There is no substitute for a good compass, and the ability to use it. Since getting lost is generally the reason for most wilderness emergencies, stay found to stay out of trouble!
In this article, navigation expert Blake Miller tells you how to check out and make sure your magnetic compass is safe and ready to go.
by Blake Miller
Recently, I was watching a rifle expert on one of the many outdoor cable shows. This gent is a noted ballistics expert, writer and occasional backcountry guide. During a segment of the interview he was demonstrating what was in his day pack. It kept my interest, had the ten essentials, and all was going just fine until he brought out his compass.
It looked like a wonderful antique, might have come across the Great Plains and Rockies with Lewis and Clark –but in terms of reliability- it was questionable. The sad part is, he spent absolutely no time discussing key factors of having a reliable compass. He touched his compass and quickly put it down.
And touching a compass is about all that most people do too. Hunters preparing to go afield will spend hours with their rifle at the range evaluating their zero, adjusting optics, and measuring the initial velocity of that hot new round. Navigation takes time to get dialed in, too.
Navigation is not “rocket science” but it takes practice. It is a perishable skill. The analogy that I use in my wilderness navigation classes is that you can hop on a bike after not riding one for ten years and head on down the road. But trying to triangulate after ten months can be a chore.
For starters, you need a decent compass. Leave the $5.00 compass on the shelf at the store. (For more information on buying a compass check out my article on selecting a compass.)This compass is adjusted for declination
Here are a few recommendations for a compass tune up:
- Store your compass in a safe spot. Keep the compass off the dash of the rig, away from flashlights and the GPS. Let’s not take a chance that an electrically induced magnetic field will degrade your compass.
- Compare your compass with another to verify that the red needle is pointing to magnetic north. Take it a step further and find a road in town that is aligned north/south. Most likely it will be aligned in degrees true; as in true north. Again, verify that the compass is pointing correctly. Do this for every compass you own.
- Is the compass leaking? Is there an air bubble floating in the compass housing? I “deep six” (toss) those units.
- Brush up on your compass navigation skills. June Fleming’s book “Staying Found” is a excellent read. Visit www.landnavigation.org. Practice shooting a bearing, triangulating your position and orienting your map and compass to your surroundings.
- Review the components of a Topographic map. Start with the USGS’ site here.
- Insure you have the compass adjusted to the correct declination. Practice with your children. Give them a good education with a map and compass before you give them a GPS.
Don’t depend on your friends being the navigation experts. Make it a goal to exceed their skills. You might find that your initial impression was mistaken. Instead of a “sense of direction” develop the skill of navigation.
Practice with a compass is essential to safe wilderness travel. To quote Fleming, “The key to knowing where you are, is constant awareness.”
Blake Miller has made a career out of staying found and knowing where he is at all times. His formal navigation training began when he joined the U.S. Navy in 1973. He served as an officer aboard several Navy ships over his
20-year career; many of those tours included the duty of Navigator. Blake began working with satellite navigation systems at sea in 1976, culminating with the then-new satellite positioning systems aboard the Battleship WISCONSIN in early 1990.
In 1998, Blake started Outdoor Quest, a business dedicated to backcountry navigation and wilderness survival. Blake has taught classes to wild land firefighters, state agency staffs, Search and Rescue team members, hunters, hikers, skiers, fishermen and equestrians. He regularly teaches classes through the Community Education programs at Central Oregon (Bend) and Chemeketa (Salem, OR) Community Colleges.
As a volunteer, Blake teaches navigation and survival classes to students in the local school districts, and conservation groups. He is a member of a Search and Rescue team.
If you have any questions about land navigation or wilderness survival, you can contact Blake through SurvivalCommonSense.firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can go to his website.
To hear the Blake Miller interview about choosing a magnetic compass and GPS on SurvivalCommonSense.com Radio, click here.