Blake Miller

Blake Miller has 34 articles published.

Surviving a Bear Attack

in Community/Gear/Skills by

In my wilderness survival class, I am frequently asked what kind of gun would be the best defense against a bear attack.  I am asked “Is a rifle better than a pistol or what about a shotgun?”  Rarely does anyone ask about bear spray.

Early Saturday morning I was listening to Nothwestern Outdoors Radio.  The show’s host John Kruse interviewed a representative from bear spray manufacturer Counter Assault.

After listening I did some research and verified some of the statistics brought forward on the radio show.  I focused on an article from May 2012 in Outside Magazine by Nick Heil (“Shoot or Spray, the Best Way to Stop a Charging Bear.”)  The studies evaluated pertained to bear encounters in Alaska.

As it turns out, bear spray may be the backcountry traveler’s best option.


Here are a few “take-aways” from Heil’s article:

Over the period from 1883 to 2009, there were 269 bear close encounters.  Bears inflicted injuries in 151 encounters and killed 17 people.  Statistics showed that aggressive bears were repelled or killed 84% of the time with handguns and 76% of the time with long guns.

Bear spray was first introduced in 1985.  From 1985 to 2006 there were 83 close bear encounters involving 156 people. Heil reports that “In all the incidents involving spray, there were only three injuries and none of them were fatal: a 98% success rate.”

In regards to folklore (ie. wearing bells on your boots), an associate professor in Plant and Wildlife Sciences at Brigham Young University, Tom Smith, was asked to provide guidance on how to be safe in bear county.  “But all the information I could find was based on no data at all or just misguided impressions.”


So, what should you do in bear country?

  1. Before going on your outing watch Counter Assault’s video on their website.
  2. Keep bear spray in a holster readily assessable and out of the backpack.
  3. Get the spray out in front and get ready to activate. Spray has a limited volume.
  4. Stay in a group and group up when a bear is seen.
  5. Initially, stand your ground and make noise and then slowly back out.
  6. Don’t make eye contact.

Please keep the following in mind:

  1. Bear Spray has a shelf life of about two years.  Check the bottle’s label.
  2. Bottles of spray are not allowed to go into your luggage for air travel.
  3. Bear Spray can be purchased at many parks, Cabelas, Sportsman’s Ware House, REI and other stores that cater to hunters.
  4. At the end of a trip the bottles can be recycled.  I left an expired bottle on my last trip with the park rangers.

What Maps to Take Hiking

in Skills by
Photo by Rob

In a recent map & compass class, one of my students asked me what maps I carry into the backcountry when hiking or hunting. In this piece, you’ll get all of the info you need to learn what maps to take hiking on your next adventure.

I always carry a Forest Service map of the area I am passing through. Think of this as a regional map that covers a large area; the scale roughly 1:126,000. Though it doesn’t have tremendous detail, this map provides an overview of the main trails and key land features. This is a super planning tool for an outing. The image below represents a fraction of the Deschutes National Forest.

What Maps to Take Hiking
A Forest Service map of the Three Sisters Wilderness. Source: Outdoor Quest

Another option is a map made by Mytopo is a custom map maker. My personal map covers much of the area, as a Forest Service map would. I selected the scale, coordinate system (e., UTM grid), regular or waterproof paper and land area. My last order (2012) cost roughly $25.00 and arrived in about a week, folded flat like a AAA road map. The quality of the map was excellent.

The reason I carry a map of this scale comes from a lesson I learned during a major wildfire in Oregon. 30 plus backpackers were in the forest when the fire started and all evacuated to escape the fire. In such a situation, it would be nice to know what escape routes are available.

What Maps to Take Hiking

The mapping standard for hikers is the U.S. Geologic Survey’s 7.5 minute topographic map; commonly known as a topo. The scale is 1: 24000. This is the map that was once found in the map cabinet at REI and other major outfitters; not anymore. A topo is rich with details that include elevation contours, trails, symbols and colors. I no longer carry a true topo. A topo just takes up too much room for my needs.

What Maps to Take Hiking
A topographic map. Source: Outdoor Quest

That said, I still have lots of options.

I use mapping software such as National Geographic’s program Topo. The detail is the same as a USGS map. I have produced hundreds of maps such that the cost per map is negligible. offers an online subscription service called Map Pass. It costs $30 per year for as many maps that you can email or print. It’s versatile and offers different scales, coordinate systems and size.

Last fall, I learned of a free online program found at This is another excellent program. There is no manual for the program yet, but it’s pretty straight forward, and you don’t need to be a geek to figure it out. Spend thirty minutes searching and selecting various options – then, print a few maps. I like this program because I can select UTM grid as my coordinate system, and it also offers shaded relief for that 3D look to the printed product. Print quality is excellent.

What Maps to Take Hiking Map of Camp Sherman, OR. Source: Outdoor Quest

Gmap4 ( is another free online program that has been around for a number of years. It’s a great planning tool, but only has an average print capability.

Lastly, do visit the US Forest Service web site at There are lots of mapping options for hikers. Some maps are free. There are links to other sources as well.

Whether using an online product or software, printing is something I should mention. I generally use basic computer paper for day hikes in mild temperate weather. If there is any chance of rain, I switch to waterproof paper. I found National Geographic’s Adventure or Latitude 26’s paper on Amazon for $25 a box ($1 a sheet) to be quite versatile. My recommendation is to practice first with a piece of copier paper before printing on waterproof paper. If the ink smudges, the paper probably needs to be flipped to the other side, as only one side can be printed. Let it sit a while before stowing or folding. Some products require the use of a laser printer while most of us have ink jets. That’s okay, just be careful of your selection. I have maps in my day pack that I printed several years ago, thus the paper is fairly rugged.

Store maps in either a waterproof case or a ziplock gallon bag. Map cases are very rugged and will hold several maps. Most often I use a ziplock, one gallon food storage bag. I keep it inside my pack.

Should I use one map frequently, I might make one or two copies of the same map. I am fairly rough on my maps and frequent folding/unfolding weakens the paper to an extent. Having an extra map for a friend is a plus, too.

Finding Direction Without a Compass

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Finding Direction Without a Compass
Photo by Luis Pérez

Preparation and carrying the ten essentials is vital to any outdoor trip. Map, compass and GPS make up my navigation kit. Still, the unplanned happens, and a magnetic compass may be broken or left at home. Knowing a few common practices for finding direction without a compass can make a difference.


Several techniques can be used to determine direction. First, let us eliminate two methods that are not practical:

Eliminate the old axiom of moss growing on the north side of a tree. It’s just not reliable. In the Willamette Valley of Oregon, moss is everywhere and around everything.

Secondly, dismiss the concept that deciduous trees (e.g., oaks, maples) develop significantly more vegetative structure on a southern exposure. In the Pacific Northwest, the Forestry professors that I have discussed this with tell me not to depend on such observations.

Finding Direction Without a Compass
Photo by Allison Wildman

The following are a few methods that are worth remembering:

1) Perhaps the most accurate method to determine direction is to use the North Star (Polaris) at night. Unique from other celestial stars and planets, Polaris is closely aligned to the earth’s axis. From the earth’s surface, stars and planets rotate around Polaris. Moreover, like the sun, rotation is from east to west through the sky. Polaris is be found approximately half way between the northern horizon and straight overhead. Polaris can be found in the northern sky and is never more than 1° from true north – the North Pole. A clear sky without a lot of background glow from the lights of a city is essential. Polaris is not the brightest star in the sky. Using the North Star when it is high above the horizon is a challenge.

When pulling the true north bearing (from Polaris) “down from high in the sky,” it takes a bit of practice and patience to align the bearing to the horizon where it can be useful.

I recommend taking your compass with you on a clear night and attempting to find Polaris.


2) The sun provides an excellent means of direction finding, too. The ideal situation is one where the sky is bright and relatively free of clouds.

The next method is called a “shadow stick compass.”

In an open area, clear away forest debris and duff. Place a stick or trekking pole (extended about three feet – longer is better than shorter) into the ground as deep as possible (see image below.)

Finding Direction Without a Compass
Figure 1 Outdoor Quest image

Notice the shadow moving out from the trekking pole. At the furthest point of the shadow, place a marker such as a rock, stick or tent peg in the ground.

Twenty or thirty minutes later, place another marker at the end of the moving shadow.

Finding Direction Without a Compass
Figure 2 Outdoor Quest image

The markers shown above were placed over a period of one hour, each thirty minutes apart. A piece of yellow twine was laid adjacent to the markers to provide reference. The line of markers runs east west.

To find north, I simply put the toes of my boots next to the markers with my body perpendicular to the yellow line made by the twine. Facing away from the trekking pole, north is straight in front of me.


3) A traditional analog watch (one with hour and minute hands) can be used to locate north. Again, a bright sunny day is ideal.

The following is quoted from the US Army field manual FM 21-76 (20).

“An ordinary watch can be used to determine the approximate true north. In the North Temperate Zone only, the hour hand is pointed toward the sun. A north-south line can be found midway between the hour and 12 o’clock. (See image below.) This applies to standard time; on daylight saving time, the north-south line is found midway between the hour hand and 1 o’clock. If there is any doubt as to which end of the line is north, remember that the sun is in the eastern part of the sky before noon and in the western part in the afternoon.

On cloudy days, place a stick in the center of the watch and hold it so that the shadow of the stick falls along the hour hand. One-half of the distance between the shadow and 12 o’clock is north.”

Finding Direction Without a Compass
Image from Army FM 21-76


4) A topographic map balances the methods discussed above. Once north is determined, orient the map to north and compare terrain features on the map with the actual contours and features on the ground. Identify topographic handrails such as rivers, trails and dominant land features (e.g., mountains tops.) These features will help guide the hiker’s travel during the day.


Using Polaris and the “stick compass” can, with practice, provide good directional information. These methods provide a trend of direction at best. A trend of direction would be where the hiker is heading in a generally northerly direction rather than a specific bearing.

There are a few more techniques available, but these three are easily remembered and do not require more gear. It’s a fine place to start.

For more information consider:

  1. US Army Field Manual – FM 21-76
  2. Staying Found by June Fleming
  3. The Natural Navigator by Tristan Gooley

Pre-Trail Maintenance for Your GPS Receiver

in Skills by
GPS Receiver
Photo by Daveynin

Summer is a great time to head for the trail and practice with a GPS receiver. There are several things hikers can do before leaving home. First, make a short checklist so that nothing is forgotten. Begin by checking the electronic setup of the GPS receiver:

  • Take a look at the batteries
  • The coordinate system setup
  • Electronic mapping
  • Review the waypoint management.

Then, tune-up the receiver to maximize position accuracy by looking at how displays and waypoints are managed. Here are a few recommendations to consider.


  • Dump those old AA batteries and put in new ones. If you leave your GPS on all day in the field, expect to change the batteries nightly. Consider using lithium AA’s— they last longer and work better in cold temperatures. Relatively new are the Eneloop rechargeable batteries by Sanyo. These batteries are great for the day hiker— check Costco or
  • “Match the map” with the receiver’s navigation selection options. Specifically, match the coordinate system (e.g., UTM or Latitude/Longitude) and map datum that are found on the map. Consider shifting the receiver’s compass to degrees true.  Further, have everyone in a hiking or hunting group use the same settings— that way, your group will all be on the same page.
  • Keep your navigation simple.  It’s easier to work with a handful of waypoints than a list of 300. Dump the junk—  delete the old waypoints, the ones you will never use again. Log important waypoints (e.g., that lake side camp site) on your PC or in a notebook. Visit or for a place to store waypoints.
  • Install maps on your GPS receiver. Maps on the receiver are a natural complement to your paper field map. Quality maps are available from
  • Adjust your map pages’ zoom setting to see what works best. For general trail hiking, I keep my zoom setting at 800 feet.  This setting allows me to view trails, water sources, roads and elevation contours.
  • Visit the manufacture’s website to see if there are any firmware updates. I do this every couple of months.
  • When the batteries are replaced, calibrate the electronic compass.


GPS Receiver
Photo by Miguel Vera León


  • Verify that you are receiving enough satellite signals. Check for this on the satellite status screen. Four satellites are the minimum. Give older receivers the time to collect satellite data— don’t rush the navigation process.
  • Give key waypoints names. When marking a waypoint, enter names like “camp” and “truck.”  It’s easier and more meaningful to find “truck” in the list of waypoints than it is to find waypoint 542 (or was it 245…).
  • After marking a waypoint, verify that it has been saved to the receiver’s memory by checking either the map page or the waypoint file (select “where to” or “find.”)  If the waypoint is on the map or in the list of waypoints, the hiker is ready to go. If the waypoint is not found, start over.
  • When it’s time to return to a destination, chose “Where To” or “Find” on your keypad or menu. Select the waypoint from the list provided. Press the “Page” button and rotate through the many displays to the “Compass” page. A large red arrow should appear on the face of the compass pointing to the selected waypoint. When on course to the destination, the arrow points to the top center of the receiver. Practice this specific process at home before heading to the field.
  • Navigation is a perishable skill. I recommend that you take the GPS receiver everywhere with you for two weeks before an outing. Add waypoints, delete waypoints and find a saved waypoint. This process develops familiarity with the unit and allows the user to develop confidence with the receiver and his personal ability.
  • Keep navigation simple by deleting old waypoints— delete old track log files and reset the trip computer.
  • Complement GPS skills with a good review of map and compass fundamentals. Learn to back-up electronic position fixing with bearing triangulation. Worst case, a broken GPS becomes a paperweight for your map while afield. For more information visit (click on “Post on Land Navigation.”)
  • When on the trail, compare GPS position data with a map. Compare what is presented electronically with what is on the map.


GPS Receiver
Photo by Blake Miller

I suggest checking out Lawrence Letham’s book GPS Made Easy from the library. This book compliments the GPS owner’s manual. An excellent reference for map and compass use is June Fleming’s Staying Found.

Taking a class can further enhance you GPS knowledge. Classes are frequently offered through the local community college’s continuing education program or at local retailers such as REI.

Have fun this summer while building on your fundamental navigation skill sets. Consider setting up a treasure hunt or a geocach for a family get together. Make it fun, make it simple and explain that these skills could one day make a huge difference if they ever got lost in the woods.

Navigation In Darkness

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Navigation in darkness and reduced visibility is a serious issue for the hiker. Important geographical and trail features (e.g., mountains, roads, forest, etc.) can be nearly impossible to see.  This creates significant loss of geographic reference used during daytime travel. Geographic reference validates the hiker’s map.

Further compounding the nighttime challenge is the physiology of the eye. Our eyes are designed to provide optimal performance during periods of light.  The components of the eye (the retina, rods and cones) are arranged specific to their function.  The cones are the discriminators of fine detail and color.  Cones are the most effective in light. In complete darkness, a cone’s effectiveness is significantly reduced.  Rods are important to our nighttime vision.

Navigation 3

What that translates to: In periods of extreme darkness, the ability to see with clarity straight ahead is significantly diminished. If you absolutely must continue traveling and navigating in darkness, the hiker should first make an effort to become adapted to the night environment.  Avoid looking at any white light. Select a member of your group to follow behind you with the GPS and flashlight/headlamp, as its light will negatively impact your vision.

Red light is now best.  Allow 15-30 minutes for the eyes to become adjusted; older hikers may need almost one hour.  Continue to protect the now adapted eyes from sources of bright illumination. Discuss this with the other members of the group before embarking.

To maximize clarity, the lead hiker will need to scan the surroundings (by turning their head side to side) rather than looking directly at objects.  This is where prior map study, commonly known as having a “mental map” will pay off significantly.

Navigation procedures are essentially the same as during daylight.  Global Positioning Systems (GPS) lose no capability and will continue to direct hikers as before.  Do note that the display screens backlight capability does not have red lighting, only white, and use will quickly degrade battery life.  Always carry spare batteries.

Navigation 1Without a GPS, the navigator has the option of navigating by a process known as dead reckoning. Dead reckoning is navigation through the careful application of map and compass by evaluating azimuths and distance by pacing.

Navigation in darkness is challenging, potentially dangerous, and requires a high level of knowledge.  Confidence from lots of practice performing these skills is essential. Practicing at night is strongly recommended before heading out to the wilderness.

Magellan Echo GPS Watch Review

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The Magellan Echo GPS watch is a light weight “smart sports running watch.” The Echo sports watch is linked to the user’s smart phone through a Bluetooth connection.  When connected, the watch will display data such as distance traveled, pace, and workout timing information. Further, the watch functionally controls music selections and app functions (e.g., start, stop, etc.)  Importantly, both the smart phone and Magellan Echo GPS watch must be worn by the user throughout the exercise event; phone and watch must be electronically tethered.

Magellan Echo GPS Watch
Magellan Echo — image courtesy of Magellan

There are two Echo variants.  I tested the basic model.  The other model provides heart rate data for the user. The Magellan Echo is powered by batteries using “low power technology.”  It never needs recharging. No extra cables are required either to recharge or link to the phone. Through apps installed on the iPhone, information that is essential to the athlete and hiker are streamed and displayed in real time.

Currently the Echo can only be paired with Apple’s newer iPhones such the 4s or 5 series.  Android phone systems are not supported, but Magellan reportedly will fix that shortly. Note that this is not a GPS watch. GPS locating data is provided by the smart phone.  There are no navigation features with this system.

Magellan Echo GPS Watch
Magellan Echo size comparison with a Casio chronograph – Blake Miller image

I found that setting up the Echo and smart phone to be straightforward.  I admit that I am not an app ninja, but the process was not daunting for this baby boomer.  The Magellan web site ( walked me through the process nicely.  Magellan has also taken the extra step of placing many tutorials on YouTube.

I tested the Echo sports watch while hiking, cycling and driving in my car.  It is modest in size as compared to other electronic chronometers.  I found the display to be clear and bright.  Relatively large buttons allow easy movement from display option to option.  The wrist band is flexible and nicely ventilated.

Magellan Echo GPS Watch
Magellan Echo – The Smart Running Watch – Blake Miller image

The Magellan Echo Sports watch currently has four compatible applications (apps) that can be installed on the smart phone.  These applications include:

  • Whaoo Fitness
  • Strava
  • MapMyFitness
  • iSmoothRun

All are robust products for the serious runner or cyclist.  These apps help the user achieve fitness goals by monitoring progress, distance, and speed while mapping one’s course. I used the app MapMyFitness.  I was impressed with the functionality.  The map of my route was spot-on and data presented made sense.

Magellan Echo GPS Watch
iPhone screen capture of the MapMyFitness app

Interestingly, Magellan has left the door open for app developers to design apps to further improve the product.


  • Light weight
  • Set-up is simple
  • Bluetooth operation is straight forward
  • Several color options
  • Low-power technology eliminates the extra cables and associated gear for recharging
  • Smart fitness app options are free.
  • Subscription options are available for more detailed data presentations.


  • Will not work with android operating systems and older iPhones
  • Not stand alone – must be paired to the phone

Summary: The Magellan Echo is a versatile and affordable watch for those with the desire to truly manage their workout.  Though designed as an exercise accessory, its application supports the hiker too.  For lengthy excursions, the duration of equipment support is most likely determined by the smart phone’s battery charge.

Echo data summary

Manufacturer: Magellan
Date available: Now
Manufacturer’s Website:
MSRP: $149.99
Listed Weight: 1.55 ounces
Dimensions: Watch display is 1” in diameter
Model tested: Echo basic – without heart rate monitor
Requirements: 1 CR2032 battery that will last 6-11 months.
Not to be worn while swimming
Colors Available: Dark Green, Blue, Orange




Calibrating The GPS’s Electronic Compass

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Recently I held a GPS navigation seminar at a Cabalas’ store in Oregon. At one point during the seminar one man described the inaccuracy of his GPS and asked what he could do about it. He was frustrated that on several occasions while returning to camp the GPS compass arrow (while in the “Find,” “Where to” mode) was providing unreliable information. He’d arrive in camp and the receiver would direct him in a new direction and distance.

As he related his story, I noticed that several other attendees nodded in agreement that they too had the same problem. I asked the fellow if he had ever calibrated the electronic compass. “Yes, when I first got the GPS,” was his reply.

I explained that the electronic compass should be calibrated after EVERY battery change. That’s right, every time you replace those batteries, the electronic compass needs calibration.

Most of the top of the line GPS receivers come with an electronic compass. The electronic compass moves and operates seemingly like a traditional magnetic compass. This is different than the original compass page on older units like the Magellan 315, Garmin 12, Yellow eTrek (the $100 model) and early DeLorme receivers. These units will provide compass information but you must move to get accurate information. Movement updates position and heading data.

Here is an example of how to calibrate the electronic compass of the Garmin Map60CSx.


  1. First select “compass page.”  You should see this screen.
  2. While on the compass page press the “menu” button one time; push and release.


  1. Look for “Calibrate Compass.”
  2. On this menu page rocker down and select “calibrate” compass.  Follow the screen directions.


Follow the manufactures owner’s manual instructions about the use of an electronic compass.  Keeping the receiver level is important in some models.


I recommend verifying the GPS receiver’s direction information with a quality magnetic compass such as the Silva Ranger (515CL) or the Suunto M3 before going further.

Don’t forget to adjust the magnetic compass for declination.

Taking Good Care of Your Compass

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The hiker arrived at the trailhead and was getting ready to start out on his journey. He powered up the GPS to mark his location.  He also brought out the compass to double check his heading and first bearing. Strangely, he knew he was heading in an easterly direction, he was after all, pointing straight down the trail and the trail tracked 090°, due east. But after aligning the compass, the compass heading was 13° off.  The hiker correctly held up his movement until he could resolve the issue.

So, just what could have caused a 13° degree error?  What can the backcountry traveler do?

Remember that the correct operation of the compass is dependent on the action of the magnetic needle to guide the hiker through the backcountry. A lot of items in a pack and clothing can affect the needle. Most understand that ferrous objects such as a belt buckle, and car keys will deflect the magnetic needle. Still, take a good look at what is in a pack. The batteries from the GPS receiver and a flash light may cause a compass needle to move too.


High tension power lines and a vehicle’s electrical system may also cause a magnetic needle to deflect. Moving a few steps from the vehicle should be sufficient. One may have to move over one hundred feet from the power lines to avoid deflection. (GPS Made Easy, Michael Ferguson.)

Some locations will have a high concentration of iron near the surface. This is known as “local attraction.”  Such concentrations will cause the needle to move too. Unlike declination, moving away from the immediate area may cause the deflection to stop. The local Bureau of Land Management or Forest Service Office should be able to identify areas affected by local attraction.


I recommend that a compass be stored away from electronics (e.g., GPS, radios), batteries and many metallic (knives, saw) objects found in a pack. The hiker need not go overboard on this but a compass could simply go in an exterior compartment, a shirt or coat pocket. Attaching a brake away lanyard to a compass so that is worn around the next is a viable option. This would apply during the off season too; a little separation is a good thing.

It is possible for the magnetic needle to lose its polarity. This is a function of time and manufacture.  With research, one can learn how to restore the magnetism. That said, with the modern liquid filled compass this is probably more trouble than it is worth.  Occasionally, check the alignment of the compass. In the small town where I live, residential streets are aligned true north and south.  Standing on the curb on such a street provides a quick verification of how the compass is working.  To me verification means that the compass direction will mirror that of the street; if the street tracks true north then the adjusted compass should provide a bearing to true north.


At the end of the season take a look at the compass. Flush away dirt or sand that may be on the baseplate or sighting mirror. Look for bubbles that may appear internally and adjacent to the compass needle. A small bubble may not be something to worry about but a large bubble may impact how the needle swings and moves. A compass with a large bubble should be permanently removed from the hiker’s kit. Contact the manufacturer.

Lastly, keep in mind that a quality compass will retail for $20 or more. Also, a quality compass can be mechanically adjusted for declination. Such a compass is a precision piece of equipment. This is especially true of the Silva Ranger style or the Brunton Eclipse models. Note that I am prejudice (won’t buy them) towards the cheap stuff found on the racks of the major box sporting goods stores. If a hiker is willing to spend hundreds of dollars on a pair of boots why not spend a bit more for a decent compass; it can make a huge difference.

Monitoring the Weather for Hikers

in Earth/Skills by

Last June Seattle Backpackers Magazine posted a short article on tracking barometric pressure with a GPS.  Recently my son reminded me of a little known theorem that helps the hiker’s situational awareness.  This theorem is called Buys-Ballot’s Law.

buys-ballot's law1

In 1857 Dutch professor Christopher Buys-Ballot postulated that there was a relationship between wind direction and air pressure. Buys-Ballot’s law provides a rough approximation of the location and direction of the low pressure system as it tracks through a region.

Simply put, in the northern hemisphere, if one faces the wind the center of a low pressure system will be to the right and slightly behind the observer.  High pressure will be to the left and slightly ahead of the observer. Further, weather systems in the northern hemisphere track from west to east.

Important for the hiker, a low pressure system is associated with rain, snow and bad weather in general.  A high pressure system is associated with improving weather conditions.

So, if the hiker determines that high pressure is to the west of the present location the weather may be improving because the system will move from west to east.

The YouTube video by meteorologist Vince Condella presents this nicely.

Buys-Ballots Law and a GPS are both useful tools to improve the hiker’s ability to monitor and anticipate the weather in the backcountry.

buys-ballot's law2

Selecting a Magnetic Compass

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What an outdoorsman should look for in a good compass?

My experience has been that most sales clerks in the large box stores and major retail outlets have no experience in the use of a compass. Their assistance is generally along the line of  “… they are on aisle 12, half way down on the right,” and their knowledge isn’t that great. The folks at REI are generally dialed in and best of all, their selection is better. With a little research you will find a nice selection available at REI, Cabelas, and most of your outdoor stores that specialize in hiking and backpacking.

Generally a good, quality compass can be purchased for less than $50.


Consider the following:

  • Brunton, Sunnto, and Silva all make good compasses. There are other companies, of course, but these manufacturers can be found nationwide. Prices start at about $20. Each company has less expensive models but I would pass on those.
  • I won’t buy a compass that cannot be adjusted for declination. Brunton’s models can be adjusted by simply turning two components while the Suunto and Silva models come with a small flat screw driver to make adjustments. The adjustable compass eliminates the requirement to calculate declination. Do remember that the magnetic needle always points to magnetic north and the adjusting accounts for the angular measurement of declination.
  • The compass dial (the circular component with the degree markings) should be “graduated” in two degree increments. Those models with 5 degree increments (or more) fall short when being used for serious land navigation.
  • A compass with a good base plate is very handy. A base plate is essentially a clear, flat plastic rectangular plate.  It is a straight edge when drawing bearing lines or measuring information on a map. I like a large base plate.  The better compass will have good scaling and measuring information etched into its surface. Some models have a magnifying lens in the plate for reading the details on a map. A nice 6 inch, light weight plastic ruler compliments the baseplate nicely.
  • The compass housing should be liquid filled. The liquid inside the housing dampens the movement of the magnetic needle when motion stops.
  • I appreciate a compass that has a small hole in the base plate that allows me to run a short length of parachute cord through it for a lanyard.
  • For more precise navigation, a compass with a sighting mechanism is very useful. The Silva Ranger model immediately comes to mind.

After purchasing your compass, test it out right away. I have sold several hundred compasses and a handful didn’t work correctly. In my navigation classes I’ll use features (roads, trail segments) that I know are laid out in true north to stay dialed in. Faulty compasses jump right out with their inaccuracies when you trek along a route that you know runs true north.


So, now that you have your compass, how do you use it?  

My suggested list of references includes:

  • – This is a great web site that features the US military’s lensatic compass. That’s OK as the concepts presented are universal.
  • Staying Found, The Complete Map & Compass Handbook, by June Fleming. This book offers a simple, straight forward approach to land navigation.
  • Be Expert with Map and Compass, by Bjorn Kjellstrom. This is a common reference and was a text book for me at Oregon State in 1973.
  •, This is the site to visit to get the current declination of an area.

Compass navigation is a perishable skill; it takes practice. In my compass classes I suggest that, as a minimum, two weeks before your next outing work with that compass frequently. Practice bearing triangulation and increase your familiarity with a topographic map.

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