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When you’re heading out into the hills and countryside for a hike, it’s important that you take a few essential items of clothing and gear with you. Arguably the most important of these are a map, a compass, and the knowledge to navigate yourself from where you’re starting to where you’re going.
Time and time again you’ll see news headlines about hillwalkers who become lost in the fog, or hikers who got disoriented when darkness fell. It’s not nice for the hikers themselves. It’s definitely no fun for their families who have to sit and wait for news. And the mountain rescue teams who get called out to search for the missing walkers have probably got a heap of better things to be doing with their time.
All for the sake of an OS map that costs about a tenner, a compass for around 25 quid, and a bit of time to learn some basic map reading skills.
Armed with these you can head out hiking with a lot more confidence. Knowing that you won’t become another Mountain Rescue statistic or Daily Mail headline. Which, surely, has to be a good thing.
So, today, I’ve got a few things for you. I’ve got a quick guide to what features to look out for when choosing a great compass for hiking. Along the way, I’ll also give you some recommendations for top-notch compasses that fit the bill. Then I’ll finish up with a quick lesson in map reading and using a compass.
Let’s take a look.
How to choose a compass
There are a number of features that you should look out for when you’re choosing a great entry-level compass for navigation on day to multi-day hikes. In particular, pick a compass that has:
1. A magnetised direction needle
Clearly, this is a basic requirement for all compasses, but you also need to look at what the needle is housed in. The needle should be in a liquid-filled housing as this helps it to settle quickly and not twitch around easily. This helps when you’re trying to use it to get an accurate reading. A ‘jumpy’ needle makes this hard to do
2. Rotating bezel with clear markings
The bezel surrounds the needle housing and has markings for 0-360 degrees around the outside edge. It can be twisted around for map reading and the more degree markings that there are allows for more accuracy in your map reading
3. Flat and transparent baseplate
The needle housing and bezel will sit on a baseplate that is normally made from clear acrylic. This allows you to put the compass on top of your map and see the map details through it. It will normally have handy markings such as directional arrows and a ruler. Some compass baseplates will also have a small magnifying glass inset, which can be handy for reading small map symbols
4. Robust construction
The compass needs to be rugged enough to stand up to the demands of hiking. It also needs to be able to handle a wide range of temperatures and still give accurate readings – hot or cold
5. Glow-in-the-dark markings
Many compasses have luminescent markings and this can be handy in low-light conditions. Particularly if you’re out in the dark and don’t want to ruin your night vision by putting your torch on to read the map
6. Avoid gimmicky compasses
You’ll see lots of compasses that are add-ons to other things like carabiners, keyrings, zippers, etc. These aren’t proper compasses and will likely not have the features you need or not give you the level of accuracy you want in order to navigate safely. They come into the category of ‘Plastic Tat’ and should be avoided at all costs!
How to use a compass for beginners
I used to think that navigating with a map and compass was a bit of a dark art. Thankfully, once you have the basic skills (and the right compass!) it just takes a little practice and you’ll be away.
There are two main aspects to using a compass. Firstly, to find where you are currently on a map. Secondly, (which often follows on from the first one) is to then use the map and compass to determine which direction you should travel in from your current position.
Once you’ve got your compass and a suitable map, take a look at this step-by-step guide from Ordnance Survey, which shows all the basic skills you need.
For a video guide to using a compass, pop over to YouTube and take a look at this video from US outdoor gear retailer, REI Co-op:
Getting lost is not fun. Particularly when you’re tired, cold, hungry, the weather’s closing in and the nearest pub (with roaring fire, bowls of chips, and pints of foaming ale) is miles away.
Make sure you take the right gear with you when you go for a hike. In particular make sure you’ve got a map, a compass, and some basic map reading skills. None of which are expensive, or difficult to get hold of. All of which can help save your life.
Hiking in the countryside is a fantastic thing to do, but you have to have a little respect for it. Buy the map and compass, get the skills, don’t become another statistic or Daily Mail headline.