How to Use a Compass

GPS and Land Navigation DVD by Know Better Video

GPS and Land Navigation is an instructional video on how to use a GPS, compass, and map for navigating on foot. The information provided is accurate, and thorough, but because of the breadth of topics covered, it is a little shy on details in places.  It’s also a little heavy on some less than informative scenes of people walking through the desert staring at gps screens. That said, it is the best DVD currently on the market that covers land navigation–until, that is, Roadside Nature releases it’s next DVD covering advanced map, compass, and GPS (in the interest of full disclosure, staff are involved with the production of the Raodside Nature DVD series).

Map and Compass Basics, by JJ Smith

Map and Compass Basics DVD CoverThis 50 minute DVD covers the basic skills needed to use a compass by itself, or with a map to navigate on land.  The narrator is a former park ranger and forester who has taught map, compass, and GPS techniques at one of America’s top forestry schools for over a decade.

The information is presented in a clear, concise format and includes several examples and a review at the end of each section.  The lessons are geared toward beginning and intermediate compass users.

Topics covered in the DVD:
• What magnetic declination is and how to set a compass for the declination in your area.
• How to use a map and compass to confidently hike cross-country where there are no roads, signs, or trails.
• How to use the Public Land Survey System (Township and Range) to pinpoint your location practically anywhere in the western U.S.
• Which compasses are best for outdoor recreation like hiking, hunting, bird watching, backpacking, and camping.
• How to set, sight, and read a compass.
• How to plot directions on a map with a compass.
• Why a global positioning system complements map and compass skills but does not replace them.

Be Expert With Map and Compass by Bjorn Kjellstrom

Now several editions beyond its introduction in 1955, Be Expert With Map and Compass is still an excellent reference book for learning map and compass skills. Some of the photos and illustrations are a little dated, but the information has been kept current.

Bjorn Kjellstrom was one of the inventors of the Sylva orienteering (or baseplate) compass, and was instrumental in the foundation of the sport of Orienteering. A third of this 220 page book is dedicated to the sport, which has been steadily growing over the past few decades. There is also a section on wilderness navigation, but the bulk of the book focuses on learning how to use a compass.

Beginners and intermediate compass users will benefit most from Be Expert With Map and Compass, and if you are thinking of getting involved in orienteering, this book is the authority on the sport, as the subtitle, The Complete Orienteering Handbook, suggests.

A Review of Wilderness Navigation: finding your way using map, compass, altimeter, and GPS. second edition by Bob Burns and Mike Burns

Wilderness Navigation packs an encyclopedia worth of outdoor navigation skills into a 150 page book. Accomplished mountaineers and outdoor skills instructors, Bob Burns and Mike Burns, achieve this by boiling their content down to include only those skills and techniques that their decades of experience have shown to work.

They devote very little space to techniques like drawing magnetic north lines on topographic maps and doing the manual calculations to correct for magnetic declination.  Instead, they write what I would have—buy a compass with a declination setting because a cold, dark wilderness situation is the last place you should be doing math (but learn the “manual” technique just in case you get into one of those Apollo 13 situations).

Wilderness Navigation is aimed at mountaineers and hard core wilderness enthusiasts, but it is very clearly written and, I think, well-suited to “advanced” beginners.  If you have an analytical mind and tend to easily understand new techniques and technologies, you should easily be able to start from scratch and learn everything you need to know for map and compass and GPS navigation from this book.

There are even 30 practice problems in the Appendix to test your knowledge, and practicing these navigation techniques before embarking on your mega-transect across the Congo Basin is essential.  But Wilderness Navigation, and a little practice, is all the average backpacker, hunter, hiker, or birder will ever need to become a competent and confident outdoor navigator.

Staying Found, by June Fleming

Staying Found is a small, 150 page book, now on its third edition. It includes a good section on how to use a compass as wells as chapters on using maps, route planning, and teaching kids how to not get lost. The compass section has some good practice tips and exercises for beginners.

Fleming’s presentation is clear and concise, and is clearly aimed at the beginner. I would recommend this book for younger outdoor enthusiasts who are concerned about getting lost in the wilderness and looking for an introduction to the subject. It is also an affordable reference guide for occasional backpackers who would like to refresh their knowledge before a trip.

Finding your way without map or compass by Harold Gatty

First published a year after Harold Gatty’s death in 1958, this book was originally titled Nature is your guide. It summarizes a lifetime of observation and research by a professional aviator and navigator who, in 1931 set a record by flying around the world in 8 days.  During World War II, Gatty played a vital role in air navigation research, and all the while, he was clearly fascinated with how people found their way around before the invention modern navigational instruments.

In his book, Gatty explains the mysteries of how “primitive” humans managed to achieve almost supernatural feats like colonizing the islands of the Pacific Ocean or traveling between remote villages with nothing but ice and snow as landmarks. He reveals the abundant natural signs that our modern lifestyle has dimmed our ability to see.  To our ancestors the clues would have been as easily readable as road maps or traffic signs are to us.

Finding Your Way Without Map or Compass helps us relearn some of these forgotten navigation signs.  Gatty shares examples of indigenous knowledge and his own observations for using sun angle, the night sky, wind direction, plant forms and diversity, and even wildlife behavior as navigational guides.

For example, data on the distribution of sea birds at locations throughout the Atlantic Ocean can be used to indicate the direction and distance to land.  The shape of sand and snow dunes can be used to indicate direction. One of my favorites is the analysis of cloud patterns and reflections in the sky that indicate the presence of mountains or water bodies beyond the horizon.

Some of the topics in this book are a little broad for the average hiker trying to hone her skills in backcountry travel, but most sections have at least some application for modern outdoor enthusiasts.  The thorough treatment of how sun angle, in combination with latitude and wind patterns, causes different tree characteristics is especially useful for wilderness hunters and backpackers.

If you have ever wondered if moss grows on the north side of a tree or if the hands of a watch can be aligned with the sun to work like a compass, you should read this book.