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Old 05-07-2012, 12:53 PM   #1
BigTone
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Need some compass help

I need to pick up a compass, for safety and a little piece of mind, im not doing any serious orienteering or geo-caching, I just need something that will get me out of the woods in the case of an emergency and for use with a map. The last time i used one was in boy scouts 18 years ago.

What do you guys recommend? Should I bother with paying the money for one with the adjustable declanation?

Thanks, Anthony
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Old 05-07-2012, 02:08 PM   #2
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Silva Ranger. It's pretty much the industry standard. Forest Rangers use them, Game Wardens use them, Foresters use them.

And yes, adjustable declination is worth it. It makes calculations in the field a lot easier. Just make sure that you don't use it as a crutch for not having to understand how declination works. (The Silva Ranger has adjustable declination.)
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Old 05-07-2012, 02:33 PM   #3
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Originally Posted by BigTone View Post
I need to pick up a compass, for safety and a little piece of mind, im not doing any serious orienteering or geo-caching, I just need something that will get me out of the woods in the case of an emergency and for use with a map. The last time i used one was in boy scouts 18 years ago.

What do you guys recommend? Should I bother with paying the money for one with the adjustable declanation?

Thanks, Anthony
Suunto has an equivalent to the Silva Ranger. Truth be told, the current model of the Ranger is fine, but is not the instrument it used to be in quality, not in comparison to my 30+ year old Ranger. Much like anything else these days I guess. I do have both the old and new Ranger, and also the Suunto, as well as a large number of non-mirrored versions with and without dec adjustment.

I have taught wilderness navigation for at least 23 years, including formal courses given now to SAR teams. While the Ranger style compass is often the most common and is the one issued to DEC rangers, I actually prefer the Suunto M3D for general use. You don't really need the mirror sighting capability of the Ranger for any navigation you would do around here. The M3 is a solid quality instrument that is much lighter, less expensive, and certainly up to any backwoods navigation task.

Depending on how you are going to use the compass, you may or may not need the declination adjustment. Less expensive versions, like those similar to the M3 in the orienteering style, but without the dec adjustment, are available that will do that job. Just be sure you have a smoothly rotating bezel, a liquid damper within the housing, and a large rectangular flat base. You don't really need anything more advanced, other than the skill to match your intended (or possible unintended) navigation needs.

If you are going to actually use the compass with map, then you need to take into account declination, always. Whether you do that by one of several methods is up to you. Adjusting the compass directly for declination is only one such method of at least three that are available, arguably the easiest (or not). Unless I am part of a team that has agreed to use TrueN rather than MagN reference, I prefer to set up my compass and maps for MN use, and do not make the mechanical adjustment on the compass itself even though I could. But that is old habit on my part.
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Old 05-07-2012, 06:04 PM   #4
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I have been trying to do a triangulation without known points; for instance in an area that is basically wooded and flat with a heavy canopy. Any pointers Wldrns? Although, you could say a single point on a known trail, perhaps a creek crossing.
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Old 05-07-2012, 07:52 PM   #5
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I have been trying to do a triangulation without known points; for instance in an area that is basically wooded and flat with a heavy canopy. Any pointers Wldrns? Although, you could say a single point on a known trail, perhaps a creek crossing.
Not sure what you mean by triangulation without known points... do you mean you cannot see any distant identifiable specific terrain features due to being in flat heavily wooded country? Obviously triangulation (or bilateration, or resection) or any of those kinds of techniques do not work where you cannot see. This is where you rely more strongly on the other techniques (which of course are always used at all times anyway).

Dead reckoning (DR), for one. DR is simply keeping account of direction, speed, and time. Speed is the tough one, accurate estimation can be made, but is based on personal experience in various types of terrain. Most people will overestimate their speed, so be aware of that as the first thing to check when you become location confused. The more dense the vegetation, the slower you go, tree to tree if necessary, along a compass bearing. The trick here is to use DR with more detailed observation skills. A sunny day, for example, is very handy for watching the direction of your shadow. Did you note the direction of wind and clouds (assuming no major weather changes are on the way)?

Rarely is terrain absolutely flat and obscured for very far. That alone is an indication of your location on the map. Contour lines would be very widely spaced. But sooner or later there will be a change. Look for it, anticipate when and where and what the change will be via DR. Even a slight slope change, or the beginning of a ravine. Any subtle change in terrain will do. Seek out "lines of position", such as water courses (even if dry), ridges, or any linear parallel changes in contours. At least you know you are on that line, if not precisely where. Lots more to learn, nothing too difficult to learn, but gradual and continued practice is essential to become totally proficient.
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Old 05-07-2012, 08:15 PM   #6
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Originally Posted by BigTone View Post
I need to pick up a compass, for safety and a little piece of mind, im not doing any serious orienteering or geo-caching, I just need something that will get me out of the woods in the case of an emergency and for use with a map. The last time i used one was in boy scouts 18 years ago.

What do you guys recommend? Should I bother with paying the money for one with the adjustable declanation?

Thanks, Anthony


Do you still have your Boy Scout handbook? That should tell you everything you need too know. Any compass for $10 or so should do. Then just go out and use it in places you know well so you have some skills to fall back on when you need them.

Most of the time you are not far from a road if you just stay in a stright line. You may not come out by your car but you will come out. It's better than a night in the woods.
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Old 05-07-2012, 08:42 PM   #7
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Originally Posted by Wldrns View Post
Not sure what you mean by triangulation without known points... do you man you cannot see any distant identifiable specific terrain features due to being in flat heavily wooded country? Obviously triangulation (or bilateration, or resection) or any of those kinds of techniques do not work where you cannot see. This is where you rely more strongly on the other techniques (which of course are always used at all times anyway).

Dead reckoning (DR), for one. DR is simply keeping account of direction, speed, and time. Speed is the tough one, accurate estimation can be made, but is based on personal experience in various types of terrain. Most people will overestimate their speed, so be aware of that as the first thing to check when you become location confused. The more dense the vegetation, the slower you go, tree to tree if necessary, along a compass bearing. The trick here is to use DR with more detailed observation skills. A sunny day, for example, is very handy for watching the direction of your shadow. Did you note the direction of wind and clouds (assuming no major weather changes are on the way)?

Rarely is terrain absolutely flat and obscured for very far. That alone is an indication of your location on the map. Contour lines would be very widely spaced. But sooner or later there will be a change. Look for it, anticipate when and where and what the change will be via DR. Even a slight slope change, or the beginning of a ravine. Any subtle change in terrain will do. Seek out "lines of position", such as water courses (even if dry), ridges, or any linear parallel changes in contours. At least you know you are on that line, if not precisely where. Lots more to learn, nothing too difficult to learn, but gradual and continued practice is essential to become totally proficient.
Triangulation meaning I couldn't see any identifiable objects is what I was trying to say. Correct. Practicing compass skills can be frustrating at times, speed is very difficult for myself, so I break it down on the time it takes me to get to a chosen location and leave it at that. Thanks Wldrns for the tips.

(BIG TONE) It's great and a lot fun to learn map skills and I would try and practice as much as possible. There is something very rewarding about learning map and compass skills. A since of accomplishment.
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Old 05-07-2012, 09:43 PM   #8
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I have a cheap but liquid filled compass, I do not recall the brand if there is one. It has one special feature, which is that the plastic base has an arrow on it and rotates independently of the ring with the bearing numbers. I do not have great compass skills, but I use it for short bushwhacks and keep it handy at all times in the woods in the Adirondacks in case I get lost. I use the map more than the compass to tell where I am, the contours are very helpful. Once I know where I am I may use the compass to determine a bearing to the next noticeable landmark on the map on my intended route and I usually come out fairly close. If there are enough trees to limit visibility I will spot a tree as far away as I can see that is in the direction I wish to travel, walk to it and then spot another one. If I wander a bit to the left on one tree I try to wander back to the right on the next. Some people think that I am seriously deranged, so you should know that my advice is of dubious value at best.
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Old 05-07-2012, 09:53 PM   #9
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Zach, you have exactly the right idea in what you do... that is except where you say "in case you get lost". You want to avoid that idea all together. Keep doing things right, keep practicing in the way you are, and you will never "get lost" in the first place.
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Old 05-08-2012, 10:18 AM   #10
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If you can't see any distant features because of either fog or thick forest cover, you can start by determining the direction of any slope you're on. If it slopes east, then you've eliminated three-quarters of the slopes on your map. Walk until you find a brook, and see its direction. Keep going until you find a junction of two brooks. With each bit of information you eliminate places where you aren't and finally by the process of elimination determine where you are.
This would be in extreme circumstances, where you failed to follow the advice found above of keeping track of your direction, time and speed which should make it much easier to determine location.
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Old 05-08-2012, 05:08 PM   #11
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The only thing I can add is practice, practice, and more practice. Once you do that then you'll be able to take advantage of Wldrns generous expertise.
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Old 05-08-2012, 06:19 PM   #12
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It's true...Practice, practice, practice!

It's one thing to have a compass, but it is another thing to know how to use it, and it's another thing to know how to use it with a map.

For me, I just use a cheap compass that was given to me by my father many years ago. It's certainly not the best compass out there, but it has safely taken me on many bushwhacks throughout the Adirondacks.

So just to pass along some "compass help", this is what I do...

I always use the compass with a map, and must take the declination into account.
The declination changes from year to year, and you can check on the current declination for any given location on earth HERE.
Currently anywhere in the Adirondacks, 14 degrees west should be sufficient enough.

So, 14 degrees minus 360 degrees is 346 on the compass...keep that in mind.

And just to use as an example, below I have illustrated 6 steps that I might use for a bushwhack route to Spectacle Ponds from Bumps Pond in the Lake George Wild Forest area:
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Old 05-08-2012, 06:39 PM   #13
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So, 14 degrees minus 360 degrees is 346 on the compass.
I do pretty much as Justin describes. But there are other methods that work just as well that I also teach. I've got a 2 page teaching handout, "everything you need to know", that unfortunately is too large to post here.

Do not get hung up on the math! If you are unsure then you have a 50% chance of being wrong, and you will be wrong by a huge 28 degrees in this case. Always refer to the declination diagram found on every map. Match the picture to what you see on compass and map. (The "star" represents True North. Just ignore the GN and mils info for now)

What Justin is doing is drawing magnetic north lines on his map. See how his compass, the map, and the lines he is drawing, look just like the dec diagram. The edge of the map corresponds to True North, and the drawn lines correspond to Magnetic North, just like the diagram. Look at and commit to memory that little diagram and understand what it is telling you, and you will not be confused with + or - math, never.

As an example.... zero your compass and use it to face magnetic north. Now hold out your arm to point to TN (look at the diagram - it's your right arm!). Think - how would you now turn to face TN? What would your compass read?

Obviously the diagram tells you to turn right by 14 degrees. Dial 14 degrees into the compass, and turn your body with compass so that you "box the needle" (hold the compass and turn your body and compass together to align the needle over the orienteering arrow, do not touch the bezel dial that is set on 14). You are now facing TN. TN is the same as +14 degrees MN. Look at your compass. See the similarity to the parts of the compass and the diagram? No guessing at +/- math. Easy.

One more exercise to help understanding... dial 90 degrees into your magnetic compass. Hold the compass and turn your body to "box the needle". Look at the diagram to picture in your mind 90 degrees referenced to MN. Are you pointing slightly to the left or to the right of True East?

[big note: the diagram is reversed for locations roughly west of the Mississippi, but the principle is the same]
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File Type: jpg DecDiag.jpg (17.9 KB, 101 views)
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Old 05-08-2012, 06:50 PM   #14
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One more thing to remember with this particular method. The general rule is "when compass touches map, ignore the magnetic needle". You don't use the mag needle on the map as a reference because you already have put mag north on the map and are using that instead of the needle as a reference to measure angles. If Justin grabbed the edges of the map in the photo and randomly rotated it with the compass riding on it, it doesn't matter where the mag needle is pointing as long as the scribed lines remain parallel to his drawn lines, he will get the same measured value for the direction of travel - ignore the needle when compass touches map (with this particular technique).
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Old 05-08-2012, 08:25 PM   #15
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Ok everybody, it's time for a quiz...
Say you want to bushwhack from the northern tip of Soda Pond to the southern tip of Huckleberry Pond in the Five Ponds Wilderness...What's your compass bearing?
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Old 05-08-2012, 08:41 PM   #16
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Ok everybody, it's time for a quiz...
Say you want to bushwhack from the northern tip of Soda Pond to the southern tip of Huckleberry Pond in the Five Ponds Wilderness...What's your compass bearing?
Better yet, describe not only the compass bearing, but details of expected terrain, what do you expect to see along the way, where does the terrain change and when do you expect it to change (up, down, sideways), is the best course necessarily a straight line between the two points - why or why not.

What time do you expect to reach not only the destination but any intermediate change in terrain, and what do you do if you don't reach it at that time (what +/- in time is acceptable before you begin to wonder?).

Is there an alternate route in case of huge blowdown on the direct path? What if you miss the point at the south end of Huckleberry Pond (or even miss the pond completely) how will you know it... what will you do...

...on and on with questions to make you think about how one really navigates. Obviously there is much more than simply following a compass heading, that is just a starting point.

The answers with thought ought to be fairly easy in this case. Try next the same questions on defining your own route from the south end of Ginger Pond all the way to Bear Pond. It gets more complex, but treat it segment-wise with intermediate destinations and it all works the same.
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Old 05-08-2012, 09:37 PM   #17
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listen to these guys, they log a lot of time in the woods....

Especially about RECOGNIZING TERRAIN FEATURES. Once you learn to start doing that, You'll realize you hardly ever glance at the compass because you'll know what to expect to see, and what to see next. The two examples they used here are such short and simple bushwacks, a compass bearing wouldn't even be necessary for me, or them either I'm sure.

The first example, I wouldn't follow a straight line, I prefer to follow terrain, and water. It might be not as short as a straight line, but I like to avoid needlessly climbing, so often I will stay at a level going around a low spot rather than climbing down into it and then climbing back up out of it

The second example is a no brainer, follow the notch up to the height of ground, keep following the notch down the other side, looks to me like there would be some small amount of water flowing in there by the time you get near the pond, probably flowing right into it.
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Old 05-09-2012, 07:58 AM   #18
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Another 2 cents.... Confusion usually arises when "magnetic north" and "true north" are discussed. Everyone grew up hearing that the compass needle points north but it would help to know that it would be more accurate to say the needle points northernly. If you are in the Eastern US go outside with your compass and check out the needle. It is pointing to a spot which is just to the left of true north (it has been labeled as "magnetic north") or another words true north (the direction that most maps are layed out) is really just to the right of where the floating needle is pointing to.
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Old 05-09-2012, 10:56 AM   #19
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Probably another question , that I'm sure comes up often when beginners are starting out I'm guessing WLDRNS has answered often , is.

I'm not flying an airplane 100's of miles . I want to get from here to there and it is only a mile or two. Say Justins quiz for example.

Why can't I just turn the map till the quad lines line up with magnetic north and take my bearing from that ? Where would I end up doing it this way ?
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Old 05-09-2012, 11:38 AM   #20
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Probably another question , that I'm sure comes up often when beginners are starting out I'm guessing WLDRNS has answered often , is.

I'm not flying an airplane 100's of miles . I want to get from here to there and it is only a mile or two. Say Justins quiz for example.

Why can't I just turn the map till the quad lines line up with magnetic north and take my bearing from that ? Where would I end up doing it this way ?
By the "quad" lines you mention, I believe you are referring to the UTM grid overlay on recent editions of topo maps. More on that in a bit...

If I understand you correctly, what you want to do would be the equivalent of physically moving the earth's magnetic north pole to coincide with the geographic north pole. They are actually about 600 miles apart, which is the crux of the whole declination problem. Hold on tight for that one. The MN pole is actually a fuzzy region (not a precision defined point) in northwest Canada.

Picture a normal grade-school globe with lines of longitude all converging at the geographic North Pole. For purposes of illustration now picture rotating those lines relative to the surface features of the earth so that they converge at some other spot, no longer located at the geographic North Pole. Say... 600 miles away in northern Canada.

While not a perfect analogy, these new "longitude" lines could be magnetic field lines emanating from that spot in NW Canada, passing through space and along the surface of the earth, heading to their opposite counterpart at the south magnetic pole. Think of those new lines as lines of magnetic force, which is what your compass needle aligns to.

Here in the Adirondacks the angular difference between the magnetic "longitude" lines and the standard geographic longitude lines is about 14 degrees. Unfortunately you cannot make those lines magically change direction by simply orienting your map in another direction. Your compass will always align with them. But as Justin did, you can draw them on your map (they look parallel because we are only looking at a very small portion of the earth/map).

Back to the "quad" lines.... The UTM grid lines are not lines of geographic longitude, but for your purposes over short distances they are often close enough and can be thought of as the same. If you look very carefully, you will see that the grid lines closest to the edge of the map will have some slight angle, which is also given in the declination diagram. This angle can be as much as 3 degrees, usually much less (for reasons not important to this discussion).

So.... the long and short of it is you can rotate your map, but you cannot rotate the earth, nor its representation on the map to change the relative angular difference between magnetic and geographic north. In your scenario you would travel in error by 14 degrees.

How bad is that? Rough rule of thumb is... for every degree of error, expect to be off by one part in 60 for distance traveled. Say you travel 6000 feet (a bit over a mile). One degree of error puts you 1*(6000/60) = 100 feet in error. Thus 14 degrees of declination error puts you 1400 feet off course at your destination.
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