The Right Direction

Making your own compass for your next wilderness adventure

Discovery Place Nature

Will you be going on a camping trip this year? If you are heading into the woods it is always a good idea to have a compass with you.

A compass is an instrument that is magnetized and can use the Earth’s magnetic field to give you a general sense of the direction you are headed. Whichever way the needle, usually marked with an N, is pointing is “Magnetic North.” You can then use this to figure out what direction you may need to go.

Magnets usually have two different poles, a North pole and a South pole. Like poles repel each other and opposite poles attract. You can also magnetize a piece of metal by rubbing it in a single direction multiple times. This makes the atoms in the metal line up and creates a magnetic field – and it is how you can make your very own compass!

In this activity, we will be making a simple compass out of common materials. It is a compass that you could recreate if you find yourself in the wilderness without one.


  • Cork
  • Magnet
  • Needle
  • Bowl
  • Water


1. Magnetize the needle by rubbing it on the magnet, going one direction only, about 40-50 times.

2. Check if your needle is magnetized by seeing if it is attracted to other metals. After it is magnetized, push the needle through the cork.

3. Fill your bowl with water.

4. Place the cork/needle combination in the water.

5. Try to figure out which way is north and see if the needle points roughly in that direction.

6. When you are trying to figure out which way is North, make sure to stand away from metal as sometimes that will attract the compass.

Older kids can further explore magnetism by trying different metals to see which works better for this experiment. You can also use the compass to try a simple orienteering course.

Younger learners can further explore this topic by getting an actual compass and seeing how it reacts to a magnet. They can try to figure out which direction their house faces with a compass and can begin to look at a map to see if they can grasp directions.

An important note

If you ever get lost or separated from your group while on a wilderness adventure you should do what is called S.T.O.P.:

  • Stop - Stay where you are. By moving you make it harder to be found.
  • Think - Figure out what items you have with you and how they could help you.
  • Observe - Look at your surroundings and gather information. What time of day is it? What is the weather like? How long have you been lost?
  • Plan - Make a plan of what to do next. Do you need to find shelter? Warmth?


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