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How to use a compass

By orienting a map with a compass, you can find your way out of the woods.

By Dan Oko

Getting lost may be the basis of some of the funniest campfire tales ever told, but anybody who has ever gotten turned around in the dark woods knows that there are not a lot of yuks to be had when you can’t find your way home. In Texas, where treacherous terrain, poisonous snakes and quick-changing weather patterns are commonplace, an unplanned bivouac can have serious — even dire — consequences. Fortunately, the art of orienteering offers a better way to go.

Personal trainer Randall Watts and his partner, ex-Marine Adam Davilla, teach kids and adults the basics of orienteering, including map reading and compass skills, in the Austin area, sometimes conducting training sessions at Bastrop State Park. It takes about six months to attain navigational expertise, according to Watts, but the investment is worth the effort. “We teach people the woods are not a scary place to be,” he says. “You can go much deeper into the woods and feel more confident when you are there, especially if ‘What do I do if I get lost?’ is not part of the equation.”

To start, you’ll want a good compass. While most newfangled global positioning system (GPS) units have a built-in electronic compass, the problem with these devices can be summed up in two words: dead batteries. By contrast, an affordable orienteering compass will work no matter what the weather, terrain or power source. Look for one that incorporates a needle suspended in a non-freezing liquid, a static bearing or directional point marked on its base, a small ruler that allows you to scale map distances and a built-in protractor.

The other obvious tool for land navigation is an accurate map. If you’re involved in adventure racing, hiking, mountain biking, treasure hunting or competitive, timed orienteering — navigating terrain according to specific waypoints — you’ll want a topographic map that shows elevation contours over a given landscape. But it’s worth noting that even an old highway map can do the trick if you’re lost and need to determine which direction you should be walking, running, biking or boating.

Learning to use a compass and map together remains at the heart of land navigation. In short, orient the map to north by making sure the red arrow is pointing to the top of the map when the compass is set on the page. This will help determine which heading you want — toward camp, a main road, the next town — and then, using the sighting line (or direction-of-travel arrow) you should be able to chart a rough course. If no map is handy, you can “shoot the azimuth,” or create a line of travel, by picking a direction on the compass and establishing an index with the dial, making sure that the red arrow remains within the outline of the orienteering arrow shown inside the compass rose. Once you establish a bearing, do not change the position of the dial and try to keep the red arrow in place.

Of course, the nuances of land navigation are many, so you’ll want to practice plenty before your next big adventure. The other option is to be the laughingstock of the campfire — or maybe worse.

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