Map, Compass & GPS

Map, Compass & GPS
Wild flowers along Fall Creek on the way to the Green Lakes - Oregon

Saturday, October 28, 2017

A Compass Tune-Up

Recently I was watching a rifle expert on one of the many outdoor cable shows.   This gent is a noted ballistics expert, writer and occasional backcountry guide.  During a segment of the interview he was demonstrating what was in his day pack.  It kept my interest, had the
Compass practice in a navigation class
 Outdoor Quest image
ten essentials, and all was going just fine until he brought out his compass.  It looked like a wonderful antique, might have come across the Great Plains and Rockies with Lewis and Clark –but in terms of reliability-it was questionable. The sad part is he spent absolutely no time discussing key factors of having a reliable compass.  He touched his compass and quickly put it down. 

And touching a compass is about all that most people do too.  Hunters preparing to go afield will spend hours with their rifle at the range evaluating their zero, adjusting optics, and measuring the initial velocity of that hot new round.  Navigation takes time to get dialed in too.

Navigation is not “rocket science” but it takes practice.  It is a perishable skill.  The analogy that I use in my wilderness navigation classes is that you can hop on a bike after not riding one for ten years and head on down the road.  But trying to triangulate after ten months can be a chore.

 For starters, you need a decent compass.  Leave the $5.00 compass on the shelf at the store.  For more information on buying a compass check out my article on selecting a compass.

Here are a few recommendations for a compass tune up:

·     Store your compass in a safe spot.  Keep the compass off the dash of the rig, away from flashlights and the GPS.  Let’s not take a chance that an electrically induced magnetic field will degrade your compass.

·     Compare your compass with another to verify that the red needle is pointing to magnetic north.   Take it a step further and find a road in town that is aligned north/south.   Most likely it will be aligned in degrees true; as in true north.  Again, verify that the compass is pointing correctly.  Do this for every compass you own.

·     Is the compass leaking?  Is there an air bubble floating in the compass housing?  I “deep six” (toss) those units.

·     Brush up on your compass navigation skills.   June Fleming’s book “Staying Found” is a excellent read.     Practice shooting a bearing, triangulating your position and orienting your map and compass to your surroundings.

·     Review the components of a Topographic map.  Start with the USGS’ site here.

·     Insure you have the compass adjusted to the correct declination.

·     Practice with your children.  Give them a good education with a map and compass before you give them a GPS.

·     Don’t depend on your friends being the navigation experts.  Make it a goal to exceed their skills.  You might find that your initial impression was mistaken. Instead of a “sense of direction” develop the skill of navigation.

Practice with a compass is essential to safe wilderness travel.  To quote Fleming, “The key to knowing where you are is constant awareness.”


  1. Good post.

    I played a compass game with my kids where I hid prizes in the woods. In order for them to get the prize, they were given compass and instructions to sight an object and navigate to it, then go to the next step. For instance, 'From START, make your way to STUMP at 182 degrees. From STUMP, make your way to ROCK at 35 degrees', etc. I made it difficult to walk straight lines from one object to another, and had them use back bearings to verify that they were at the correct spot.

    I had as much fun laying out the course and making the instructions as they did following them. The prize, by the way, was 50' of their color choice of paracord I had ordered beforehand.

    Note: is a dead link. Might you have meant ?

    1. Curt, Excellent feedback --- thank you.

      Good heads up on the dead link. It had good navigation info in its day.