Monday, July 7, 2014

The Least Useful Item in the Ten Essentials?

I recently wrote about the Ten Essentials, which includes quite a few extremely, ahem, essential items. But which is the least useful? From my perspective, it's the one I've carried for more than 20 years and barely ever used: a compass.

Why do you need a compass?
A compass allows you to very quickly orient yourself if you become turned around in dense off-trail woods; during low-visibility, fogged-in conditions; or for other reasons.

It can also be used to triangulate your position if you have clear views of known landmarks, and to identify an unknown peak or object by marking its precise direction and plotting it on a map.

A base plate compass (read: no batteries required) is recommended.

Why don't you need a compass?
Unlike most other items in the ten essentials, the functions of a compass can be largely replaced with other skills and essential gear.

First, if the sun is out and you know the time, it is extremely fast and simple to orient yourself if you know the basics of how to navigate with the sun. Short story is this: The sun is due south when it reaches its highest point in the sky (high noon), which usually occurs sometime between noon and 1 p.m. It moves a rough 15 degrees per hour from east to west (left to right if you're facing the sun).

Around 3:30 p.m., for example, the sun would be in the southwest. This works even if you are in mostly shaded (forest) conditions. All you need is a glimpse of the sun or a good shadow on the ground to indicate its location. Of course, this doesn't work in cloudy, stormy conditions (when a survival situation is more likely to occur).

Second, you should always carry the best trail map your can find for the area and keep close tabs on it (and your location) throughout the day. If you're like me, then the vast majority of the hiking you've done in the Lower 48 has been on trails, rather than bushwhacking adventures in dense woods. For on-trail hiking, good map-reading allows you to have a good handle on your location at all times and essentially negates the need for a compass.

Third, in the event of socked-in conditions—which do occur regularly on New England's high peaks—you will likely still be on established trails, which in many places are backed up by large cairns at relatively short distances. (If you're hiking outside of the region in trail-less wilderness, a compass is definitely a good idea; one of the few times I've used one is in the Alaskan backcountry).

Fourth, there's a good chance you already have a compass (or an alternate way to identify your location) on one or more of the devices you're carrying. I have a useful wrist-top compass built into my altimeter watch, for example. Most GPS units and smart phones have them as well. Yes, they are prone to breakage and battery failure, but having multiple back-ups (altimeter watch and GPS unit, say) minimizes the risk.

The Takeaway
Can you get away without carrying a compass? Most of the time, yes.

Should you carry a compass?  It depends. Definitely carry a compass if you are heading somewhere where becoming disoriented is a possibility. Two of the most common scenarios for this include off-trail travel in dense forest or vegetation; and travel to areas where low-visibility conditions may occur, such as above-treeline or in a snowstorm.

Hike on.

Equipped” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Matt Heid.


Ari said...

What about matches? When was the last time the ability to start a fire helped someone in the backcountry?

MCJT100 said...

Yeah, screw those minimum safety guidelines. Especially if you're a beginner in a new territory ! So much weight to carry that damn compass. I can't count the times I thought geez, I wish I left that compass home! Seriously ? Do you stay up late thinking of the things ? My compass has saved my butt more than once. # stupidnottopack it.

Alan Zavorotny said...

I have always taught my son and my other scouts the value of carrying and knowing how to use a compass. It's an essential skill everyone who enters the woods should know. My son and I were on the A-Z trail out of Zealand last weekend and he commented how easy it would be to get disoriented or lost on that trail if the weather turned south. Being on established trails isn't always a reliable way to find your way around the back country.

Brooks Fulton said...

Rubbish! I find it interesting that you would suggest carrying a compass is optional, flying in the face of the hikeSafe program developed by the WMNF, NHF&G, and endorsed by the AMC among many other organizations. Every hiker (excepting perhaps small children accompanied by responsible adults) should carry one (if not two), and know how to use it. You might have added that for $25 annually you will be able to buy a NH Hike Safe Card Get Out of Jail Free card, which not only will indemnify you against your own negligence, but weigh less too.

Mathew said...

No, I'm with Matt on this - He is certainly not suggesting that a compass is not useful or valuable, and nor would I.
But for most folk in most of our back country adventures, the compass would be one of the first things I'd leave behind if I was extremely conscientious of weight and pack space. For what it's worth, most of my time is spent in steep mountain terrain where an altimeter is more appropriate - though this would also be low on my list of 'essentials'. I wouldn't doubt you and your son, Alan, when you say you were in country where it was essential - horses—and gear—for courses.

Gwen Lafave said...

Is this just some way to get people to read your Ten Essentials? One of the first things they teach you in Hunters Safety is how to use a compass. It is so easy to get turned around in the woods. I have a great internal compass but I have gotten lost. If I am in a field I can tell what way is north everytime, and I can tell you what time it is by putting a stick in the ground and reading the shadow. But in the woods I was surprised how fast you can get turned around. I always take a reading before I go in and stop and take readings every now and again. What is you don't know the time? How many times out hiking do you think it is earlier then it is? So you would be heading in totally wrong direction. and the suns moves first you think it is 10 am and it is 11 am then you think it is noon but it is 3pm. I don't carry a watch because if I know where north is I know what time it is. Leaving it is just a good way to get lost.

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