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Do You Use A Manual Compass?


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This subject was raised a little while ago, and at that time I thought that real me didn't use a manual compass. After all, what is a GPSr used for?


Well I have seen the error of my ways and now take a "good old compass" with me on every geocaching expedition.


As many of us have experienced, a GPSr is not the best compass. First you need a signal, and then you need to walk in a straight line, for a couple of paces, before the GPSr can calculate your heading.


But I have had most use for my manual compass when I have gone geocaching in areas I am not familar with. Which direction are we walking in? I think we are going south. No I think that we are goind west? Huh?


Anyone have any other manual compass experiences?


As an aside, it is revelaing how easily it is for the human to get disorientated, whether it be in one dimension (time), two dimensions (bushwalking in featureless terrain), or three dimensions (flying in cloud--you should not be using VFR to do this!).




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I've used a magnetic compass a couple of times to demonstrate it's usefulness when combined with a friend's GPSr which lacks an integral electronic compass. Ususally, I use the one in my Vista, but it has the disadvantage of requiring recalibration after each battery change. Anyone who has done this knows how silly it makes you look. :ph34r::lol:

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I used to not use a compass. I have a pretty good "natural sense" of direction, and here in Nebraska, I could always "feel" which direction I was facing. Well, then I went to Colorado and found the manual compass very helpful while bushwacking up the side of a mountain for a difficult cache. My natural sense of direction got all messed up, it was hard bushwacking under tree cover to walk enough for the gps to be accurate, and fortunately I had picked up a working compass as a FTF prize in the last cache I visited and had it with me. It was one of those cheap, but decent clip combos that had a thermometer, whistle and compass (forget those really cheap keychain ones, they tend to not work). That compass, which fortunately works quite well, helped us alot! I now always have it clipped on the outside of my pack.

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I use the Suunto Vista hand bearing compass. It's been great in helping me design some multi-caches with it's pinpoint accuracy, as well as a handy little gadget to help zero in on a cache. I can stand back 100' from a cache and usually pinpoint exactly where the box is.

Edited by Navdog
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Since my GPSr doesn't have a built-in compass, I always carry one with me when caching.


I set up a multi-cache where a compass is required to find the cache (except for the third visitor -- but he is a super-cacher). To accomodate those that don't carry a compass with them, I left a loaner compass at the second stage. The cache is called WWII - Irene Pearce Trail.



Edit: typo

Edited by Jomarac5
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used map and compass to find my way years before gps. it's quite comfortable for me, and i find i use my compass regularly while caching. also, if your gps dies for whatever reason, the compass will always show you north and allow you to orient yourself in strange surroundings. could save some embarrassment. you know, lost with all the latest in high tech navigation equipment with you but no batteries, haha. good luck. for more on using map and compass i highly recommend "becoming expert with map and compass" by bjorn kjellstrom. -harry

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I freely admit that I have no internal sense of direction...that's one of the reasons I acquired my first GPSr :ph34r: However, the prettier half of our geocaching team must have been a bird in a former life...she never gets turned around or lost! I always carry a manual compass when geocaching or benchmark hunting, and I find it invaluable when satellite coverage is spotty...it's led me to more than one hard to find cache. The compass doesn't weigh much, doesn't take up much room in the "kit", and could be a life (or at least time) saver in extreme conditions.

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I always carry a compass in my pack, not so much for use in geocaching, as in Scouts -- I teach orienteering in our local troop. In fact this weekend, we had a fantastic camping trip, doing an event that combined wilderness survival, finding your way without a compass, with a compass, with a GPS..... and then an introduction to geocaching and an afternoon of cache finding.


HM :ph34r:

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An excellent use for a magnetic compass in conjuction with GPS is identifying distant terrain features. Suppose you're taking a picture and there's a small peak in the background that you want to name in the caption. It's hard to tell on the GPSr's low-res map. What to do? Here's what: mark a waypoint at your position and take a compass bearing to the peak. Use the bearing in the name of the waypoint--for example "PK019" if the peak's at 19 degrees. When you get home, you can either download a detailed topo map from the web or use mapping software to find what peak(s) lie along that bearing from that waypoint. While you're still in the field, if you think there's going to be some ambiguity, you can always shoot a couple or more waypoint/bearings as you travel.


Maybe the best aspect of this compass use is that it encourages compass practice without discipline. When the GPSr is working it can be difficult to force yourself to practice the old-fashioned methods. But as long as GPSr's have small screens and limited maps, you'll find use for this technique pretty often. And it's interesting to see how good or bad your compass shots are; plus or minus a couple degrees is good.

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I always carry at least one compass with me (usually a Silva Ranger (20+ years old) or a Brunton electronic Outback. The "weight to save my butt" factor makes it a simple choice for me.


On a side note at work we use Suunto's (1/2 degree accuracy but very expensive).


On the down side, every year I run into a hunter/hiker/etc that is lost and wants to know where they are and to their great amazement they learn that a compass doesn't point to their truck. :ph34r:

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I agree with others in this discussion. The old magnetic, and reliable compass is a must. I have yet to purchase a GPS (intend to buy a Garmin Rino 120 after the holidays). But that hasn't prevented me from experiencing the fun of geocaching. I have found that by using the online maps and a lensatic compass, I can pinpoint the location of the cache. This technique, (which applies basic map/compass navigation skills) limits the caches one can seek. As long as the cache is placed in relation to two key features that are on a map and are not obstructed from view it is fairly easy to locate the location.


Actually, I would be interested if anyone is aware of some caches that lend themselves to map/compass skills as opposed to GPS's. Don't misunderstand me, I am not promoting the elimination of GPS's, just believe it is nice to keep the old map/compass skills alive.

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The first cache that I attempted, I tried doing it without a compass, and that's when it bit me in the arse. If you don't have a GPSr with a compass in it, it's difficult to figure out which direction you should start out when you're standing still, as most will only tell you where you're heading after you start moving.

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I usually have my trusty Silva Ranger with me, but I haven't used it much for caching. Before the advent of GPS, you could find your position with a decent compass and topographic map by shooting bearings of nearby landmarks or peaks. Having an altimeter helped the accuracy. Any geologist (with a helper) can make a topographic map of an area using a tape measure and Brunton Pocket Transit (a compass and clinometer). I haven't tried it, but it would be interesting to locate a cache with just a compass and topo map (and straightedge, protractor, and pencil).

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Actually, I would be interested if anyone is aware of some caches that lend themselves to map/compass skills as opposed to GPS's.  Don't misunderstand me, I am not promoting the elimination of GPS's, just believe it is nice to keep the old map/compass skills alive.

Two caches I have placed that will challenge your navigational skills with map and compass:


The Legend of Skull Hollow


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I have a collection of lensatic compasses--some rare antique ones too. I even keep one on my watchband. I normally start a newcomer to the outdoors with basic compass skills. It's still one of those essential skills I teach folks.


I also teacjh folks a little trick of telling how long before the sun reaches the horizon (sunset) by extending your arm in front of you facing the sun. By extending each finger and counting 15 minutes for each finger, you will get an approximate sunset time. Both hands 8 fingers equals about two hours. Give it a try. BTW my GPS does give sunset times, but it is a cool tip to teach newcomers.

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Hey Halden has it right, though not the same reasons as me. I have an old Trimble Scountmaster GPS, and that clunky sucker doesn't have a compass, map, any of that stuff. It gives me a bearing to head, so I gotta carry a compass. Oh sure, I plan to one day upgrade, but it works, and its good at keeping my compass skills honed. But its a two handed operation, and that I don't like so much. Oh well, keep caching...no matter what you use.


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I always have a compass with me; the only times I have ventured up into the mountains without one was during the time between losing my old one and buying a new one. The compass is one of the best tools you can have. That's all I had when I did evasion training - no fancy GPS fun.


One thing I find a compass is particularly useful for is counteracting the effects of human assumptions and dead reckoning. Just like always trusting your instruments in the airplane rather than your senses, the compass will always be right (unless you're standing in a metal box, in which case sorry, you're screwed).


Example: There is a mountain about a half mile to the west of here, which is a very popular hike. To ascend it you must follow a valley north of it until you get to the pass and can start climbing to the peak. What most people don't notice, no doubt due to the depth of the valley and the amount of tree cover, is that while the path starts out going west, it gradually curves behind the mountain and goes southwest for a while, then ends up coming back to the east again. Most people assume that the trail is straight and goes only west, and thus are a bit disoriented when they get to the top and can get their bearings by looking for landmarks.

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Getting disorganized is easy when you're scuba diving. Anyone who's followd a compass underwater would swear you're going the wrong direction it's so easy to get confused.


Hmm. It would be interesting to hook up an underater GPS. I guess you'd have to drag along a floating antenna to get the sats but that would be an interesting experiment.

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True that compasses are subject to deflection when near metal objects like cars and barbed wire fences, but not aluminum beer cans. So you can hold a compass in one hand and your beer in the other and its no problem. Way back in college, one of our assignments was to make a topographic map using a Brunton compass and a tape measure. We were mapping the back-40 of the college campus, which was partly an ag school (Cal Poly Pomona), and we had to make a big loop and see how much error we had upon closing the loop. Our professor cleverly had a portion of the loop pass near a barbed wire fence just to see if we would be thrown off. I can't remember how much error I had, but we had a great beer bar on campus. :lol:

Edited by astheravenflies
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Along with my MeriPlat electronic compass, I also have a Suunto Vector wristwatch with electronic compass. I also carry a lensatic compass and a simple magnetic compass/whistle/emergency match holder. At one time or another I have used each singly, and in combination of electronic/magnetic to double check against variables.

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I don't normally cache with a compass. In Ohio, it's hard to get truely lost, although there have been times that I've been disoriented for a while. I can almost always keep my bearings by listening to traffic noises and watching where the sun is. There was one time that I wasn't where I wanted to be, but knew that if I kept going North I would cut across the roadway I was parked on. I eventually did and it was an hour's walk up the road back to where I had parked.


If I'm going into really unfamiliar terrain, then the old Sylva compass comes along.

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I always use a base-plate orienteering compass in conjunction with my old Magellan 410 GPSR's compass-rosette display mode. The GPS shows a compass dial with NSEW, and with an icon for the sun and an icon for the cache, at places around the outside of the rosette. It also shows the distance to the cache.


I hold my compass alongside the GPS (not too close) and continuously rotate and hold the entire GPS until the rosette's North arrow aligns with the compass's North arrow. Then the cache icon's position on the rosette points out the actual physical direction to the actual cache. This procedure is simpler than reading the indicated bearing number to the cache and setting that into the compass.


I've never figured how anybody could do geocaching without using a compass and this system along with his GPS.

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...and? did you notice a difference?

The electronic compasses typically show within 3 degrees of the magnetics which is within the stated range of the electronics. For the short distances, the electronic compasses work just as good as the magnetic compasses. However, that doesn't stop me from carrying the magnetics to act as backup when I drain all available batteries.

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I was waiting in my car for the light to change yesterday, watching the full moon and noticed I could see it move over the less than the minute I watched it.


Then I had an idea. Since the earth rotates west to east, couldn't you watch the moon, or sun, or stars over a 5 or 10 minute period comparing to a fixed object like a tree limb, to determine which way is north east south and west?


I never read of this method. Has anyone tried it?



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"couldn't you watch the sun, over 10 minute period to determine which way is east and west?"


Yes, an accurate technique to determine N-S if you're lost without a compass is to stick a 2-3 foot stick into the ground, then mark where the shadow of its tip is at two times, 20-30 minutes apart. A line sighted from the first point to the second point is looking precisely east.


A quicker, rough way to find your bearings is merely that the sun is always somewhat south of us, because of the tilt of the Earth and because of our 40-deg latitude. It is always straight south at noon. (Watch out for daylight savings time.) Since the sun is moving about 15 degrees per hour, you can first estimate how many hours you are before or after noon, then south is 15 deg west of the sun for each hour it is before noon, and 15 deg east of the sun for each hour it is after noon.

Edited by Don&Betty
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