Most Viewed Stories
GPS can fail, but a compass always points north
Some hiking tips to help make sure you don’t need to fish your compass out of the bottom of your pack:
• Don’t keep your compass in the bottom of your pack. Keep it handy so that checking it every now and then isn’t a chore.
• Navigate by natural features, taking a mental image of key landmarks.
• Take a digital photo of landmarks and junctions that you can consult later if needed.
• Look back frequently to see what the landscape looks like from the opposite direction.
• Be realistic about your rate of travel. Average hiking speed is 2-3 mph, but this drops when you’re going uphill at higher altitude (which in Colorado is often!).
• Keep your map handy so you can constantly relate what you’re seeing.
• Look for “handrails” — power lines, creeks or other features running parallel to your path — or “catch lines” — features running perpendicular — to serve as landmarks.
Daniel Boone once said, “I’ve never been lost, but I was mighty turned around for three days once.”
And he didn’t even have GPS.
Explorers once had faith in the sun and stars to show the way. Maps and compasses later revolutionized travel with the tiny arrow that always points north.
Today we have hand-held GPS devices that wink at satellites orbiting above and tell you exactly where you are on Earth. Faith in GPS, or the Global Positioning System, is causing hikers to eschew compasses and even maps.
But when you venture out this summer, be it for a day hike or a multi-day adventure in the backcountry, experts say you shouldn’t rely solely on GPS.
“As of yet, I have not had to replace a battery in a map and compass,” said Eric Hunter, who teaches courses on wilderness travel and survival. “GPS is dependent on technology and if that fails, you still want to know how to use a map and compass.”
Things go awry
In the wilderness, it doesn’t take much for the best-laid plans to go awry.
A wrong turn at an unmarked trail junction, a slowed hiking pace that leaves your group miles from your car as the sun sets, a sudden storm that obscures your line of sight. One small hiccup can leave you lost.
Colorado Springs hiker Julie Fuller has never been lost.
“I have been not where I intended to go, but I haven’t been lost,” Fuller said, referring to a wrong turn taken on a hike on the Lovell Gulch Trail near Woodland Park.
She had a map and compass, but tools are useless unless you know how to use them. So she attended a course on orienteering at the Colorado Springs REI store last week.
Scott Suter hadn’t used a compass since he was a Boy Scout. After all, he knows the areas where he usually hikes well enough, and in the linear Sangre de Cristo Mountains, you can always follow a creek down to the valley, right?
He was also taking the map-and-compass course, because, let’s face it, the compass app on his smart phone isn’t that reliable.
“I probably wouldn’t rely on that out in the woods,” he said with a laugh. “Your batteries go out, you can’t get service.”
Get a map
The first step, after figuring out where you’re going, is to get a map.
You’ll want one that shows topographic features, so get something with greater scale than a national forest map or the brochure you get at the gate of Rocky Mountain National Park.
The 7.5-minute U.S. Geologic Survey quadrangle maps are still the gold standard for detail-oriented hikers and those going off-trail, such as hunters who need to ensure they aren’t venturing onto private property. But these can be bulky and for a long trip you may need a folder full of them.
Hunter recommends the popular National Geographic Trails Illustrated maps, which cover a larger region but still have essential elements such as contour lines and topographic features.
Get a compass
GPS devices may not work under a dense forest canopy or heavy cloud cover. But the only time a compass won’t work is if you have too much metal around. You’ll pay $10 to $80 for a compass, while GPS units can run as much as $350.
How do you choose a compass?
Hunter said a quality compass has a transparent base plate, a north-seeking arrow, rotating dial, markings at least every 2 degrees, magnifying glass and ruler. Nice perks include an inclinometer to test the angle of slopes during winter hiking, a lanyard and a global needle.
And you may want to pay extra for a compass with a declination correction switch. The difference between true north and magnetic north is always changing, and the gap is known as declination.
The point of zero declination is moving west. It’s currently near the Mississippi River and could be in Colorado in a few decades. But don’t wait. Buy a compass with a declination-correcting tool.
Figure out your declination before you head out. A good map will contain the information, though you’ll need to look when the map was made and add the annual declination value.
You can also look up the information at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website: ngdc.noaa.gov/geomagmod els/Declination.jsp.
Once you have that, either adjust your compass accordingly or write down the difference. Later, when you’re looking at your map to set your direction, you’ll subtract that number, since we’re in the West. For example, if you’re in Colorado Springs and you have aligned your compass to your map and it says you need to head in a 240-degree direction to reach your car, you would subtract 8 and head at 232 degrees.
Finding your way
To overly simplify compass use, all you have to do is “put the red in the shed.”
There’s a red arrow that points north and a red arrow outline. Once you’ve turned the dial so they meet, you know which direction is north.
So how could this be useful?
Suppose you’re hiking and it’s getting dark, and while you’ve remembered your compass, you’ve forgotten your flashlight. In a state full of wide-open spaces, maybe you can see the distant lake near where you parked your car. Rather than hike the meandering trail that will leave you out in the dark, you decide to plunge cross-country.
Put the red compass needle in the red outline so it’s facing north, then find the bearing of where you need to go, and start walking that way, keeping the “red in the shed” while you walk the same degree-direction.
Of course, there are bound to be obstacles to stop you from walking in a direct line, so Hunter recommends actually aiming for a landmark you can’t miss — a road or lake — so human error on the trek won’t foul you up.
You can also triangulate, by measuring three points in the distance to determine your location. Say you are hiking above timberline and pop up on a ridge, but you’re not sure where you are on the ridge. With your map, you can triangulate your position by measuring three geologic points.
If this all sounds complicated and difficult to learn from one article, you’re right, it is.
But you can learn the basics in a class. REI offers them several times in summer, $15 for members and $30 for others. Register at REI.com/coloradosprings.
The Rocky Mountain Orienteering Club also offers instruction and competitive events to help hone map-and-compass skills. Get the details at rmoc.org.
There are books and websites, as well, but nothing will substitute for practice.
Said Hunter, “You’re going to have to repeat this over and over again.”
But it just might save your life, or at least keep you from one of Daniel Boone’s unscheduled extended wilderness excursions.
Contact R. Scott Rappold:
476-1605 Twitter @scottrappold
Facebook Gazette Scott Rappold