Using a Compass and/or GPS

compassIf you stick to well-maintained trails in areas that get some traffic, you will most likely never need to use a compass. However, if you’d like to visit some more remote areas where trails are less distinct, and other hiking parties are few and far between, you will be well advised to learn how to use a compass.

Knowing how to use a compass allows you to do 4 things:

      1. If you know where you are, you can use a compass & map to identify landmarks
      2. If you don’t know where you are, you can use your map to identify the features and landmarks surrounding you, and then use compass bearings to determine your position
      3. You can use a compass to give directions to someone else
      4. You can use a compass to follow a directional bearing to a place that you cannot see.

The main thing about having a compass is this: if you don’t know how to use it there’s no point in having one. You can use a compass without a map if you just need to go in a very general direction in a straight line. But when you’re in the wilderness seeking out a specific destination, you’ll need a little more direction than that. Pairing your compass with your topo map will give you more accuracy. It’ll also alert you to any areas you won’t be able to cross straight through, such as a river or a canyon. A map gives you directions, and a compass enables you to follow them. If you know where you are on the map but you don’t know how to get to your destination, use your compass to take a bearing. Your compass lets you assign a numerical direction, or bearing, to any direction in the full 360-degree circle around you. This is important because, with a bearing, you can travel toward a specific spot instead of just in a general direction.

How to Set a Bearing

Your compass has a rotating ring around it. You’ll see the ring is divided into increments that add up to 360 degrees. Align your map and compass both North and place your compass over your location on the map. Imagine or draw a straight line from the compass center to your destination. The travel line on your compass will show a bearing number. Following that exact bearing will take you to your exact target on the map.

If you would like to learn more about using a compass, visit or . These web sites offer a series of lessons/tutorials with a good level of detail.

Using a GPS

garmingpsGPS devices have become popular as the practice of “geocaching” and the sport of orienteering have caught on. The average hiker does not need to use a GPS, but there are instances when they come in handy. Unless you’re going to be hiking in a remote area where you are finding your own route, or trying your hand at geocaching, you probably don’t need to use one. A GPS will keep track of the route you’ve traveled, so if you need to retrace your steps you have a record of where you’ve been. A GPS will also keep trip data such as distance traveled, changes in elevation, time elapsed, MPH, etc.

Using a GPS requires some technical ability, and there is a learning curve. Once you’ve mastered the GPS, you’ll always need to have a stash of fresh batteries to keep it powered up. You’ll then be able to program it to help you find specific destinations. The GPS will keep you heading in the right direction, and tell you how much farther you’ll need to go to get there (as the crow flies). It will also have a library of points of interest already programmed into the mapping software. You will also find downloadable routes for some trails online.

Some models of GPSs can be used for both back country navigation as well as driving directions. Expect to pay about $300 for a good hand-held GPS unit. Different makes and models have different features, so before you invest in one you’ll want to do a little homework to determine what features you need and which unit will meet your needs.


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