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GPS Setup: North or Magnetic North?

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GPS receivers provide an amazing amount of information. They come loaded with many navigation features, maps, tide data and much more, but nothing is more important than position data and the direction to a waypoint.

Set your GPS to match your compass.

By Blake Miller

Much of land navigation is based on the relationship to the
North Pole; also known as “true north. The measure of degrees
of direction in relation to true north is called “degrees true.”

Maps are laid out in degrees true. Land features (buttes, mountains, streams) on a topographic map are in
reference to degrees true. By that I mean the bearing from one mountain peak to another will be referenced in degrees true.

The issue is that the magnetic compass’s direction information is in degrees magnetic. The angular measurement between degrees true and degrees magnetic is called declination. The hiker will need to compensate for declination.

In the Navy I learned to keep my navigation simple.

In the Navy during a bridge watch, I evaluated the ship’s position on a navigation chart.  The principle navigation compass (a gyro repeater) reported in degrees true; the backup compass reported in degrees magnetic.    Key to this navigation was the both the principle navigation compass and chart used degrees true.

The hiker can select either degrees true or degrees magnetic.  It is a matter of personal preference; a choice.

Today, what works for me is to use a magnetic compass (e.g., the Brunton 8010G or Silva Ranger style) that can be adjusted to report in degrees true (some compasses come with declination increments scribed on the housing but this is not the same thing.)

My US Geologic Survey and National Forest map are all laid out in relation to degrees true.

Brunton’s models can be adjusted by simply turning two components (the outer ring and the clear cylinder that houses the magnetic needle) while the Silva models come with a small flat screw driver to make adjustments.  Check the owner’s manual for detail on how to adjust the compass.

Importantly, the adjustable compass eliminates the requirement to calculate for declination. Do remember that the magnetic needle always points to magnetic north and the adjusting accounts for the angular measurement of declination.

To keep my navigation simple I want my GPS to provide the same directional information as my compass and map; degrees true.  Because a new GPS receiver will be pre-set to report in degrees magnetic at the factory, the unit will need to be re-set to report in degrees true.

To change this default setting on my Garmin GPSmap 60CS I’ll go to the main menu and select “set up.”




From the “setup” menu I’ll select “heading.”  The “heading” feature will allow me to adjust my compass settings in the GPS.  Note: some models will have you select “compass” to make adjustments.








The image to the right is the “heading” menu.  Now select “display” and the following drop down menu will appear.  Note: The GPS receiver is already set to degrees true and a low battery alert is present.





With the drop down window open, select degrees.  I have never found the option “cardinal letters” to be of much use in the backcountry.









After selecting degrees, go down and select the drop down menu option”north preference.”  Select true.


That’s it.  The GPS receiver should now be set to provide direction information (e.g., bearing and heading) in degrees true.

For those receivers with an electronic compass remember to “calibrate” the compass after changing or removing batteries.


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

Blake Miller

twenty-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.com@gmail.com, or you can go to his website.

Contact Information:

Website: www.outdoorquest.biz

Blog: outdoorquest.blogspot.com

Phone: 541-280-0573

Email: outdrquest@aol.com

To hear the Blake Miller interview about choosing a magnetic compass and GPS on SurvivalCommonSense.com Radio, click here.

For more navigation information, click here




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