Land Navigation 101

From JayC

Foreword and Disclaimer

This article will serve as a primer for those new to the use of a compass. It will present only basic compass techniques coupled with common sense and a few tricks to prevent a casual walk in the woods from becoming an overnight stay or longer. Advanced map and compass techniques as well as night navigation are not covered here.

Myths About Direction Finding

1. Moss does not grow on any particular side of a tree. This is amply demonstrated by examining only a few trees in the woods.

2.  You can follow the sun. Yes you can, but only if you have a general idea of the time, and its not foggy, and you don't need to know the precise direction.

3. You can wait for dark and look for Polaris. Yes, you can, assuming there are no clouds of course. Not to mention the perils of traveling after dark. I'd personally take my chances following the sun instead of the stars.

4. Flocks of migrating geese (or other birds) are NOT a good means of determining direction.

5. A GPS is a substitute for a compass. It is not.

Basic Compass Ideas

So you have bought an orienteering compass (like the Silva Ranger Cl, CLQ or Ultra) and feel kind of intimidated by all the scales, degrees and the mirror. You will learn how to use all that stuff soon enough (it's really not that hard). Although the mirror is pretty good to see how awful you look after 3 weeks in the bush, it's intended purpose will be spelled out in my next article.

Open the compass cover so the mirror (if your model has one) sits up at a 90º angle. Hold it flat in the palm of your hand. The red end of the needle will always point towards magnetic north. Declination is not covered here, but for our purposes at the moment, "magnetic", "true", and "grid north" can be considered the same.

Now turn the numbered circle so that 360 is aligned with the white marker at the center of the compass. Holding the compass flat in your palm, turn slowly until the red needle pointing north is aligned with 360 (the north end of the needle is inside the red arrow pointed at 360). You are now facing north.

Turn the dial to 180º and again turn yourself until the needle aligns with the red arrow. You are now facing south. Repeat this for 90º (east) and 270º (west). You now know the most rudimentary basics of finding direction with a compass.

Hop in your truck and drive out to your local wood lot or park. Park in your favorite spot and take note of which way the road runs. Does it run generally north/south or east/west? Put your compass in your pocket and walk off into the woods for a couple of hours. Enjoy yourself and don't bother paying attention to where you are going. All you need to know is what side of the road you are on. If the road where you parked runs north/south and you left the road on the east side, you know you have to head generally west to find the road right?

Figure 1 - A short walk from the truck, using your compass to get back.

Too simple. You would be amazed at how many people with perfectly good compasses in their pockets have died because they lacked this bit of common sense. We, however, are going to take common sense one step further. Assuming your road runs north/south and you are to the east of the road you want to head west right? Wrong. You are going to head northwest or southwest (315º or 225º) so you will hit the road either to the north or south of your truck. Not knowing precisely where you are would leave you not knowing if your truck was north or south of you if you traveled straight west. By heading southwest or northwest you know. The trick works with rivers or any contiguous landmark (farmers fields,etc). Just pay attention when you go in and always have your compass with you. Its really that simple.

If you don't learn anything else from this article, learn this: always, no matter how short the journey, bring your wits and a compass. As somebody that gets lost with startling regularity, I guess it wouldn't hurt for me to start following my own advice.

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