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Using a Compass Could Save Your Life

Aug 17, 2007
There's nothing quite like disappearing off into the backcountry on your own. It's a rare opportunity to experience nature at its most peaceful, and is also a great challenge for a hiking enthusiast. It's also easy to get lost if you don't know how to navigate properly. You can navigate using a map, a compass or a GPS unit, or even combine them together. The key is making sure you know how to navigate successfully.

Once you get out into the peacefulness of the backcountry, it's very easy to get caught up in what you're doing, and not pay a lot of attention to where you are. You might be hiking, climbing, camping, hunting or fishing, and it's all good fun until you realize you're lost. So learning to navigate properly is vital. Yes, GPS units are handy and can literally be lifesavers, but it's a bad idea to place your safety in the hands of a piece of equipment with batteries that might die, or that can stop functioning if you drop it. So that's why you need to be able to navigate with a map and compass.

When it comes to navigating, there's one important thing to remember - navigate before you get lost! By the time you realize you're lost, it's a lot harder to work out where you are and how to get back to the main track. It's much simpler to navigate as you go. Then, you either won't get lost at all, or you should hopefully have at least some idea of where you are, even if you're not completely sure. Constantly refer to your compass to make sure you're going the right way. Wear your compass around your neck; don't stuff it in a pocket of your backpack.

Of course, there's not much point in pulling out your compass in the middle of the backcountry somewhere and trying to figure out what to do with it. You need to learn how to navigate successfully long before you leave town. It's too late once you're already lost! So find a class or a hiking club that runs classes, and learn the basics of navigating with a map and compass. If you can read a map properly, and combine that with compass skills, you should be able to find your way back from the wilderness without too much trouble.

There's one basic rule you need to remember when you're navigating with a compass - trust the compass. It's very easy to think that our instincts are more reliable, but the reality is that getting lost often is quite disorientating. Besides, if your instincts were that good, how did you get lost in the first place? Even if you're not lost, it's a good idea to get into the habit of relying on your compass, not yourself.

It can also be useful to orient north on the ground with north on the map, so they're both facing the same way. This makes it easier to identify items in the landscape on the map. Some people feel a bit silly turning the map around, but anything that makes navigating easier is worth doing.

The other thing you need to learn about is declination. Basically, declination is the difference between magnetic and true north. When you're navigating with a compass, declination can make a big difference to your results, so you need to understand it and learn how to compensate for it. Otherwise you could get lost even when you are using your compass. GPS systems usually compensate for declination automatically, but you can't rely on your GPS always functioning.

Heading out into the backcountry can be a wonderful experience, but it's a lot better if you can find your way using a map and a compass. Getting lost can really spoil your time with nature. So make sure you master the basic skills of navigation with a compass, and you'll be able to head off into the backcountry, confident of having a great time without any unnecessary problems.
About the Author
Steve Dolan loves to hike in the wilderness. Compasses are an essential. Click on Compasses and Compass Use to find out more and for great gear click Camping Gear and Tents
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