Preparing for a Wilderness Hunt - Learning to Use a Compass

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If planning a hunting trip within the deep wilderness of Colorado or any other state for that matter, it is extremely important to be able to navigate into and then back out of the wilderness.  Two primary items needed for navigation are (1) a topographical map of the area and (2) a compass.  A GPS unit can also be used however a compass needs no batteries (but I still take both).

It was April of 2007 and My 16 year old son now living with us in Colorado needed to have more outdoor navigation skill training if he and I were to be taking advantage of the great hunting areas this state offers.  Okay who am I kidding as I needed the additional training as well in order to be able to properly make my way through the western wilderness during our upcoming Colorado Elk and Deer hunts… and make my way back to the parked truck.

Parts of the Compass – there are several key parts to a compass. 

1.       The first is the compass housing – It is a “turnable” unit atop a plastic base (could be metal or other material) that encases the compass needle to allow it to move freely based on earth’s magnetic north pole. 

2.       On that plastic base is a “Direction of Travel Arrow”.  This is used to assist your navigation. 

3.       The third part is the compass needle –it is the dial within the housing that has a pointed end usually painted red.  It will always point towards earth’s magnetic north pole.

4.       The fourth part of the compass is the orienteering arrow – this is found on the bottom of the compass within the housing and underneath the needle.  It points toward a North designation.  From there the East and West indicators are 90 degrees to each side of the orienteering arrow with South being 180 degrees or directly opposite of North. 

So this was discussed with my son Nikolas and re-reviewed until we understood these important parts of the compass.  Now we needed to know how to use it in conjunction with a topographical map of a specific area.  

To use a compass with a map there are four basic steps to follow.

Align the edge of the compass with the starting and finishing point on the map – where you are starting your trek and where you want to end before navigating back out.
Rotate the compass housing until the orienting arrow points N on the map.
Rotate the map and compass together until the red end of the compass needle points north.
Follow the direction of travel arrow on the compass, keeping the needle aligned with the orienting arrow on the housing.

Tip - You should keep your map (preferably in a sealed) transparent plastic bag, and if it is windy, tied up, so it can't blow away from you.

I reviewed this material with Nikolas at the kitchen table one day.  We went over the information thoroughly and felt we were ready to use it now to navigate a real wilderness area.  We decided to practice on Blodgett Peak as it is close and also contains a plane wreck.  We were also going to take advantage of an existing geo-caching site that was there.  Just to be safe and ensure we were doing everything correctly we included retired Air Force Lt. Colonel and his son – both well trained in compass use.

Blodgett Peak is a well known hiking trail within the Air Force Academy.  You will climb 2,123 feet or more vertically on a 3.2 mile one-way route.  More vertical is available depending on where you start.  On the mountain side is a very well known plane wreck from WWII.  The aircraft was a C-49J twin-engine transport, en route from Pueblo to Denver on 23rd Feb. 1943 in overcast weather. It crashed at 1205 MT, instantly killing the pilot and crewmen.  About another eight-hundred feet or so it would have cleared the mountain side.  Nearby the plain wreck is an ammo container used as a geo-cashing container.  The coordinates are available on various web sites. 

Nikolas and I started up the trail with compass and map in hand at approximately 0900 in the morning.  It was early October where mornings are crisp but the afternoons can be in the 70’s.  This time of year is unpredictable weather wise.  We would find that out in a couple of hours.   We used our compass to navigate to pre-planned points on the map moving across the southwest flank of the peak.  We followed the compass point to the next map point until we reached the wooded southern drainage, the switches back east, and then after a brief climb to the switches back west and squeezes through a thin hike through two huge granite boulders.  The trail then became difficult in rating, climbing 500 feet within a very short distance.  Nikolas and I were still able to find all of our designate map points.   We continued using our compass and map past Blodgett’s rocky cap all the way to the top.  The wreck is .5 miles and 800 feet down on the east side of the ridge. A good map is critical to find it. The coordinates are 38 degrees 57 minutes 48.63 seconds north latitude and 104 degrees 54 minutes 35.53 seconds west longitude.  You can see it from the ridge top (We used the GPS as backup).

In the end we found the ammo container.  (Secret- it was hid in the rocks on top of the mountain side in front of the wreck).  Nikolas and I had learned how to successfully navigate using a compass and a map and now felt we were prepared find our way safely within our planned Colorado wilderness elk and deer hunt that year.


Ca_Vermonster's picture

Veru good tips Retired!  I am

Veru good tips Retired!  I am also old school, and carry a compass with me.  Batteries can die in a GPS, phones with built in compasses can break, but a simple compass is very durable, and can save your butt.

When coupled with a good set of topo maps, it's one of the only things, and most important things, you can bring on a wilderness hunt.  Along with maybe matches, I guess.  Many of today's youth are so obsessed with getting out there, bringing the gun and slinging some lead.  Not many of them focus on the safety aspect.

Thanks for the tip!

hunter25's picture

This is a great article and a

This is a great article and a great tip. I have to admit that after all these years I had no idea on how to properly use a compass and relied totally on a gps or just watching my landmarks. I have alway had a compass but could really only use it to point the way north. I have been practicing the last year and it's really fun learning and using it all. I still rely on my gps for every day duties but it's good to know what to do in an emergency situation.

BikerRN's picture

Very Good Read

Thank you for this article.

I study maps and even have and use a compass. With all the electronic advantages available today I can't help but think that compass skills will further decrease from the minimal levels they are at now in society. That's a pity because as noted batteries die, electronics get wet, and even atmospheric conditions could create a situation where your GPS unit could fail at tracking a satellite. Hence knowing old school ways may serve you best in a pinch.

Things are old school because they've been around for a long time. They've been around because they work.


cantgetdrawn's picture

I have a question

Does this method account for the difference between magnetic north and true north? 

For short trips it does not make much difference however for longer trips  not adjusting can throw a person significantly off their route.  In my reading it seems that this method does not account for the difference, am I missing something? 

Retired2hunt's picture

  No I did not include


No I did not include declination in my brief tip on using a compass and a map.  This is why it's important to always use a current map when you're in unfamiliar territory, especially when you're trekking long distances. With short distances, the declination may only be up to 100 feet or so. But when you're trekking long distances, the margin of error could be several miles. Your map will tell you the declination. When you make your navigation calculations, you add or subtract that angle from the compass bearing numbers. Some compasses only require you to make that adjustment once for your entire trip.  I highly suggest to all to check your compass instructions for more about setting the declination.



COMeatHunter's picture

My compass does this "automatically"

My compass, a Brunton I think, has a correction for this built right into the compass.  That is, you align the magnetic north arrow in the compass body and the true north bearing is indicated by a separate "True North" arrow.  This allows one to align a topo map with the compass and get a heading to follow for your direction of travel.  Alternatively, you can shoot a bearing on a landmark (like a prominent mountain) with your compass and then orient your map properly.  Do this technique with 2 different landmarks and you can usually find your location at the point of intersection of the two different bearings.  Be careful that you have the correct landmarks located though when using this technique or you will only help yourself get lost.  Like most things, it takes some practice and practical use to master orienteering with a compass.


COMeatHunter's picture

I'm old school too when it

I'm old school too when it comes to navigating in the woods.  I don't even own a GPS, and even if I did I would take my map and compass with me anyway.  I borrowed a GPS unit once, a simple one that basically would log your distance and tell you where you parked the car.  Trouble was, sometimes the GPS didn't quite have the location of the car correct.  I found out from the owner that if the satelite signal if weak, you may need to move 50-100 feet and take another look at the unit.  Huh, my map never has that trouble.

I'll probably break down sometime in the near future and acquire a GPS unit.  But I will be teaching my kids how to use a map and compass before they ever get to touch the GPS unit.

Thanks for the refresher.

SGM's picture

Retired2hunt, good tip about

Retired2hunt, good tip about using a compass and learning how to use one. I never go out even in areas I know very well without a good quality compass. Having a compass in your pack is one thing but knowing how to use it is another. Also understanding how to use a compass and your map together as a tool is another thing. I know several folks think maps are old school and not needed if you have a GPS. Well electronics break, get wet and batteries die. Call me old school if you want but I will keep my compass.