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AMC Compass and Navigation Clinic

Learning How to Navigate with a Compass
Learning How to Navigate with a Compass

I spent last weekend co-leading the Appalachian Mountain Club’s (Boston Chapter) Compass and Navigation Course at Harvard Cabin which was taught by our Jedi Master Joe Comuzzi. Joe is a very well known hiker and bushwhacker in the White Mountains who has completed more peak lists in the Whites than anyone I know by a long shot (including 2 Grids).

This course consists of a 1/2 day of lectures followed by two bushwhacks, one a half day in length, and the other a full day. The class itself also had lots of practice exercises thrown in, which is my preferred way of learning, and that build on the concepts and techniques that you’ve already mastered. In addition to Joe, the other co-leaders provide students with 1 on 1 instruction as they work through the exercises, so that everyone comes away with the know-how to determine a bearing from a map, follow it in the field, and how to determine their location on a map if they can sight from known landmarks.

Joe, who has been teaching this class for 26 years, has found a way to get the concepts and techniques of compass navigation across to students despite the conceptual difficulties that leaning how to use a compass can pose for people. I was interested to see how he does this including the order in which he introduces concepts, how he builds on them, and what he includes or leaves out of his instructional material.

For example, Joe emphasizes learning how to compute magnetic bearings instead of ones based on true north. This makes things a lot less confusing if some people in your group don’t have compasses with declination adjustments and others do. That’s certainly been my experience trying to teach compass navigation to others. Joe goes further by showing students how to use magnetic north as a map’s point of reference, drawing lines on it that match the local declination, instead of using the vertical north-to-south reference shown on most printed maps.

I’ve seen the same technique used in The Essential Wilderness Navigator, which is the navigation book I recommend to most people interested in learning how to use a compass. However, I’d never quite understood the utility of teaching this technique until Joe demonstrated how it eliminates the need to add or subtract declination to your bearings when converting from map to compass. The downside is that it takes a protractor and ruler to prepare all of your maps with magnetic lines of reference, and that they change with time. Still, anything that eliminates math when calculating bearing, especially when you’re wet and cold and prone to making mistakes, is probably a good thing.

Spruce Mountain Bushwhack
Spruce Mountain Bushwhack

After a 1/2 day of class and exercises, we undertook a bushwhack up nearby Spruce Mountain to demonstrate just how accurate compass bearings can be if you learn how to follow them and trust what they tell you. You’d be surprised how many people don’t trust their compass or think that it’s broken. It’s a really hard habit to break.

Before we started our hike, we all computed the bearings that we’d take climbing Spruce Mountain, to South Spruce, and back again to the cabin. Next we showed students how to follow a bearing in thick woods, by sighting on a tree in the distance and walking toward it, rather than trying to walk uphill through dense woods while staring at a compass needle – an almost certain ticket to a face plant!

Much to everyone’s delight, we nailed both peaks by staying on the bearings and following the contours to the summits, proving to the students that compass navigation really works. It seems like a miracle when you walk a mile or two up a mountain and reach the exact point you intend to reach and I suppose it is in some ways. At least that’s how I feel when I arrive at my destination by compass navigation along with the thrill of hiking to places that few will ever see.



  1. That would have been a blast. I grew up around topo maps and to me, as USGS quad is as enjoyable and refreshing as a good book. As long as I have a map and a compass, I’ll know where I am.

  2. I would love to attend a workshop like that. Can you tell me how to find about such clinics in the future? (I wasn’t able to find this info on the AMC website)

  3. Irene, the best place to find out such information is at the chapter level.
    and the best way to stay informed is to sign up four our activity emails
    this is for the Boston chapter only, but I suspect the other regions also offer similar programs. Hope that helps.

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