A Compass

Ode to a compass

A compass is a simple yet powerful tool for navigating in the forest.

As much as I enjoy trying out and embracing new technology, I am still using the compass I bought almost twenty years ago for navigating in the woods.  I have tried GPS units and even a compass app on my tablet and iPod touch, but still return to my compass when heading out to the woods.  There is something about the feel and familiarity that keeps me coming back to my old friend.

As I said, I investigate and utilize new technology all the time as part of my job and have discovered some interesting and fun things.  I have found some to be very useful and worth sharing with others, including the Peterson birds app and the soilweb app (both free, check them out if you haven’t already).  However, I have found enough limitations and shortfalls in the technologies that I won’t be throwing away my compass anytime soon.

First, my compass doesn’t mind a bit of water.  I know you can get cases for the technology out there, and some GPS units already are water resistant and will float.  This is all fine and good, but I don’t want to be worrying about my tech when I am falling into a stream (happened, not too proud of it).  Some of my equipment got a bit beat up, but my compass shook it off and went back to work.

Second, my compass won’t die on me due to lack of power.  I don’t need to charge it nor carry spare batteries for it.  This is less of an issue for GPS units and more so for smartphones, but I hear battery life for these is improving.  However, using tech in the winter will drain batteries much faster and trying to press buttons with mittens can be a challenge.  Whereas my compass shrugs it’s shoulders at the cold and tells me to drive on.

Third, the accuracy of my compass is rarely in question.  The only limitations are my ability to precisely utilize it or if I happen to be passing over a certain rock formation that affects magnetic fields (which is rare).  Tech tools can get you pretty close to where you need to go in the woods, but a precise location will always evade these devices.  With training and practice, you can achieve a higher degree of accuracy than most GPS units (that is unless you are willing to spend a large chunk of money on a surveyors GPS unit).

Finally, my compass won’t need upgrades nor get out of style.  There is something to be said about a technology that has been around for hundreds of years and still going strong.

If you haven’t used your compass in a while, then now is the time to get out there and refresh your skills.  Some things you can do include verifying your property corners and lines, accurately mapping your trails and roads, and creating precise directions to points of interest on your property.  Using paper maps is also becoming a lost art in this technology age, so practice using that in conjunction with your compass.

Here is a simple activity to test your compassability.  Pick an obvious landmark (a large tree for example) or stick a tall stake in the ground with some flagging on it.  From this landmark or stake, walk 50 paces due north remembering a pace is the distance traveled after taking two steps.  Turn east and walk 50 paces.  Then head south for another 50 paces, and finish by heading west for 50 paces.  If you have been following these headings truly, you should end up exactly where you started.  It is not an easy thing to do, but after some practice you can get pretty close to perfect.

Even if you are a user of GPS or other technology for navigating in the woods, it is still a good idea to carry a compass with you in case something goes wrong with your tech.  Besides, that small piece of really old technology is still something to marvel at and impress your friends with.