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Reader Poll: Compass Use

Hiking Compass
Map reading and compass naigation are the most important hiking and backpacking skills.

Reader Poll

I’m conducting an informal reader poll here (leave a comment).

  • When was the last time you used a compass in the backcountry?
  • Do you carry one with you whenever you go hiking or backpacking?
  • Have you ever had to rely on your compass to get you out of a bad situation?
  • If so, where and when?

I got lost when I was hiking the Bonds and Owl’s Head last weekend in New Hampshire and had to navigate myself out with my compass. It’s been a while since I had such an urgent need to use a compass like that and I’m curious what your experience has been.

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49 comments

  1. Haven't really used one since last year but I always have one on my multi-function watch/altimeter/compass/etc. The last time I carried a traditional compass was May in Montana on the BPL Scout Leader Training course. Mostly unnecessary on East Coast trails but definitely required out West. With that said, there have been a couple of spots in Wilderness Areas here where I've had to reconcile my location with a compass and crude maps. I can't say I've ever been lost in the true sense of the word but there have been a few close calls. Once was up near Standing Indian in NC on a side trail as part of a loop with the AT. Another was in the Shining Rock Wilderness, also in NC, on an unmarked trail. I've have one with me the entire time I'm in Montana/Wyoming over July/August while working the BPL Wilderness Trekking School.

  2. For years I was always sure to pack my compass, I fortunately never needed to rely on it; the truth is I didn’t know much beyond the needle always pointing north. Growing up in New Jersey we had always hiked well marked trails, anyone familiar with the “Garden State” also knows your not going to travel too many miles in any direction without crossing a highway, strip mall, or housing development becoming tragically lost was not very likely. Not until 22 years after my first backpacking trip did I learn the proper use a compass. I didn’t realize this fact until I had agreed to become the Scoutmaster of my oldest child’s Boy Scout troop. Shortly after agreeing to fill the position of Scout Master I attended a series of training sessions known as “Scout Master Fundamentals” were in addition to learning the responsibilities of adult leaders in the BSA we were taught or refreshed on all the required skills the boys needed to advance through the various ranks in the program. I remember looking over the itinerary for the outdoor skills segment of the training and feeling confident about first-aid, planning, knots, swimming, safety, however when it came to the orienteering session I began to feel, pardon the pun “lost”. As a result of this training I have learned the skills needed to properly use a map and compass in the wilderness, fortunately there hasn’t been a need to do so, but I still never leave home without them and continue to practice using them.

  3. I hike/backpack almost every week and always carry a compass and map. I use the compass on every trip, not because I need too but because I enjoy it.

    Fortunately I have never needed the compass to help me out.

  4. Normally I do carry a compass (just a small one on a whistle which I carry to call the bears!). Ironically, once last year I was out for a day hike, not paying attention when the trial ‘disappeared’ – guess what – I didn’t have my compass with me that day.

    The only time I was truly ‘lost’ was about 25 years ago, a friend and I were camping by a lake in the Adirondacks. We went out for a short hike, got a bit turned around and were completely lost (the Adirondacks is a really big place). I did have a compass that day and we were about to use it to find our way back to the lake, once at the lake we followed the shore line back to our camp site.

    Robin

  5. A few weeks ago, I hiked 30 miles (over a few days) of the CDT. The last morning we woke up to 6 inches of fresh snow and white out conditions. We hiked up and over a ridge to see… nothing! It was snowing so much that we could not find the trail or even the cairns marking it. We ended up using my compass to move through the white out in the direction of the town where we needed to meet our ride. In the end, it all worked out, thanks to the compass!

  6. Yup, always have a compass and map with me. Never been truly lost either. Though it's funny that the closest I've come to being lost was in the Shining Rock Wilderness Area mentioned by Chris above. Also, got off trail a bit last year hiking to climb Cathedral Peak in Yosemite, but with so many visible landmarks it wasn't too difficult to get back on track.

  7. I always carry a compass and map along with my GPS. Batteries or reception have a way of failing at the worst possible time, especially in the trees. I often bushwack to summits in the Southeast and like to feel confident I can make it back. I've never needed the compass to get me out of a sticky spot.

  8. I started to learn how to use one, finally, after years of navigating by landscape – just paying attention to landmarks helps but is not enough. The more I use it the more I see how important it is. Imagine yourself in the trees, turned around, not knowing where you are, but you have a topo map and compass. If you know how you can get a bearing off the map and walk to safety.

    I am now a member of search and rescue and on every leisure backpack with my hiking group I encourage people to sit with a map and compass and understand some simple navigation steps. It could save your life. It's not that hard. If you had basic geometry in school this will be no problem.

  9. When I am out on a big trip I always carry a map and compass. I use both BUT I have to admit my compass skills are not all that sharp. I know there is lots you can do with a compass and I don't practice those skills. I keep thinking I'll buckle down and read a compass book and practice the skills but I never seem to get around to it.

    I have gotten lost a couple of times. Mostly it was getting my bearings and methodically retracing my steps that has helped me find the trail again. I orient to the map frequently so I carry a pretty good picture of terrain BUT not all maps are great maps. I've used a few hand drawn versions in the past.

    There is a trick for orienting sun location and hand position on an analog watch that is supposed to give you some sense of compass bearing but I can't remember what it is! Anyone know? I am hiking on Friday.

  10. I carry map and compass and GPS and I know how to use them. Most who carry a compass do so because they've always heard it's important but haven't acquired the skill necessary to use it. As I travel I'm amazed and the lack of preparation of those I run into…many only with hydration packs. No first aid kit, no extra clothing, no flashlight, no extra food, etc. Preparedness = Safety

  11. I always carry a compass as a backup, but I've never really had to use it (except to figure out which peaks I see from the summit). For the hiking I do, the trails are fairly well marked and I've found my way back on them quickly. For navigating on a well-defined trail with a map, I've found an altimiter is more useful to figure out where I am. I've recently started carrying a GPS which is even better, but I'll still carry a magnetic compass as a backup (and I don't really trust electronic compasses to work when I need them)

  12. Always. The East Coast trails I hike are usually well defined but not well signed. Lots of forks; lots of overcast days with no clear sun/shadows to go by; iPhone compass/GPS is sometimes helpful but can't be relied on; so which unmarked winding fork do you take to get to X?

    There's some internet fad running right now about not needing a compass, obviously from inexperienced gram weenies whose short list of outdoor experiences have always gone perfectly so far.

    Not carrying a compass is YDS thinking–Young, Dumb & Stupid.

  13. The last time I carried a compass into the backcountry was the last time I was in the backcountry. I always have a compass with me in the backcountry. I have chosen to navigate bearings using a compass but have never been forced to do so in a bad situation.

  14. Always have a compass and a map, but on mostly south and mid-atlantic trails have almost never needed the compass. I often carry a GPS, but usually use that just to log where we've been, or occasionally to geocache. Once in Wales, used the map and compass to confirm that the ordinance survey map was far out of date and that we were where we thought we were by sighting landmarks (if they don't form a nice small triangle on the map, then you are confused about where you are). It can be frustrating when you can show you are where you think you are and the trail isn't there. In that case we ended up bushwhacking until we found the road, which was where it was supposed to be. (in the UK, public footpaths sometimes get moved by a farmer – with permission – or get overgrown and thus useless and this not always updated on the maps) In the pre-GPS days, I'd often backsight a landmark to estimate where I was on a trail.

  15. Heh. I just used mine on Sunday on a day hike to Castle Pass in the Sierra. The PCT was in and out of snow, and my compass (and map print out), helped me to stay in the generally correct direction. I could have used some geographic handrails (like a stream) but I didn't want to waste time bouncing around.

    I always take my compass with me b/c it has a mirror, and I always seems to get a bug flying right into my eye! The mirror keeps me from clawing at my face for miles, because I can usually spot and remove the intruder quickly.

  16. I always carry my compass. I use it very rarely. i have a couple times used it to tell me which start hikeing on a loop trail.e I have also used it bushwacking to find the direction to my baseline (road). Mostly I use the map alone.

  17. I utilize my compass on most of my outings. I typically do off trail exploring. Later on in the year when the sun sets early I continue to hike in the dark. The map, compass and watch keep me very close to expected location.

    I always carry the compass with me. I routinely perform trail maintenance on local familiar trails. However, I may stay out longer than expected and again may have to hike back in the dark.

    Never encountered a bad situation where I absolutely needed the compass. But it has saved me hours of bewilderment.

  18. When was the last time you used a compass in the backcountry?

    ~ In February at White Sands Nat. Mon. I could have recorded the TH position with the Nuvi, but on a dare, I navigated us past the missile range and back to car with a compass. It is impossible to walk in a straight line there, and often the horizon disappears when going between dunes. Starting out, I took a compass reading on a distant mountain feature. As we meandered back to the RV, I could always tell when we were north or south of that line.

    Do you carry one with you whenever you go hiking or backpacking?

    ~ Yes, but I'm leaving it home now to save an ounce. With GPS built into the camera, hauling a compass is just a bad habit.

    Have you ever had to rely on your compass to get you out of a bad situation?

    ~ No, even when we were lost in the Arizona desert, a compass couldn't help because we can't fly over obstacles. Really any situation where a compass can be useful is nothing close to being a bad situation.

    In truly dire situations, positioning with terrestrial and celestial objects is more reliable. If there is fog or blizzard or darkness, best to stay put until travel conditions improve.

    The compass is a relic of the past. Historically interesting, amusing for orientation games, and a novelty for children, who should be encouraged to appreciate magnetism for its currently useful properties. Like induction cooking.

  19. I always bring a compass. It has a mirror, which is another safety item. It has saved me from a few wrong turns.

    For entertainment I like to see how well I can determine my location using triangulation.

  20. I always take a map & compass with me while hiking.

    After completing the New England 4000 Footers I decided to do the New England Hundred Highest. Several of those peaks are trail-less(truth be told, all have pretty well defined herd paths). I discovered I really enjoyed the challenge of bushwhacking using map & compass for navigation. I was hooked. After completing the NEHH my new found love of bushwhacking led me to doing the New England 3000 Footers. The majority of those peaks are true bushwhacks, trail-less in the purest sense.

    Map & Compass? Never leave home home without 'em.

  21. Thanks for all the thoughtful feedback.

    I carry a compass on every hike, but I rarely use mine because I'm constantly looking at my map and know where I am, as I go.

    I am also very good at matching topo, landmarks and handrails (streams, roads, peaks, ridges, etc) to maps and at figuring out where the trail is when it disappears (Long Trail Vermont) or is un-blazed.

    This is going to change. I liked Russ' comment about how he uses his compass on every outing because he enjoys it. I think I'm going to do the same and take readings and bearings for the heck of it.

    I'm one of those people that stares at maps for hours at home before a trip or even at night instead of reading in bed. I even bring them along on business trips!

    Using a compass more sounds like a pleasant thing to do and an excuse to take more breaks during a walk – something I need to force myself to do more.

    The truth is, I've also decided to hike more off trail and bushwhack around the Whites to peaks that are unnamed or don't have trails.

    Hiking trails all the time is getting a little boring and it's a shame that we often can only hike in a narrow corridor, especially in the eastern US. I guess, getting lost and navigating my way out of it, opened my eyes up to the pleasure of the compass, again.

  22. Helen – what happens when your camera gets wet? You are about to hike the Long Trail. You will be getting very wet….you realize that there are places where the LT simply disappears for miles and miles….

  23. @newoldbackpckr "If you have an analog dial, you should point the hour hand showing the current time at the sun. South will be halfway between the hour hand and the number 12 on your watch in the Northern Hemisphere."

    From http://sectionhiker.com/navigational-tools-a-watc

    Eventually, I'll write about everything….:-)

  24. Comment: I always take a map & compass with me while hiking. After completing the New England 4000 Footers I decided to do the New England Hundred Highest. Several of those peaks are trail-less(truth be told, all have pretty well defined herd paths). I discovered I really enjoyed the challenge of bushwhacking using map & compass for navigation. I was hooked. After completing the NEHH my new found love of bushwhacking led me to doing the New England 3000 Footers. The majority of those peaks are true bushwhacks, trail-less in the purest sense.

    Map & Compass? Never leave home home without 'em.

  25. Leaving a compass behind to 'save an ounce' because you are depending on a $300 GPS gadget to function perfectly (never dropped, never wet, never out of juice) is like going solo ocean kayaking 12 miles offshore without a float vest because, hey, the Coast Guard has rescue helicopters.

  26. Q. Do you carry a compass with you whenever you go hiking or backpacking?

    A. Yes, and always, and every time.

    Q. Last time you used a compass in the backcountry?

    A. About ten years ago.

    Q. Have you ever had to rely on your compass to get you out of a bad situation? where and when?

    A. About ten years ago on the Florida Trail. Clearcuts happen, sometimes taking blazes with them. Always carry a map and compass!

  27. When was the last time you used a compass in the backcountry?

    I use it on all my hikes. I enjoy using it. I take 3 paper copies of the 7.5 deg topo of the area I will be hiking.

    Do you carry one with you whenever you go hiking or backpacking?

    Yes, I carry the compass and whistle on a lanyard around my neck.

    Have you ever had to rely on your compass to get you out of a bad situation?

    The last time I needed it was on a bushwhack on the Whitewall Mt. last autumn.

    I also needed it to find the trail off of Jackson on a very rainy and foggy afternoon. I had come from Pierce and wanted to find the trail back down to the Highland Center rather than came going to Webster.

  28. "Helen – what happens when your camera gets wet?"

    I roll up in a ball and sob. Doesn't matter then if I'm lost, the trip is ruined. There isn't much point in being anywhere I can't photograph. Thank goodness digital cameras are extraordinarily reliable, and I'm an expert in thermal and moisture control.

    "You will be getting very wet …"

    It saddens me to see that I have not convinced you of my ability to bend the universe to my will. Manipulation of the 4th dimension is key. When you control Time, all of the physical world serves you. So naturally, your experience on the LT required far more equanimity than mine will.

    "… you realize that there are places where the LT simply disappears for miles and miles …"

    There isn't enough bare rock in Vermont to amount to miles of anything. Still, every hiker must cope with demented trail managers who refuse to install adequate aids to navigation. Out West, perverted locals build false cairns to deliberately lead tourists off the trail. Oh yes they do, and it gives the Park Service fits. So with appreciation for your concern, I really am well prepared to deal with faint trails, and navigating the most extreme unmarked terrain. Which is exactly why I don't waste time playing with toys.

    Nobody is going to set up on the trail for a half hour to triangulate their position with compass and calculator. And with good reason: A hand-held compass simply can't generate data accurate enough to solve the problem you present. And that's before we get started on the refraction of light, curvature of the Earth, and local magnetic anomalies.

    ~ I own a telescopic theodolite, and have some familiarity with the limits of radial coordinate systems. With time and care, such a big, heavy, leveled and calibrated, measuring device could help you position a target 1 degree wide. However, there is nothing you can do with a topo map and compass, that you can't do with just the map and a good pair of eyes. Any compass that can be carried on the trail should have a warning label that reads, "For amusement purposes only."

    ~ All that said, I have nothing against those who enjoy wide-ranging orientation games. I indulge in them myself under safe conditions. Just so long as we understand that compass play should never be confused with survival navigation.

  29. TD: … like going solo ocean kayaking 12 miles offshore without a float vest …"

    Somebody else remembers that episode of Magnum P.I.

  30. I've carried a compass with me while backpacking for the past 30 years. But I've never used it. I guess I could shave 1.3 ounces from my pack … and maybe I will … then again maybe it's worth having in case I ever need it, LOL :)

  31. In October I backpack with a .22 rifle in the boreal forests of Northern Minnesota. The foot travel is off trail or following animal trails. I always carry maps and a compass. Walking is never in a strait line and beaver dams/ponds constantly alter the preferred direction of travel( beavers are not considerate enough to show their construction work on maps). I usually think I know where I am within a half mile radius or so. In the boreal forest you cannot see very far. You cannot take a bearing on a distant landmark. In the forest ‘distant’ is one hundred feet. A compass can tell you direction but without landmarks a compass cannot tell you where you are. Navigation is by very approximate dead reckoning. To return to civilization my exit target must be very large, a mile or better. It is usually a forest service road several miles long. All I have to do is head the right direction and walk till I encounter the road. When the sun is obscured by clouds the compass is essential. I now always ‘aim’ for a road. Early on I used a trail as a target and managed to walked over the trail without noticing, resulting in a few anxious hours. You cannot miss a road. These fall hikes absolutely require the constant use of a compass. I always carry a backup compass and map. My experience crossing over the trail was traumatic enough that I purchased a GPS as a second backup.

  32. Let's see. The last time I had to use my compass in the Columbia River Gorge when we were on a four day trip. We ran into snow and it was very difficult to figure out where the trail went.

    I don't always bring my compass on trips, especially if I am going on well established trails. Is that bad?

  33. It's only bad if you need it. My compass lives in my pack. That way, I'm never without it.

  34. That sounds like a good idea. I'm going to have to learn to use mine better.

  35. I think you'll need it on a dodgy trail like the PCT where they don't have white blazes painted on every tree. You'll probably have to improvise a bit – could come in handy.

  36. I see what you'all are saying. Even though I haven't used mine in years, it's probably worth carrying the 1.5 oz just in case…

  37. I always carry a compass but haven't really had to use it in a long time. I carry topo maps and orient myself quite well with them. Sometimes, I'll use the compass to ID a peak way off in the distance. Even though I rarely actually use my compass and I have a GPS and a digital compass in my watch, I'll always carry one since batteries never fail on them and I like the extra margin of safety. I'm also teaching my grandson, my hiking buddy, how to use a compass.

  38. Helen, your post made me (a SAR volunteer) wince. I certainly hope you don't insist people you hike with follow your example. That's a very dangerous attitude. We rescue people all the time who fail to bother with a compass and think their GPS will not fail them. Knowing how to use a GPS should include an understanding of its limitations as well as its features.

    You need a compass and map, and some powers of observation and reasoning, if you spend any time at all backpacking or on a long dayhike. There is not any substitute. In SAR we are REQUIRED to have an orienteering compass with us at all times in the field for our safety, and we are expected to attend orienteering trainings regularly to keep us on our toes. If technology could do the job consistently, that wouldn't be necessary. We use GPS units all the time, on every training and every search, but mostly to track our teams and later upload the tracklogs to a laptop – they are fallible in ways that no map can be, and if we followed them blindly we would on occasion lose members of our SAR team. We know our territory well enough to catch ourselves when the GPS goofs and tries to send us a mile the wrong direction, as not one but two units did on a recent search. No electronics can be a substitute for being aware of your surroundings and being able to navigate with a map. We wouldn't spend all the hours teaching boy scouts and classes at REI otherwise, if a compass watch or GPS could save the day.

  39. I have to agree about the GPS being misleading at times. It depends on the time it takes signals to reach it from satellites, and reflections off of mountainsides and canyon walls (and buildings for that matter), can seriously impede its accuracy because the sometimes stronger reflected signal has an extra time delay. On one easy trip in northeast Georgia it had us flying across gorges and on alternate sides of a river. It's estimated error was always quite low, but it's real error was not.

    So I always carry a compass.

  40. Map compass and altimeter every time. When the mist is down on the hills the compass is out and bearings taken. In the UK my compass gets used a lot. In fact at the start of a walk I set the map to the terrain with my compass as habit. I don't get lost much so it seems to have worked so far.

  41. I always carry a map and compass, even on days when I don't expect to need them (such as on good weather days and on hills I am familiar with).

    The last time I needed to use my compass was about 5 weeks ago and there have been plenty of occasions over the years when I've been out in the hills and would have been in real big trouble without one.

    I have thought about a GPS, but only with the intention of using it for back up during the winter months.

  42. Always carry a compass. On my recent AT section hike I downgraded my compass to a $2 compass/thermometer zipper pull. I checked the compass from time to time after stepping off the trail to ensure I resumed hiking in the correct direction. Lot of trail stories of people hiking the wrong direction for a mile or more, especially first thing in the morning.

    I bought a $10 analog wrist watch as a backup compass and for determining mileage as I substituted trail profiles for heavier, bulkier section maps. I did carry a general tourist map of the region in the event I needed to get to a town.

    Have never been lost in the woods. Don't think that's possible for me, as I'm always aware of the "box" (Interstate 20 miles west, river 30 miles east, etc.) I'm hiking in. When I escorted youth groups on weekend trips, we always gave everyone a map and pointed out the "boundaries" (ridgelines, roads, creeks, etc) of the area and the direction they should walk if they ever got lost. Never lost a camper yet.

  43. Rob – good points about real error vs. estimate error. I've had some off-putting experience with a GPS PLB recently when satellite coverage was poor in my area. Luckily, I didn't need any help, but the people tracking me were suprised when I vanished for a few days.

  44. always. I carry it in a shoulder pouch where I can reach it easily. Map is right next to it in my shirt pocket. I constantly check my position, and in really unfamiliar or faint terrain, Its in my hand with my map and I am tracking myself on the map using both.

    Its a good exercise in 'seeing' the terrain on the map.

    My high end GPS lives in another pocket. Still learning how to use that. Its convenient, but I still prefer map & compass.

    Attitudes like that happens when you get a bit grey and grizzled around the edges.

  45. I've been using a compass since I was a small child. I'll always carry one, although I don't use it as much as I used to. I am trying to train my grandson in map and terrain reading and compass operation.

  46. I always bring a compass with me. I like to bushwack and hunt so I'm often off of trails. I'll cheat a little and turn the GPS on and hit the go to waypoint and pick where I want to go. (some areas it's too hard to make out any landmarks). I'll take the bearing from the GPS that states the direction to where I want to go enter it on the compass and turn the GPS off. I'll check it again after a mile or so depending on how much of a straight line I'm able to walk.

  47. I usually carry one but don't bother with it until I'm pretty well lost and since I don't get oriented when starting out it doesn't help a whole lot then, but at least it can send me toward a boundary feature.

    It also helped prove the moon rises in the SE instead of E around the winter solstice to a friend.

    I once followed a gps fix into the middle of nowhere so those gadgets can't always be tusted, though it was probably my fault when I marked the point earlier.

  48. I carry a compass, matches, striker, etc in my backpack everywhere I go. Who knows when I’ll need them. I haven’t ever really needed to use my compass much(and the one time I needed to I didnt have it with me), but it is more of a preparedness factor for me. I also would love to acquire a sextant some day and learn to tell position with the stars. It is also interesting to tell approximate time by using the phases of the moon (though I have forgotten somewhat how to do so) and to find direction with an analog watch (or a digital one if you can imagine the position of the clock hands).

  49. I always bring a compass regardless of distance from home, and I use it on simple trails to orienteering. Luckily I have never been in a situation where I needed it to bail myself out.

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