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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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  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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).

  9. 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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