Compass Expert Points Hikers in Right Direction


A tip for backcountry enthusiasts: Carrying a compass won’t do you any good if you don’t know how to use it.

That may seem an obvious bit of advice, but plenty of hikers buy a compass and tuck it away in their packs in the apparent belief that it will serve as some sort of talisman, warding off wrong turns and whiteouts.

It doesn’t work that way.

Hikers get lost, even while following well-marked trails, and an understanding of map and compass basics can save miles of aimless wandering.


David Mott, a leader of local workshops on map and compass, rates fluency in their use as an essential backcountry skill. Moreover, says Mott, learning the basics of navigation can enhance the enjoyment of the outdoors, giving users extra confidence in their backcountry adventures and allowing them to identify far-off peaks and other landmarks.

Some folks even add a competitive edge to backcountry navigation through the sport of orienteering, in which participants race their way around a course with map and compass, a sort of wilderness version of the sports car rally.

Mott first took a class in backcountry map and compass about three years ago, and soon after started sharing his newfound expertise with fellow members of the Orange County-based OUR (Our Ultimate Recreation) Club, which includes hikers, backpackers, bicyclists, white-water rafters and other outdoor enthusiasts.

Since then, Mott has developed his own course materials and leads workshops for Orange County Search and Rescue (of which he is a member) and other groups, as well as private monthly workshops. The daylong sessions include morning classroom instruction and afternoon practice in the field, usually near Mt. Wilson.

A day of instruction is usually enough to lay the groundwork for learning to use a map and compass, but practice is necessary for real proficiency. Some of the basics that Mott covers in his classes:

* Compass type. The most useful type for map use feature a clear base, a rotating dial, a direction of travel arrow and a built-in magnifier. Mott says a basic model is adequate for beginners, despite the myth that more expensive compasses are necessarily more accurate. “The accuracy of the compass depends on the user,” he says.

Suunto and Silva are the two biggest makers of compasses for backcountry use. Mott rates the Silva Explorer III Type III and the Suunto Orienteer A2100 as good models for beginners.

* Maps. Other maps may be of limited use, but the only adequate maps for backcountry navigation are topographic maps, published by the U.S. Geological Survey and covering all areas of the continental United States. Most backpacking stores carry maps of popular hiking areas, while some specialty stores (Allied Services in Orange is one) carry a wider selection.

Reading a topographic map (or “topo”) is a skill in itself. The maps’ most obvious features are all those squiggly lines--called contours--that represent elevation. With practice, map users can learn to visualize the landscape the lines represent.

* Magnetic declination. Maps are oriented to true north. The compass needle points to magnetic north. The difference between these is the declination and must be taken into account when taking readings in the field.

Measured in degrees, the declination varies depending on location and is marked on the bottom of topographic maps. In Orange County, the difference between true and magnetic north is 14 degrees. There are several different methods to account for declination (Mott teaches four).

* Triangulation. The most common method for determining location, triangulation involves taking the bearing of two known landmarks (“visual reference points”); these lines are drawn on the map, and their intersection is your location. If you know what trail or road you’re on, only one bearing is needed.

Actually putting these and other concepts to use involves more intricacies than can be covered here, but they are surprisingly easy to learn with just a little bit of instruction. Learning from an experienced friend is one way, and there are also books on the subject (“Map and Compass” by Bjorn Kjellstrom is the best and most popular).

Taking a class is another option. Sometimes, navigation is offered as part of longer courses on wilderness skills through private outdoor schools or community colleges. One-day map and compass courses are offered through various outlets.

Mott’s class and outing are offered monthly for $29.50, which includes the required topo map. A16, the outdoor shop in Costa Mesa, also offers a monthly one-day beginners’ course for $45.

Meanwhile, proficient map and compass users may want to take a shot at orienteering, a sport that has long been immensely popular in the Scandinavian countries but has never quite caught on in the United States--not in a big way, at least.

Within the States, the sport is more popular in the Northeast than it is locally. Orange County does not have an orienteering organization of its own, but the Los Angeles Orienteering Club is active, organizing meets and other events monthly.

Michael Swatek, chief coordinator of the Los Angeles club, said about 25 of the organization’s 120 members live in Orange County, and occasional events are held in the eastern part of the county. Also, the club recently completed a course map for Mile Square Park in Fountain Valley and will start scheduling meets there.

According to Robin Shannonhouse, executive director of the U.S. Orienteering Federation (based in Forest Park, Ga.), orienteering is a sport that combines being in the outdoors with mental problem-solving, and can be enjoyed on a recreational level or competitively.

Participants must negotiate a course, with map and compass, finding a series of checkpoints (“controls”) in the proper sequence. Beginner courses are 3 kilometers or less; elite courses are at least 7 kilometers. Courses can be set up in city parks or more remote wilderness areas (Southern California has no permanent courses).

Orienteering attracts “people who like to use their brains, who like solving puzzles and working out problems,” Shannonhouse says. Also, because it combines mental as well as physical obstacles, someone in less-than-perfect shape can compete effectively with a better athlete.

For information on the Los Angeles Orienteering Club, call (213) 679-2776. For information on David Mott’s map and compass classes, call (714) 633-9508. The phone number for A16 in Costa Mesa is (714) 650-3301.