Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Bring a Compass With You! (Or You May Never Find Your Truck)

We live in a time where GPS is king. You can see exactly on the little screen where you are and where you have been. Nice ones even show you topo maps or aerial photographs. Most hunters don't carry a compass any more. Some of the younger generation don't even know how to use one. And why would they? A handheld GPS in easier and more accurate. I have three, and never go into the woods without one. I also never go into the woods without a compass. Here is why:

While GPS devices are amazingly useful, they are dependent on two things that are prone to fail; batteries and satellite reception. I've lost count how many times I've turned on my GPS only to find the batteries are dead. I usually carry spares in my truck, but sometimes I use them and forget to replace them. Even mostly charged batteries can die in the course of a ten hour hunt, especially if I am in heavy cover and the GPS has to search for signal constantly. Once the batteries are dead, the GPS is just dead weight.

Awesome technology, when they work
A more common problem around here, the Tidewater area of Virginia, is poor reception. Last week when I was scouting for squirrels I got into some tree cover so thick I couldn't get signal from even one satellite. My compass got me back on the trail. Satellite reception always drops out in the thickest areas. The areas I need navigation the most.

Loosing the GPS is also a possibility. My GPS devices need to stick a little out of my pocket to recieve reception. I like to keep them on so I can see the path I have taken. This means I have to keep them in an open pocket. Last season I was in a super thick marsh. At one point I was crawling on my hands and knees, trying to get through. In the middle of it all I noticed that my GPS had fallen out of my pocket. I cannot express the fear I felt. I was lost without it. I knew the trail was less than 100 yards away, but in the thick I had no idea which direction. This was one of the many times a compass saved my bacon.

Everywhere I hunt there are roads reasonably close by. I never hunt somewhere where a road or trail is more than a mile away. Every time I hunt I print out a map of the area I am going. It usually isn't a top quality, or even very accurate map (the VDGIF maps are notoriously inaccurate), but it gives me a general idea of the roads in the area. If I know approximately where I am, say south of a main road, I know I just have to keep going north to reach it. A compass is all you need.

I have two compasses, a small ball compass and a full size mirror compass. The ball compass I keep pinned inside my backpack. This is the one that saves me the most. The full size compass usually gets forgotten at home unless I am going particularly deep in the woods. You don't have to spend much on a compass, just make sure the needle spins freely and doesn't get stuck.

A safety net

Using a compass is easy. The red arrow points north. Sight down the compass in the direction you want to go. Choose a tree or landmark in that direction. Put away the compass and go to that landmark. Once you get there take out your compass and do it all again.

What if your GPS dies and you don't have a compass? Well, you might be screwed, but you can try this. If you have an analog watch and you can see the sun you can use them to find a north-ish direction. Point the hour hand (the short one) at the sun. Split the difference between the hour hand and 12:00 on your watch. That is north. The watch must have the correct time for this to work. You might want to practice this a couple times.
Crude drawing to the rescue!

If you are without a working GPS, compass, or watch, you are either incredibly unlnucky or illprepaired.  Since this is the Unlucky Hunter, I will show how to find north with only the sun and and a  stick. You must be in an area that can clearly sees the sun and casts a shadow. Sick a stick in the ground and mark where its shadow falls. Wait 30 minuts or more and mark where the shadow is. Draw a line between the two marks. This line will point east to west.

I made this drawing and it confuses me a little, I hope you understand.
Just carry a compass and you won't have to understand.

The moral to this story is carry a compass. It is easy to get turned around in the woods, even on familiar land. Learn how to use a compass and you will never be lost.

Hey! If you haven't already sign up for my contests. Right now we are giving away a Buck Pocket Knife and a 192 Piece First Aid Kit! There are not many entries, so the chances of winning are good!

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