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General Compass Question Plus Brand Suggestions

Hello! As someone who tends to accidentally go off-trail from time to time, I'm planning to rely less on  trail apps (which have sometimes been the cause of off-trail adventures) and technology and go old school with paper maps and a compass this year. What compass do hikers tend to use? I've looked over the ones offered on and other outdoor sites and am not sure what I truly need. Should I get one that accounts for declination (which I still don't really understand but saw another post on this topic and will check it out)? Is a basic one enough? Any input would be fantastic. Thanks!

15 Replies


"I have never been lost, but I've been might confused for a few days"  - Daniel Boone

I wondered at the outset if the problem was compass declination or simply finding a trail when one might have strayed from the track.  I don't thin declination is the issue here.

Trails vary wildly in their character.  Sone, like the Bright Angel or Kaibab at Grand Canyon are virtual highways, impossible to miss, and heavily trafficked.  There are others, built sketchily many moons ago, and now over grown with brush and grass, but still shown on maps.  These may be obliterated by landslides or heavy growth.

I did my first hikes in the sky islands of southern Arizona back in the 1950's.  Many trails had been constructed by the CCC about 1930 or so, were heavily obscured and lightly, if ever, travelled.  My mentor knew the score and gave me several tips.  Sometimes there were blazes, but even more useful were the axe cut limbs of trees bordering the trail.  Also look for water bars, the tiny diversion dams that take water off the trail.  Realize the the most common error is walking off the end of a switchback, especially if you suddenly lose the trail.

I have used these pointers to good effect, and these tips were important in making my first seasonal job with the NPS a success.

A compass is rarely of any use in these circumstances.  Stop, look around, especially behind you, for that missing switchback.  When were you last on the trail.  It probably pays to return to that point and scout carefully.  You will find it eventually.

If all else fails, check your map.  Where is the trail headed - toward a pass east of you?  Can you see thee pass?  Any obstacles?  This borders on desperation, but head toward the local objective, keeping your bearings - eventually you and the trail will intersect

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I think the guys are making this sound harder than it is. 

The way to get good map and compass skills is to practice with your map and compass when you know where you are.   The REI website has some good articles about how to navigate:

My compass has a sighting mirror because I'm bad at eyeballing the direction of things in the distance. 

REI has one particularly excellent piece of advice-- mentally check off landmarks as you hike.   Unlike a GPS, which just gives you a  single detached point on the map, map and compass navigation works by landscape visualization. When you are good at it, the picture on the map and the landscape around you kind of blend together in your mind so you develop an intuitive sense of where you are in the big picture (one that you can verify with your compass, of course). 

I've noticed that dependence on GPS seems to mess with spatial visualization.  People who have only learned to navigate by GPS often seem to be confused about where they are, even when the landmarks seem obvious to me.  I actually think that poor map reading skills are a big factor that makes women feel dependent on male trip leaders.   If you can navigate, you can plan the trip yourself.   

I've been really wanting to buy a Cammenga compass. I used it in survival school, so I'm really familiar with the features, so that's the main draw for me. Some of it's perks are illuminated (and kind of radioactive) bezels, guide, and backlight, and also a 1:50000 gradated edge on the side. It's kind of heavy but durable. It magnetically locks your last bearing if the compass closes (to a certain extent) and has a little sight in the lid with a plumb line in it. I really like it, and was able to get within ten meters of all my given locations with nothing but a topographical map and the cammenga. (I'm pretty much a beginner, too.) The bezel moves 3 degrees with each click, so you can navigate at night with the backlight and some basic arithmetic if you find yourself really up sh*t creek and have to do night navigation for whatever reason. My recommendation would be to take a basic navigation course and learn some basic tips. Triangulation, pace count, and Declination (as I see a lot of people have mentioned,) are all pretty good things to know about.

Since I AM such a beginner, I also like making a nice summary in my notebook of the point I'm going to. What kind of feature could tell me I've gone too far, how many meters/paces I should expect to be there, and any kind of features I can expect on the way to confirm that I'm going in the right direction.


OK, so this is just a funny story.  My BF and I were in Shawnee last week backpacking.  The trails were an absolute mess.  It had rained before we got there and horses had totally churned the trails.  All the trails alternated between slimy mud and swimming pools.  From the number of side trails around the swimming areas, this must have been the common state of things  (the River to River Trail should have just been called the River Trail).  So we were on our way back and came up to one of the swimming hole size and depth puddles and, as much as I hate doing it, took one of the trails around but it somehow took us onto another trail.  I saw the trail marker and knew based on the map we were going the wrong way.  BF saw the number and got all excited based on what he was seeing on his trail app/garmin and it was taking us toward the lake.  I pulled out the map and said no, we need to be on this other trail, but nooo, we were heading toward the lake we need to go toward the lake to walk across the dam.  And back and forth it went so I pulled out my handy dandy compass and showed him we were hiking northwest and not southwest toward the dam.  He sputtered around a bit and said but, but, but and then we turned around and back we went to the slimy trail and took it down to the dam.  Compass and map does it again.

Found Myself Outside

I love that story.  


I live in Oklahoma and the rain has put a literal damper on a lot of my hiking plans lately. That red mud... it's a lot.