How to Make a Compass in the Wilderness

by Joshua Wade
A sewing needle can be magnetized and used to make a rudimentary compass.

A sewing needle can be magnetized and used to make a rudimentary compass.

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An essential item for survival situations, compasses provide directional readings and are used in conjunction with maps to find locations, water and other resources needed for effective rescue. In the event of an emergency in which a compass is lost or misplaced, you can construct a rudimentary compass with simple items often found on the person and in the wild, including a wristwatch, a sewing needle or a shard of metal, and a small magnet or a piece of silk fiber.

Items you will need

  • Sewing needle
  • Magnet
  • Leaf
  • Stagnant pool of water
  • Wristwatch
  • Piece of silk (optional)

Using a Watch Face or the Sun

Step 1

Point the wristwatch so that the hour hand of the watch is pointing directly at the sun. The point halfway between noon and the hour hand is south. You may then determine a north-south line. This will only work in the northern hemisphere with an analog watch.

Step 2

Draw a watch face on the ground with a stick if you only have a digital watch. You will be drawing the watch face as it would appear if you had an analog watch. Make sure that the hour hand of the digital time corresponds to its actual place on an analog watch face and that this hand faces the sun, just as in step 1.

Step 3

Find and mark noon on your watch face. You should now have an analog watch face with a marking for your hour hand as it corresponds to the time on your digital watch and facing the sun, and a marking for noon. Find the halfway mark between these points, just as you would with an analog watch. This point is your southward bearing and can be used to plot a north-south line. As with the analog watch, this may only be used to find a bearing in the northern hemisphere.

Using a Needle and Magnet

Step 1

Rub one end of a needle against a magnet, working the needle repeatedly in the same direction to give the needle a magnetic charge. You can also break off a sliver of iron or steel from another tool or use a straightened paperclip. Magnets can be found in headphones, small toys, automobiles and other tools often carried in survival situations.

Step 2

Locate a small piece of silk to magnetize the needle or metallic shard in the event that a magnet cannot be found. Silk is used most often in survival gear like sleeping bags and sleeping bag liners. Use the silk in the same way as you would the magnet, brushing the needle against the silk repeatedly in the same direction.

Step 3

Place a leaf into a stable, stagnant pool of water. Lay the magnetized needle carefully on the leaf. The needle will be pulled towards the poles, giving you a north-south bearing.

Tips & Warnings

  • You may also tie the magnetized needle to a piece of thread, allowing it to dangle. The needle will then turn northward, giving you a north-south reading. This can be done in place of the leaf/water option, should you be away from a water source.
  • You can also use a small bowl of water or a large bottle cap of water for the same purpose as the stagnant pool with the magnetized needle option.


  • "Outdoor Survival"; Garth Hattingh; 2003
  • "Man Vs. Wild: Survival Techniques from the Most Dangerous Places on Earth"; Bear Grylls; 2008

Photo Credits

  • Creatas Images/Creatas/Getty Images