite simple and you can try this at home.

Taking a Bearing - a simple way to practice.

When I'm teaching bearings on courses, we repeat the process over and over until it's automatic. It doesn't even have to make sense at first. All I need you to do now is follow and repeat the following steps until it's automatic. Get the kids to help you or your partner or even the dog. Don't overthink it and don't worry if it doesn't sink in at first. When it clicks, it clicks! Each step has a picture below it to help you.

Take your map and identify a path or a road or any linear (straight) feature. You can even use a grid line if you want, it doesn't matter. Label one end A and the other B. In the picture below, I have used a ridge where the path is broken on the map.

Place your compass on the map so that bearing line runs from point A to point B in the direction of the black arrow, being as accurate as you can. You can use an edge of compass if you need to.

Now - do not move your compass baseplate at all, but rotate the bezel so that your compass grid lines run parallel to your map grid lines - North to North. The needle is irrelevant at this point. It is not important where it is pointing to. What is important is that your two grids are aligned: Your big red arrow should be pointing in the same direction as Grid North on the map.

Next, take your compass away from the map and hold it by your stomach so that the black direction of travel arrow points straight out from your belly button. Without adjusting the bezel on the compass, turn your whole body from your feet up, until the little red needle sits in line with the big red arrow. Put the 'red in the shed'. Your little black arrow is now showing you the way to go.

It's that easy. Now rub the A & B off the map. Draw another set somewhere else and start again. Keep going until the process is natural and smooth. Once you've got that, you're done for now! Practice it for real next time you're out in the hills.

What confused me when I started learning was that everyone always began by talking about adjusting for declination. It just muddied the waters and for now, it doesn't matter. Declination is simply the difference between True North and Magnetic North and the difference is so small in Britain in 2020, that it's mostly irrelevant. Anybody who tells you that you need to adjust your compass by 2° on a bearing right now is not helping you learn.

To be honest, walking on a bearing in the mountains is very rarely used unless you're out in really bad visibility. You will more than likely just take occasional bearings to give yourself a quick confirmation of walking in the right direction - walking off a summit in poor visibility is a great example of when taking a bearing can be really useful to stop you walking off in the wrong direction.

If you've got this far and it made sense, good work! If you got this far and it made sense and you are also booked onto a course...excellent! Our day out just got easier. See you soon!

Keep practising so it sticks.

If you have any questions, or you think any of this is confusing, feel free to drop me an email and I'll try and help you out.