Using Your Cell Phone In The Backcountry

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Last month Jenny Rough wrote an interesting article about why it is a mistake to con you a cell phone when hiking.

She stressed that basic navigation skill “is a use-it-or-lose-skill.  How true.


The thrust of the post is that hikers have an over dependence of electronic navigation while forsaking the rudimentary  principles of using a map and compass. 

Take a look at Jenny’s post.

Visit my other articles on land navigation too:









What Is An Azimuth

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An azimuth is the angular direction to an object.  Azimuths are described commonly in degree increments from either true, magnetic or grid north.


In the world of recreational navigation, GPS receiver operations and orienteering the use of the term “bearing” has become synonymous with azimuth.


Azimuth direction is measured from north clockwise in 360° increments. The point from which the azimuth originates is from the center of an imaginary circle.  This imaginary point is the operator.



Azimuth can be measured with a magnetic compass, a map and by rough estimation using the sun and North Star.



Azimuths can be expressed in degrees true and degrees magnetic.  Degrees true uses the north pole as the principle reference while degrees magnetic refers to reference from the magnetic pole.


Outdoor Quest Image
For more information on bearings and azimuth read Making Sense of The Declination Diagram.

Getting Accurate Compass Readings

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I found these recommendations a while back when I was researching techniques for using a magnetic compass.  A small error when using a compass can result in a significant error in measurement on the ground.

To obtain accurate readings when using a compass:

  • Ensure the compass has be adjusted for declination. 
  • Hold the compass level and steady so the needle swings freely.
  • Hold the compass about waist high in front of the body, except when using a compass with a sighting mirror or a sighting type compass.
  • Raise and lower eyes when taking a bearing, do not move your head. Always use the same eye when taking bearings.
  • Directly face object that is being measured.
  • Magnetic fields will give incorrect compass readings. Avoid taking readings near magnetic fields such as steel, iron (ferrous metals), vehicles, rebar, and clipboards. Even belt buckles, glasses, and rings can interfere with the compass reading.
  • Take bearing twice. 
  • Adjust for magnetic declination as appropriate.
  • Follow the direction of travel arrow, not the compass needle, when walking a bearing. Always follow the line indicated by the compass rather than relying on judgment as to the direction.
  • Use back bearings to ensure you are on track when navigating.

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What do you do when a compass breaks or the GPS just doesn’t seem to be working right?  Here are a few suggestions that will help the navigator.


The theme of this post is to discuss what options the backcountry navigator has with equipment that might not be working correctly. 


When equipment does not appear to provide the correct indication (such as the GPS bearing to the trail head) it’s time to stop.  Never rush navigation.  Stop and take the time to really look over the information provided.  Consult with the rest of the group.


Being able to recognize the proper operation of the hiker’s equipment is important.  This is obtained through field checks well before any trip.  The gas stove can be tested at home before the journey.  The navigation kit can be evaluated throughout the year at the local park or forest. I recommend to the elk and deer hunters in my GPS classes to take their receiver everywhere they go for two weeks prior to leaving for camp.  Push buttons, change displays, mark a waypoint and finally, return to a destination.  Like a pilot of a plane, a map, compass and GPS are the instruments in the backcountry cockpit.


Normally a magnetic compass’ needle rotates freely.  The needle rotates on a jeweled pivot point.  The magnetic compass should be kept level while in use allowing the magnetic needle to move about in the compasses housing.  My Suunto recently just stopped rotating.  I would change direction about 30 degrees and the magnetic needle would move about 15 degrees and then just hang up.


Sadly, there is no simple in the field fix for this.  I gently tapped the compass body and checked the movement of the housing but nothing seemed to work.  Never let broken gear clutter your pack or be used mistakenly.


A back up compass is very helpful in such a situation.  It doesn’t have to be expensive, just reliable.  No matter what you use for a back up, it has to work well and requires testing.  I take all my new compasses to a location in town where the streets run north and south (degrees true.)  I will hike the streets insuring that the compass is on the mark.  This only takes a few minutes.  Recently I noticed that one of my small ball compasses seemed to be at least 20 degrees off; it’s a goner.  Note, that a small back up compass may not be as precise as your primary model.  Also recognize that some compass will only provide a trend of direction such as moving in a northerly direction as opposed to tracking on a direction of 025°.


Before throwing a quality compass out, contact the manufacturer to see what the warrantee offers.


So what does the hiker do if the GPS receiver appears to be broken?   .

The following are steps that I’ll perform:


1.    If I have a GPS with an electronic compass I’ll ensure the compass is activated.  For example on the Garmin 60 series, pressing and holding the “page” button will turn the compass on or off.

2.    I’ll ensure the electronic compass is calibrated.  The compass must be calibrated after each battery change.

3.    Check the charge on the batteries.  If in doubt replace them.

4.    When the “Go To, Find or Where Is” option has been selected, older models will require motion to cause the compass arrow and displays to adjust.  Take five or more steps and see if there are any changes with the display.

5.    Turn the GPS receiver off, open the battery case and remove one battery for about twenty seconds, return the battery and power up the receiver again. 

6.    Once powered up, I want to be certain that the receiver has captured the signals from at least four satellites.

7.    Worse case – call the manufacturer.  Call early in the morning.


In the field, I leave my receiver powered on, collecting data the entire trip.  I keep my receiver in a holster that attaches to one of my shoulder straps.  Before leaving the trail head I “dump the junk” and get rid of old waypoints (e.g., last year’s fishing trip hot spots), I reset data fields on the odometer page and I will clear out my track log.  As I hike, my receiver is collecting all my trail data.  Should my receiver’s compass display fail I can follow my track (the “bread crumb trail” on the map page) back to the trail head.


Lastly, I will consult my map. Using the major land features (e.g., ridge lines, peaks, etc.) I will orient the map, determine my location (using terrain association) and direction of travel.

Sighting With a Magnetic Compass

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Sighting with a compass is an important skill that can determine direction to an object or help the hiker locate and identify his position in the backcountry.
A compass is an important part of the backcountry navigator’s kit.  The use of Global
Positioning System (GPS) receivers has simplified navigation to an extent but the knowledge of how to use a compass is still important; do not underestimate this skill.  
“A compass is basically a magnet mounted on a pivot, free to turn in response to the pull of the earth’s magnetic field.  The housing protects the needle and helps you relate the direction in which the needle points to directions on the map and on the land.  A compass by itself can’t tell you where you are or what you are looking at but it can tell you about direction….”
Staying Found, The Complete Map & Compass Handbook, by June Fleming
Sighting with a compass allows the hiker to determine the direction to an object such as a mountain peak.  The compass direction to an object is known as the “bearing” or azimuth.   Bearing is the more common term in outdoor recreation and is a term used heavily in GPS navigation.  For example, if a mountain peak is due north of you, the bearing to the peak is 000° (read as zero zero zero degrees.)
Sighting with a compass allows the hiker to do several things.  First, sighting on a distant object can provide direction to that object and repeated sightings can provide course corrections along the way.  Secondly, with several sightings on different objects a person’s position can be triangulated. 
This article will focus on using a standard baseplate compass such as the two examples pictured below.  (The lensatic and military compass will not be discussed.)
Figure 1 Two examples of good baseplate compasses.
Key features of the two compasses (above) include:
  • They are declination adjustable
  • Liquid filled housing to dampen the magnetic needle’s movement
  • 2° increments on the bearing dial of the compass housing
  • A clear baseplate of adequate size with map scale information and a small magnifier.
The picture below offers a quick review of the components of a baseplate compass.

To sight or take a bearing do the following:
  1. Using the owner’s manual, adjust the compass for declination.
  2. While holding the compass at waist level, turn squarely towards a distant object.  Hold the compass so that the direction of travel arrow points directly at the object. (Point the      direction of travel arrow away from you; perpendicular to your body.)

  1. While holding the compass, turn the compass housing (the dial) and align the orienting arrow (engraved in the rotating housing) underneath the red magnetic needle.

  1. In this example, the compass has been adjusted to a bearing of 011° degrees.  The bearing data is found where the direction of travel arrow intersects the compass housing.
At this point the hiker can walk towards the object (e.g., mountain peak, or abuilding) on a bearing of 011°.
If the hiker needs to determine his position, the next step is to triangulate using three bearings.  In a “nut shell” this means that bearings to three clearly identifiable features are used.  Ideally, objects that have a bearing separation of 30° – 60° will be used.  Good bearing separation provides better fixing information and plots on the map cleanly.  The bearings are then plotted on a map and where the three lines cross is the hiker’s location.  This complete process is called triangulation.
The following are suggestions for triangulating a position in the back country.
  1. Identify three distinct objects to sight on.  Note that the objects need to be on the topographic map (topo) of the area.  I recommend carrying a forest service map (or something similar) of the area in addition to the topo just incase the objects are too far away.
  2. Orient the topo using the compass.  Orienting the topo means that the map’s left or right border is pointing to true north or 000° degrees true.  See “Orienting a Map” for more information.
  3. Sight on an object such as a mountain peak or church spire.  (Note that not many objects in the backcountry are so distinct and crisp.  Do the best with what you have.) Ensure the direction of travel arrow is pointed towards the object.
  4. As discussed earlier, turn the compass housing until the orienting arrow is directly under red magnetic needle.  Do not move or rotate the compass housing, keep the new bearing in place.
  5. At this point, and while plotting the bearing on the map, the compass will now be used like a protractor.
  6. Lay the compass on the map with either the top left or right corner of the baseplate on the landmark.  This will be a pivot point while aligning the compass.
  7. With the edge of the baseplate in position, rotate the compass (swing) left or right until the N (north) of the compass housing aligns with map North (the top of the map.)  What is even better, with the map oriented to north, as the baseplate is rotated, the red magnetic needle will swing back into position on top of the orienting arrow. 
  8. Draw a line (along the baseplate) from the object to your approximate area.
  1. Repeat the process two more times.

  1. Ideally the three lines will intersect in the immediate area but because of compass error and human error the point of intersection maybe spread out.  Still, triangulation will put you in the ballpark.  Use terrain association to help narrow down your position.

Defining Compass Bearing and Heading

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Bearing and heading are two commonly used terms and two of the most misunderstood.  This post will define and review both terms. 


A dictionary defines the word bearing as:

“….horizontal direction of one point with respect to another or to the compass.”

Simply stated a bearing is the angular direction to an object.  Bearings are described in degree increments from either true or magnetic north.


A compass bearing and heading is measured from north clockwise in 360° increments. The point from which the bearing originates is from the center of an imaginary circle.  This imaginary point is the operator.