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AMC Map and Compass Course

AMC Map and Compass Class at Harvard Cabin in New Hampshire
AMC Map and Compass Class at Harvard Cabin in New Hampshire

Joe Comuzzi and I taught the AMC’s Map and Compass Course again last weekend at Harvard Cabin in Pinkham Notch, a 2-day class which combines a morning of instruction with two hikes to practice off-trail compass and navigation skills. The instruction includes some lecture time and individual and group problem solving, before we head outside and put theory to practice.

The first practice hike heads up the hill behind the cabin – within the White Mountain National Forest – and climbs two small mountains that take about 3-4 hours to climb. The hike is done entirely under a dense tree canopy, so students are forced to use both map and compass to reach the destination. I always get a kick out of watching students’ reactions when they realize that you can use a compass and a map to reach a destination a mile away with great precision even though the only evidence that it exists is on a map.

Canister on Little Wildcat
Canister on Little Wildcat

But navigating with a compass isn’t all we teach in this class. The scope is much broader and encompasses many of the techniques required for off-trail navigation, which is certainly not limited to using a compass and map. We try to emphasize how compass navigation is one part of the puzzle, along with altimeter use, and terrain-to-map association, so you’re constantly correlating and double checking your position using every technique available to you.

The other thing I like to emphasize is the need for communication and team work on off trail hikes. That lesson is repeated on the second day of class when we do a “graduation” bushwhack up and down a larger, more challenging mountain where we have students do all of the navigation and route finding work.

This is my favorite part of the Map and Compass weekend because students have to come together and work as a team to apply what they’ve learned, check each other’s calculations, and share their reasoning process for picking one route over another – a process that every good group of bushwhacking partners goes through. Joe and I interject as needed to keep them on task and coach them through the communication process, but once they understand what’s required (and that we won’t let them off the hook), they take over and run the show.

Line of Hikers Heading Off-Trail
Line of Hikers Heading Off-Trail

Our “graduation” hike this year was up Little Wildcat Mountain, a 3000-footer which can be accessed via the 19 Mile Brook trail in Carter Notch. Little Wildcat is a subsidiary peak of Wildcat Mountain (Wildcat A) and climbs about 1000 feet over the course of 1.25 miles, which is fairly steep, particularly when there’s no trail and you need to find a route through dense vegetation, across streams, over steep ledges and cliffs, and around dead trees. You really use all of your muscles for hiking like this and it’s an intense full-body workout.

Once we’d hiked to the base of the bushwhack where we planned to leave the trail, our students got out their maps and compass and computed the bearing to the summit of Little Wildcat, coming up with a dozen different answers. I explained that the task was to work together as a group and come up with a single bearing that they could all agree on. Further, that bearings always needed to be articulated in both magnetic and true systems, such as 15 degrees magnetic and 0 degrees true, depending on the local declination. It took about 10 minutes for everyone to agree and articulate the bearing properly (especially important in a mixed group that is using simple magnetic compasses and more sophisticated ones with declination adjustments,)

After that, we did three small stream crossings and headed steeply uphill and off-trail. Here the students took turns leading, trying to conserve energy while finding  a route through the dense vegetation, while the people behind them made sure they stayed on the bearing and helped them spot open lanes through the woods.

Up and Down Routes - Little Wildcat Mountain
Up and Down Routes – Little Wildcat Mountain

They all did a great job and we came to the top of the mountain a short distance from the summit canister. As crazy of this sounds, I get a huge kick out of finding these canisters and reading through the log books inside to see who visited the peak last and when they were here. Ours was the first group to visit the summit since February 2014, which underscores what an exclusive club off-trail hikers are in the White Mountain National Forest. We annotated the register with our message in a bottle and headed back down the peak taking a different route back to the trail.

Little Wildcat - Erik Schlimmer's Message in the Bottle
Little Wildcat – Erik Schlimmer’s Message in the Bottle

I love teaching this class because learning how to use a map and compass is such a transformative skill. Knowing how to navigate without a trail means that you’ll never run out of routes to hike, mountains to climb, or new places to explore.

A big thank you to everyone who participated in this year’s map and compass class. If you’d like to build on this past weekend’s experience, be sure to sign up for my upcoming Appalachian Mountain Club off-trail trips.

9 comments

  1. Thanks for a great course, Philip (and Joe, Sonya and David)! In addition to the instruction and the practice, we shared great food that we prepared together, a campfire, stories and new friendships. My favorite part was getting into “moose mindset” on the bushwhacks–looking for tracks and scat and trying to imagine how they make their way through the woods, which led to a really intimate wilderness connection. Absolutely wonderful.

  2. This sounds awesome, especially since you taught this course in the White Mountains! I know I’d be pretty impressed (and surprised) with myself after completing a hike like your “graduation hike”.

  3. I took this class last year and learned a lot. But it is definitely a perishable skill that you need to keep using and practicing.

    • You really need to practice. But it becomes second nature after you make a few mistakes and learn from them. :-)

      • …But what if you make a mistake and get eaten?

      • Do you look under your bed before you go to sleep at night?

      • Well, there was this monster with long, skinny articulated legs that had knobby joints and were topped with lobster like claws that lived under my bed when I was a child. Considering the danger that lurked there back then and the fact that I’ve never seen it leave… No, I don’t look under my bed before I go to sleep. I didn’t get to be this old by needlessly courting danger!

  4. How can we get notification for future classes?

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