Making a compass

Whether you are heading out for a day hike, a kayaking adventure, or any other outdoor

excursion, the compass is a must-have tool for navigation. Even if you are planning to use an electronic GPS or map, a compass is one of the “ten essentials” you should always carry with you into the backcountry. In the event that your compass is, forgotten, lost or damaged, it is easy to make a basic compass!

How A Compass Works

People have used magnetic compasses for thousands of years to navigate the globe. Most historians credit the Chinese with making the first magnetic compass around the 11th century.

Planet earth naturally has a magnetic field around it called the magnetosphere. The magnetosphere has two “poles”, the magnetic North Pole toward the top of the globe and the South Pole toward the bottom.

A compass uses a magnetized metal “needle” that is sensitive to the magnetosphere to align with the Earth’s magnetic field and point north and south.

How To Make A Compass In The Wilderness

If you are in the backcountry it’s easy to make a compass using items in your pack and that you find in the woods.

You will need:

  • An un-magnetized (ferrous) piece of metal: a needle, safety pin, bobby pin, wire, or razorblade work well.
  • Something to magnetize the metal: a magnet, piece of steel, iron, silk, fur, or even your hair. (Your pocket knife probably has a steel blade!)
  • Something to float the metal: a small piece of wood, cork or leaf
  • Water in a small, non-metallic container: a glass jar, plastic bowl, cup, or disposable plastic container with the top cut off.

Step 1: Gather your supplies.

The first step is to gather all of the necessary supplies you will need to make the compass. If you have a First Aid kit, look for a small needle and thread or safety pin in them. Another option is to carefully break a razor and use one of the blades. The metal needs to be small, thin, and un-magnetized.

If you are using a safety pin or some other bent item, gently straighten it out as much as possible.

It is helpful to test the piece of wood, cork, or leaf to make sure it will float the piece of metal before you continue. It should be just large enough to float your improvised compass needle above the water but not any larger.

Step 2: Magnetize the metal

Start by marking the end of the piece of metal you will not magnetize. Mark that side with a pen or scratch it with a knife. If you are using a sewing needle this isn’t necessary as the eye of the needle can mark the non-magnetized side.

Follow the instructions that correspond to the materials you are using to magnetize the metal:

  • Silk, fur, or hair: Hold the metal between your fingers on the marked side and slowly rub the metal in the same direction over the silk, fur, or through your hair. Stroke the metal either toward or away from you (never back and forth) at least a dozen times. Now your improvised compass needle should be magnetized!
  • With a magnet: Use the same process outlined above to magnetize the metal with a magnet. Be sure to only rub one half the piece of metal and always rub the metal in the same direction against the magnet, not back and forth.
  • Steel or Iron: If you are using a piece of steel or iron to magnetize your needle you only need to tap the metal against the steel or iron 40 to 50 times to magnetize it.

Step 3: Float the metal

Magnetized compass needles need to move freely to point to true north. There are two ways to suspend the improvised compass needle. Fill the non-metallic container with a few inches of water. Gently put the magnetized metal on the small piece of cork, wood, or leaf and set them to float.

In some situations you can use a small puddle of standing water to float your compass needle. However, currents and ripples a lake or pond will disturb your floating needle and prevent an accurate reading.

Wind can also impact the accuracy of free floating compass needles. If you are in a windy area either shield the compass from the wind or use a container with tall sides to prevent the wind from disturbing the water surface or compass needle.


Your improvised compass needle should move either clockwise or counterclockwise to point north and south. If your needle does not move:

  • Gently lift it out of the water and place it back in pointing a different direction just in case you put it down already oriented north.
  • If the compass needle is not moving, repeat the magnetization process. The metal is probably not yet magnetized.

How Magnetizing Metal Works

Many metals have bits of material that are like tiny magnets. But these micro magnets are all pointing in different directions, which cancels out any magnetic properties.

As you run the needle or piece of metal along the magnet, silk, fur, metal, or hair in the same direction you align the micro magnet clusters inside the metal and cause them to face the same direction. This gives the piece of metal one magnetic direction and makes it magnetic. Because a magnetic needle in a compass floats freely, it moves to align with the magnetic fields and point to magnetic north.

Knowing how to read a compass and use it to navigate in the wilderness is an essential skill for any outdoor enthusiast. Now that you know how to make your own compass, you have a basic survival skill and a way to impress your friends!