As local communities continue to update Covid-19 regulations, local destinations for outdoor recreation may be closed. Please visit official websites for the latest information.

Staying found: Learn the basics of map and compass

By Thomas Ray

Staying found: Learn the basics of map and compass

Many people who venture into our parks and wilderness areas never carry a compass. A lot of people who follow signs and stay on established trails don't see the need for compass skills or even a map in some cases. The trail is easy enough as long as you don't leave it. Besides, Global Positioning Systems (GPS) pinpoints our location, so a compass is sometimes thought of as redundant and obsolete. Nothing could be further from the truth. Map and compass skills can help keep you safe and enrich your overall outdoor experience in many ways. Here’s how: 


First, you must learn map reading and then obtain maps of the area you plan to visit. The best maps are topographic maps (or topos) that are prepared by the U.S. Geological Survey. These can be ordered directly from USGS or printed on demand through your local outfitter store. National Geographic also prints excellent large-scale topos of parks that work well for land navigation.

A very important part of any map is called the legend. The legend explains what all the symbols on the map mean. Features include roads, power lines, trails, campsites, mines, bodies or sources of water, quarries, and so on. Topographic maps have many brown lines called contour lines that follow the terrain on the earth. The closer these lines are to one another, the steeper the terrain. These maps also have elevations indicated, so you can tell how strenuous the hike to your campsite might be. The scale of miles is also important, so that you can plan your trip with regard to how long it will take to reach your destination. Other interesting features, such as cemeteries and historic sites, may also be indicated. 

Break of dawn, finding my way. #adventure #useamap @puremichigan @enjoymichigan

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Compass vs. GPS

There is certainly nothing wrong with using both a compass and a GPS, but the advantage of a compass is that it always works. GPS relies on satellites for signals. This is sometimes affected by weather or vegetation. On the other hand, a compass relies on the earth's magnetic field. No matter the weather, vegetation or terrain, a good compass is reliable. Sometimes, a compass reading can be affected by iron deposits in the earth, but this is extremely rare. In general, always trust the reading you get from a compass. Do keep it away from ferrous metals, batteries, phones and other electronics, because these can affect your readings.

Another thing to be aware of is declination, or the variation between true north on a map and the earth's magnetic field. In some areas, there is little variance and it can be ignored except when absolute precision is needed. In other areas, it can be significant. Your topo map will display the declination for your area. It does change over time, so if a high degree of accuracy is needed, check NOAA

There are several types of compasses, but the easiest ones to use are called baseplate compasses. Some of the best are made by Suunto and Silva

Here are the basics of using a baseplate compass: 

Determining where you are going 

Locating where you are and where you are going

First, locate where you are and where you are going on the map, then place the left side of the baseplate so that it touches these two points. Next, without moving the map or the compass, rotate the compass housing so that the lines on the bottom line up with magnetic north on the map or its grid lines and the red arrow in the housing is pointing to magnetic north. 

Matching up the lines of declination with the compass

Finally, pick up the compass and hold it in front of you horizontally with the direction of travel arrow pointed away. Now, without moving the compass, turn your whole body so that the end of the needle indicating north (usually the red end) is inside the arrow in the compass housing. 

Lining up the arrow inside the housing with the north end of the needle. 

Now, walk where the direction of travel arrow is pointing. It's that simple!

On the trail

Of course, on an established trail or off, you usually won't be able to travel in a straight line from point A to point B. When off-trail, you may have to shoot courses from landmark to landmark to reach your destination. The map and compass can be used on-trail to keep up with where you are by paying attention to the way the trail turns and the landforms along the way.

Off the trail

Though it is usually not encouraged, off-trail travel is allowed in many parks and wilderness areas. Once you really know what you are doing, this kind of adventure can be a very rewarding experience. Gain the necessary skills first, understand your limitations and travel with a guide or experienced partner.

To read more about it, get Bjorn Kjellstrom’s book “Be Expert with Map and Compass” —it is an excellent guide. 

Enjoy and benefit from learning land navigation. Be sure to read and follow all directions that are included with your particular compass. Safe travels!

Off trailing in Colorado 👣 #offtrailing #explorecolorado #exploreamerica #roadtrip2016 #gopro

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As local communities continue to update Covid-19 regulations, local destinations for outdoor recreation may be closed. Please visit official websites for the latest information.