Quality Mountain Days
                                                                 & Advanced workshops

Following a Bearing on the Ground

Hold your compass in front of you with the Direction of Travel arrow pointing in whichever direction you happen to be facing. Keep holding the compass in front of you and walk your body around until the north end of the magnetic needle coincides with the north arrow in the compass housing (the north end of the magnetic needle on your compass will probably be coloured red and some compass needles also have 'N' on the needle). It is your body that turns – not the compass baseplate. The Direction of Travel arrow now 'does what it says on the tin' – tells you which way to go.
How to follow the bearing:-
  1. The least accurate way to follow the bearing is to simply line up the needle as described above and “walk on the needle” i.e. you are only using the Direction of Travel arrow to keep you on the right bearing. It is possible to be accurate with this method but it does require practice and most people have a tendency to drift off to one side or the other (personal knowledge of your 'drifting tendency' is useful). You need to hold the compass centrally in front of your body with the baseplate horizontal and positioned so that you can see the alignment of the magnetic needle whilst at the same time look along the Direction of Travel. The next paragraph describes a useful practice exercise which is great fun and doesn’t take long:-
    Go to a fairly large area of flat ground such as a football pitch – take your compass and a couple of black plastic dustbin liners which will go over your head. You need to take a friend to make sure you don’t walk into anything or have any difficulty with the bin liners. Mark your start point and, with the bin liner over your head, set the compass to north and follow the bearing for 25 double paces. Then set the bearing to east and follow this for another 25 double paces. Continue with south and then west so that you have walked a square. If you have followed the bearings accurately and have been consistent with your pacing you will finish up at the start point.
  2. The most accurate way to follow the bearing is to identify features on the ground which are on your direction of travel. This obviously requires some visibility but even in relatively poor visibility there will often be sufficient features which you can still see. The features can be quite close to you, maybe 25 metres. Holding the compass so that you can look along the baseplate in the direction of travel and at the same time confirm that the magnetic needle is lined up with the north pointer, find a feature which lies on the bearing. It may be a rock, a clump of heather or a change in the appearance of snow or ice cover. Once you have identified the feature there is no need to use the compass again until you have reached it. You can also take any route around obstacles to get to the feature. It is essential to maintain your fix on the feature (it may change in appearance as you get nearer). If you lose sight of it then use your compass to choose another feature. The features you choose need to be between you and the final target you are heading to. It’s no use choosing something beyond your final target.
  3. In a white-out or when there are no features visible to line up on, you either need to “walk on the needle” as in (i) above or, use a companion to STEER as follows:- 

    Steering with two people
    Both of you must have compasses with the correct bearing set. One person walks in front within the limit of visibility and follows the bearing. The rear person uses the front person as a “feature” to line up on (Photo 6). It will be clear to the rear person whether or not the front person is walking on the bearing or is drifting off to one side. Every hundred metres, the front person turns around for clarification from the rear person. If all is well, the rear person puts an arm up vertically (Photo 7). If drifting has occurred, the rear person points in the direction required to come back on course (Photo 8). This method is effective and doesn’t slow the overall speed down very much.         

    Fig 6: Steering from behind.
    The rear person lines up on the
    front person to ensure that they
    stay on the right course.

    Fig 7: The rear person puts an arm up vertically if the course is correct. Fig 8: Drifting off course - the rear person indicates which way to make the correction 
    These methods show how to take and follow a compass bearing accurately. There are times when absolute precision is not necessary because you are following a linear feature on the ground such as a ridge or a stream. It is still good practice to take a rough bearing and to use the compass to keep a general check on your direction. This will confirm that the feature you are following is still the correct one and could prevent a major navigational error.
    Of course, following the bearing isn’t the end of the story – you also need to know how far you have travelled. This is discussed in Estimating Distance.

Important: Participation Statement

Climbing, hillwalking and mountaineering are activities with a danger of personal injury or death.
Participants in these activities should be aware of and accept these risks and be responsible for their own actions and involvement.

Community Web Kit provided free by BT