Is Map & Compass Still Relevant?

In a society where technology is king, is there sill a need to master the craft of using a map and compass? If we’ve learned anything about technology, we know this: It fails. At the worst possible moment. In the worst possible locations. And for many of us, it is our heart and desire to push beyond the reaches of technology. To intentionally leave behind cell phone coverage and to be unreachable.

Using a map and compass in a time when GPS can pinpoint your location to within just a few meters may seem archaic to many; however, if needed it is a necessary skill that can save your life. Most people who become lost in a wilderness area simply took a wrong turn and wandered into an unfamiliar location without the knowledge or skill of how to navigate back to their camp, vehicle, or group.

While we often make using these instruments more difficult than it really is, land navigation doesn’t require a Master’s Degree. It only requires a two pieces of equipment and a little time before you’re off and running.

There are a few key skillsets required to navigate through the wild including the ability to read a map, use a compass, plan and stay on a route. This knowledge enables the woodsman to hone their ability to know where they are and reach their destination.

Cartographers use colors and symbols to represent natural and manmade features. Almost everything needed to read a map is found on a legend including scales, declination, as well as specific information for the area covered on the map. Interpreting colors and contour lines takes a time in the woods and the patience to study the terrain.

Using a compass is straightforward, but requires knowledge and confidence from the
navigator. Like most machines, a compass only does the job its asked to do. Though it can be interfered by ferro or electro-magetic interference, the compass is a reliable tool that enables the user to identify magnetic north and degrees of variance.

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There are four fundamentals when it comes to using a map and compass to navigate. The first one is to know where you are. More often than not, even if we are slightly disoriented, we know where we are at. Consider being in a large urban area on a street you haven’t been on before. You know what city you are in, and you probably know what part of town you drifted into. In this case you may actually be lost – but you know where you are. Often times this is the case in the wilderness as well.

Knowing where we are can be understood in many ways from the macro to the micro. At its
root, it is an awareness of a physical location, and being oriented to our surroundings. It could be a trail head, a prominent peak, or a GPS coordinate. What is required is an ability to read a map and truly understand our location as well as what is near us to help fix a path towards our destination.

After we know where we are in relationship to where we are going, the next principle is to plan a route. There are multiple variables that need consideration including the purpose of our journey, the terrain we are moving through, our skill, experience, and equipment, weather, time available, as well as the resources we have available. Our route may need to be broken up into legs to make it easier to find an exact location. But in the end, we need to know two things: how far are we going, and in what direction.

This leads us to the third fundamental which is to stay on the route. In order to stay on the
route, we need to be able to track how far we’ve traveled. This is typically done by knowing our pace count – or how many paces it takes to travel 100 meters. We can also judge distance on time or by using major terrain features we see on the map. But we also need to know how to ensure we are moving in the right direction and so we need to be able to utilize a compass.

Whether you prefer a lensatic or baseplate models, knowing how to determine an azimuth, account for declination (the difference between grid north and magnetic north) and preset it to help keep you on the right path is essential.

Finally, we must be able to recognize our objective. The feeling of moving through an unknown area and finding your destination feels like returning home after being gone for a long time. By mastering the other fundamentals, you know as you are moving through the wilderness what you should encounter along the way. The stream crossings, open prairie fields, marshy areas, and trail junctions. You established backstops to ensure you didn’t travel too far in one direction by selecting linear features to serve as a guide.

At its core, using a map and compass aren relatively easy skills to learn and one that you can begin using today. Work mastering your craft of each one and practice before moving out into the wilderness. In a time when it’s easy to rely on GPS devices built into our phones or watches, working through and mastering this ancient skill is extremely rewarding!

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