“Whether you’re exploring trails or crashing through the woods,” says Suellen Sack, a program director for Outward Bound, “you need a bigger compass than the one on your keychain. It has to lie flat on a map so you can navigate.”
Basic compasses start at around $12. They let you adjust the declination and feature a baseplate. “So many important map and compass tricks start by positioning the baseplate, whether it’s taking a bearing or triangulation,” says Anne Grignon, Outward Bound’s logistics manager. “Otherwise, you’re just guessing.”
Clear plastic units mounted on a baseplate are often called orienteering models. The round black lensatic compasses with a sighting wire (the ones your grandfather took scouting) can set bearings as well, but they’re harder to use with a map.
Recently, iPhones and GPS units have become the go-to for hikers, but “we’re seeing examples of hikers whose batteries run out or their electronics get wet. Then they really don’t know where they are,” says Sack.
Aside from the risk of running out of juice, you’ll have your head down with a GPS, looking at the screen. With a compass, you’re able to look at the trail ahead and sight distant natural features, keeping you aware of your environment and changing conditions.
“Of course, there is a place for GPS,” says Sack. On a 1,200 mile hike from Yellow Knife through Hudson Bay, her compass was useless because of its proximity to magnetic north. She knew it was time to break out the GPS when “the needle went catawampus, and we were leaving snow tracks in a giant S curve.”