Is the compass obsolete?

9:37 p.m. on July 20, 2019 (EDT)
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I didn't ask if the map and compass are obsolete because if you don't know a map is still needed, there is no hope for you.

But with so many people carrying smart phones and GPS devices with built in mapping software, do you still need to carry a compass?  Some of you are probably thinking that's a stupid question, but the reason I ask is some of you think it's a stupid question because the answer is an obvious yes and some of you think it's a stupid question because the answer is an obvious no.

A couple summers ago, I was on a hike and had a big Suunto compass hanging from my neck.  Another hiker, a guy that wasn't very young, commented that it had been years since he'd seen someone with a compass like that.  I got the impression that it wasn't just an observation but he was making fun of me a little.

I'm going to take the stance that you still need a compass.  I often don't carry navigation tools.  If I'm in the Indian Peaks Wilderness or RMNP, I know all the trails and they are well marked.  But if I'm on trails I'm not familiar with, I take a map and compass.  

If you have electronic navigation why take a compass?  Batteries fail.  Electronics fail. Some places don't have good GPS reception.  You don't have to turn a compass on or push any buttons, it's always ready to go.  If you hang it around your neck or have it attached to a shoulder strap, you can take a quick look at it without even breaking stride.  Even the big ones are very light.  No reason not to carry one.

10:16 p.m. on July 20, 2019 (EDT)
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No. It will never obsolete. 

9:22 a.m. on July 21, 2019 (EDT)
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I rarely need to use my compass, but I carry one always.  When you need it, you really need it, especially when you are in the really wild places that have no cell phone reception and no trails (horrors!!).

Mirrored compasses are a nice reserve signal mirror - again a very handy thing to have.

Don't wear your compass hanging around your neck - just an accident waiting to happen.

10:00 a.m. on July 21, 2019 (EDT)
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I still carry one on every hike.  Over the past ten years I've gone through three cell phones.  I still have the original compass I bought 25 years ago.

11:54 a.m. on July 21, 2019 (EDT)
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No

1:33 p.m. on July 21, 2019 (EDT)
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I have a nice Brunton compass I’ve only used a few times, it‘s a little more than I need since I stay on trails for the most part and rarely do detailed map work. I always have my 4-in-1 compass/magnifier/thermometer/whistle with me, though, because in most cases I don’t need to be accurate beyond the ordinal points. 

3:50 p.m. on July 21, 2019 (EDT)
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Orienting a map. taking a bearing, triangulation are some of the primary uses. 

9:01 p.m. on July 21, 2019 (EDT)
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I don't know of anyone responsibly advocating to delete a "real" compass from your gear list.

12:52 p.m. on July 22, 2019 (EDT)
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i always carry one. an advanced user might enjoy a nicer one, but you can get a good basic one for around 20 bucks, and they tend to be very durable - I still have a Silva compass that works and is over 30 years old. tech can't conquer everything. try using a portable GPS or cell phone when you don't have cell service, or when you're in a valley or gully under tree cover with no access to GPS. try using anything battery-powered when it's well below zero. yes, you can warm it inside your parka, but batteries are sketchy in deep cold.

I will say this - if you don't know how to use the low-tech solution, it's only going to be of limited value.  so, spend a little time learning how. it's fun, actually.

https://www.backpacker.com/skills/how-to-use-a-compass

https://www.rei.com/learn/expert-advice/navigation-basics.html

Also, soggy, falling-apart maps aren't much good either.  if you really need it, get a map printed on waterproof, rip-resistant material if you can. i have them for the white mountains in NH and VT. or get a waterproof map case.  either of these options are inexpensive.  

2:56 p.m. on July 22, 2019 (EDT)
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Andrew said;
“try using a portable GPS or cell phone when you don't have cell service”

I don’t know if you are saying that a phone gps will not work without cell service but just in case, iPhone gps is what I have experience with and it does indeed work without a cell signal or WiFi for that matter. iPhones have dedicated gps chipsets and antenna. I don’t even have problems in rather deep canyons though that might be a possibility at times. When I first bought my phone I didn’t even have a SIM card, bought the phone unlocked at the local Apple store and ordered a SIM card online so it took a few days. In the meantime I downloaded Gaia over WiFi, put the phone on airplane mode and went into the wilderness. The gps worked just peachy and it is very accurate. Been using it more than a year now. It is a very good navigation tool and does not weigh an extra ounce since I use the phone as my camera.

I agree with the rest of your post.

I do have to add that is is becoming much more common to see folks who do a lot of hiking and exotic trip reports who don’t ever use a compass. Saw on one forum a thread where everyone answered in the negative so it is not surprising or apparent to everyone that batteries run out of juice or electronics can have issues at the most inconvenient times.

I started using 7.5° quads with compass when I was 12 years old. These days I use a Suunto M3, lightweight, super declination adjustment, easy for me to set and read and excellent glow in the dark bezel, needle, orientation marking and directional markings. Good protractor compass for on map work. 

3:35 p.m. on July 22, 2019 (EDT)
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Can't believe I'm actually responding to this one...it's not even a question that I can tell from the responses above.

Going without a compass is taking a risk I am not willing to do for a couple of ounces.  All electronic devices fail at some point, and if you are out enough it increases the chances it will happen while backpacking.  I can't imagine someone not taking one but guess it does happen, sigh. 

While I am old school, consider the fact that I own and subscribe to an emergency satellite receiver (Inreach) service for safety, two recreational grade GPS units (don't take either on hiking trips), no less than four mapping apps for my phone, and use a range of GPS units (from Rec grade walkie-talkies to sub-decimeter grade) for work.  I always carry my Inreach on solo hikes and others more often than not, always carry my phone (but try not to use it that much to save battery), but first and foremost is the map and compass.  I own a really nice siting compass with mirror etc but don't hike with it (work only) - the Suunto Ghostdog mentioned is my go to for recreation.  More than accurate enough to let me orient off trail and find the right valley, ridge, etc.

As far as device failures go, cell phones do work without service as the GPS in them isn't dependent on that.  It's been the case in either iPhones or Androids for years.  I have occasionally (rare I admit) found the GPS to temporarily be out of range but that has happened on my phone as well as on our $10K units for work.  More often the inaccuracy will be the issue - I have quite commonly found periods of time where the GPS in the phone will show you a couple hundred feet off at least in certain terrain and cover - while this may not feel like much, in a situation where you are solely dependent on a device and get disoriented you may think you are on the other side of a ridge and take the wrong route if not paying attention. Attention to the land as you walk and a good compass that can provide a really accurate bearing can be critical to differentiate two different drainages in cross country ramblings.  I have chosen a route before by less than a 10 degree difference in slope aspect and been confident with my compass - something a phone would not provide if the signal is more variable.

The bigger issue with phones is battery life and weather resistance.  If you forget or accidentally turn airplane mode off your battery is likely to dive drastically in the mountains.  Why carry a heavier power pack when you can carry a compass?  Then there are the wet and/or cold trips...does your phone work well at 10 or lower degrees (F) or in snow or driving rain?  I leave mine safely tucked away and rely on a good map (in a case) with a trusty compass.  Again, Suunto is my brand of choice for recreation - Sylva seems to have slipped a notch in the last few years on quality.

4:59 p.m. on July 22, 2019 (EDT)
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Excellent post Flip.

Over the decades I’ve gone through several compasses and a few had issues. Brunton Eclipse, huge, permanent bubble maker.Suunto DP-65 global matchbox got a small bubble at 7000’. Cammenga, no bubbles but super heavy and no declination adjustment, Brunton True arc, big bubble maker. K&R Sherpa, medium weight but made a bubble at 5500’ and 45°F. So I’ve gone to the Suunto M3 NH.

Andrew Skurka tested 10 M3-Gs over 40 trips and didn’t have a problem and no bubbles but we’ll see about that. Good so far. I don’t need a global needle now and didn’t want to spend the money. So far it has been a sweety.

Girlfriend still carries her old 2004 Garmin Legend C so with my compass, waterproof maps and iPhone gps we make a pretty good navigation team. We like all the tools we can use in the off trail southwest romps.

9:47 p.m. on July 22, 2019 (EDT)
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Old school compass vs battery when my life depends on it?  I'll take the compass.  Never obsolete, but as with all gear make sure it works properly before heading out.  

8:43 a.m. on July 23, 2019 (EDT)
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Don'torget that there are many ways to find North without a compass.  The sun almost always rises in the east, as does the moon.  They call it the North Star for a reason, etc Forget the one about where moss grows.  A reasonably up to date topographic map is a really valuable tool.  I still carry a compass and refer to it about once a decade - because when you need it, you really need it, typically in a storm or fog when the stars are obscured.

11:29 a.m. on July 23, 2019 (EDT)
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i didn't mean to say no cell coverage = no GPS, sorry i wasn't clear.  no electronic GPS, dedicated handheld or smartphone-based, will work in some areas, particularly in valleys or gullies or with lots of tree cover. at least that's the case for my garmin GPSMap (older model) and Samsung phone. i agree, your phone GPS doesn't depend on cellular coverage.

also, in terms of relying on a phone to call for help, can't do that without cell service - could do it with a SPOT, subject to the same limits as GPS.  

Silva compasses indeed aren't what they used to be - there was a trademark dispute with the US distributors that led to the distributors selling compasses with the Silva nameplate but not made by Silva in Sweden. Also, I think they moved most/all manufacturing to Asia at some point.

Suunto, on the other hand, still (i think) makes the compasses in Finland, though their wrist devices - sport trackers, altimeter watches, etc., are all made in Asia.  

12:30 p.m. on July 23, 2019 (EDT)
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Interesting news about Sylva and Suunto - explains my unscientific findings on the quality.

One more thing to consider...the innate satisfaction of navigating through a complex/confusing landscape with a map and compass.  While I have checked my position with the phone/Inreach, you don't get the same enjoyment out of using your skill and knowledge.  I would miss that dearly.

6:52 p.m. on July 23, 2019 (EDT)
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One cause of bubbles in compass housings occurs when the seal of the enclosure is not hermetic, and allows the fluid to escape, and/or gas to enter the enclosure.  

Bubbles in compasses can also result in compasses that are exposed to significant changes in air pressure, typically encountered when the compass travels to high altitude.  The bubble is created when gases suspended in the fluid expand and coalesce.  The expanding gas causes the enclosure to stretch.  When the compass is brought back to low altitude the bubble will shrink somewhat, but the enclosure permanently retains some of the shape it assumed at altitude, with the gases left in a semi expanded status to fill the additional volume created during the high altitude expansion. 

Some fluid filled compasses are not susceptible to this issue, because the encasement is flexible enough to return to its original shape when returned to lower air pressure.  And some don't use fluids to dampen the needle movement, for example Cammenga compasses, use magnetic induction to steady the needle.  And of course the El Cheapo compass have no dampening mechanism, or fluid filling to generate bubbles.

Ed

8:01 p.m. on July 23, 2019 (EDT)
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The K&R Sherpa I used for a while and still have does have an elastic capsule that they claim is resistant to bubbles but that is the compass that got a huge bubble at 5500’ and 45°F, relatively mild conditions. That bubble did go away back home at 2700’ but can’t be trusted to stay bubble free on any trip. I never did take that compass to altitude higher than 9000’. More folks have had bubble trouble with that brand.

Most of my compasses previous to that were exposed to constant non pressurized flight up to 17,500’ hence the dry Cammenga that weighs way too much and no declination adjustment. 

Suunto M3 Leader good so far. We’ll see about that.

9:20 a.m. on July 24, 2019 (EDT)
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Technology is nice but theres an few old adages kiss principle,..Keep it simple supid and also...If it works don't fix it....So being in the field I was in technology in the military at one time...I would use a compass 90% of the time to even get a fix on radio signals...So  with me bring this up in a another thread you or anyone else think the new apps being made are creating a false sense of security to hikers?

9:37 a.m. on July 24, 2019 (EDT)
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I don't know about backpackers but for day hikers I have seen a lot of folks relying on phones and getting confused.

One group I met at a "confusing" trail junction in the SE US mountains. If you use a compass for exact bearings it is easy to navigate but the GPS signal was not good enough to show which trail was which and the "compass" on the phone was dancing around too much.

Another was trying to find a trail back to the parking area in almost white out conditions in January...I happened to pass by with map and compass in a case so you could read it well in the storm and showed them the way out.

I have a bunch more stories from local popular mountain spots. 

2:15 p.m. on July 24, 2019 (EDT)
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Dennis Daily said
“So with me bring this up in a another thread you or anyone else think the new apps being made are creating a false sense of security to hikers?”

Yes they can but they don’t have to. Some are lulled into becoming lackadaisical. GPS can tell you where things are but in rugged canyon country it cannot tell you how to get to a place. It is like lost in a maze. Apps can supply pertinent information that is valuable but they can’t think for you. I don’t like following an electronic device but I’ll follow a compass.

But a good map/gps app can be extremely useful too. I have a useful app called SunSurveyor. It predicts the exact point on the horizon where the sun will rise and set. We all know that the only time the sun rises and sets dead on east or west happens only on an equinox. Where I live the sun will be 29° off to the north in summer and the south in winter of east at sunrise or west at sunset on a solstice and traveling in between other times of year. The further north you live the higher the maximum amplitude number will be. We live 60 miles north of the Mexican border. When setting a camp you may want the sun to hit your camp as early as possible to warm it or you may want to shade your camp if you sleep in. You can plan a garden at home or other landscaping projects. I can do this with a chart and math but this app makes it easy and fast for right now or any other moment in the future. This is also valuable for those of us who use the sun to navigate. This app does not need a cellular or WiFi signal. It works with the gps chipset and compass feature in a phone.

Back to the compass because as useful as a phone and apps can be I won’t bet my life on them. A few years ago an Arkansas couple went into the Big Bend area. Circumstances took them away from the area they had planned and they ended up with a map with little detail and showed their area much too small. They set out into the desert terrain and ultimately became lost for 5 days. Even with no map if they had simply had a compass and taken and noted two bearings at their vehicle, they would have been back by dinner time. Quick tip, don’t stand right by the vehicle to do this. At times like this simply carrying a compass might not be enough. You really should start out using it. Then it is simple. We have done many off trail loops with this method in terrain where you can’t  see vehicles or camps until you are within 20’. The compass saved a lot of time.

6:43 p.m. on July 24, 2019 (EDT)
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I think higher number of people getting in trouble in the BC has several significant causes, skill sets being just one of them.  For starters the population is growing, and with it the number of people getting outdoors.  Likewise sporting equipment merchandisers have discovered they can sell more stuff, marketing the outdoor lifestyle thing - some of these folks actually decide to take their Patagucci fleece hoodie out into the great yonder, under the pretense a logo provides all the protection they need.  And tech companies have been selling phones as the all-in-one solution to everything from surfing the internet to finding good surf waves, to finding geocaches and Bambi.  The internet has provided easy access to trip reports and travel logs, peeking folks' curiosity.  So now the newbie gets the introduction not from an experienced group or friend, but by youtube.  And there are lots of on-line tutorials about everything, some good, some dreadfully misinformation.  Unfortunately it is often hard to discern which is which.  So the newbie goes hiking with just enough information to provide a false sense of knowledge and security.

Case in point:  I have two companions who drag their tech into the BC, and attempt to use their GPS function in conjunction with a USGS map.  They just ended up befuddled, not realizing there are three different coordinate labeling systems;  DMS (degrees, minutes, seconds), DMM (degrees, minutes and decimal minutes) and DD (degrees and decimal degrees).  The USGS map is in DMS format, while one had their phone reading in  DMM format, and the other in DD format.  They were adamant their devices were correct, and the other readings, including my compass triangulation, were wrong.  In fact all were right, but they did not grasp why their readings could not be plotted on the USGS map without a bunch of math conversions.  We all knew where we were; it was the only junction in the trail for many miles.  Yet they were effectively lost because they could not use their devices in conjunction with the USGS map.  I sent them a slew of links after we got home that explained the issue to them.  The point is people get in trouble for all sorts of reasons, not so much from over-reliance on tech, but because they lack a fundamental understanding of it, in addition to lacking other outdoor skills that compound their dilemmas. 

Ed

11:27 p.m. on July 24, 2019 (EDT)
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That’s why I wish all maps had MGRS grid lines!

5:34 p.m. on July 27, 2019 (EDT)
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I was on the NOAA website today for other reasons (sigh, I should be in the woods but have to catch up on work this weekend) and found this interesting GIS viewer....https://maps.ngdc.noaa.gov/viewers/historical_declination/

It shows the historical change in magnetic declination for the last few centuries.  It looks like in my neck of the woods the current 8 deg W declination was around 5 degrees when I started backpacking in the early 80s.  

It's a good reminder that if you are adjusting your declination based on a printed map you should check the date of the map. Don't forget to adjust your compass when you get away for longer trips further from home - you don't need to use the link above for that as there are a lot of other web sources without all the history stuff.

5:45 p.m. on July 27, 2019 (EDT)
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Excellent point Phil. I’ve watched it change about 3° here over almost 5 decades. You may be interested in a book I read recently called North Pole South Pole by Gillian Turner. Not only do the magnetic poles move but they have reversed many times. It is a fascinating account of how this was figured out with tons of interesting information on our world.

7:26 p.m. on July 27, 2019 (EDT)
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Phil Smith said:

That’s why I wish all maps had MGRS grid lines!

The USGS maps usually used by backpackers already have tics in the margins notating MGRS grids.  The thing is whatever system someone uses, they have to assure their measuring instrument presents the data in the same notation format they are using on their map.  The folks I am describing did not understand what display setting to use in order to relate it to a USGS map.  In their case I think calling attention to the MGRS notation would just further confuse them - TMI.  

Ed

12:29 p.m. on July 30, 2019 (EDT)
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One more way a compass is still more reliable than a GPS...I was walking a large site for a client today and had to go through a wall of vegetation for an hour or so. In order to keep on my transect I relied on my compass. The GPS units...a $3k submeter and my phone were bouncing around so much and I was moving slow enough that they couldn't give me a consistent track or accurate direction. While that's not typical recreational hiking I do tend to find myself in thick spots when off trail.

If you think I'm exaggerating the thickness this was looking straight in from the edge. It took 30 minutes to reach the pines in the background. Twice that long if I didn't have a compass! 
20190730_103925.jpg

7:05 p.m. on July 30, 2019 (EDT)
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I used to teach orienteering and I haven't used a compass once since 2012.  Sad but true. 

I still carry one with a map but I use other methods WAY more often. 

Surveyors, pilots, sailors and soldiers may still need them, but sorry to say my fellow curmudgeons, the old compass isn't as necessary for hiking/climbing as it used to be.

7:22 p.m. on July 30, 2019 (EDT)
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Curmudgeon? I resemble that remark!

Key statement for me is that you still carry one...i don't disagree there are other options but if they do ever fail you will have your compass...

Don't you miss using it if you taught orienteering? I find it highly satisfying to not rely on electronics but thats just quirky me. 

9:40 p.m. on July 30, 2019 (EDT)
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Jeff: Necessary? I agree with you, no.

But in the OP's first post, the question was, "do you still need to carry a compass?"

I agree with you, yes.

10:15 p.m. on July 30, 2019 (EDT)
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John Muir used one. He took very little but that was one of his hiking possessions. I’m reading a book right now, about 75% through. The author researched first ascents by the early climbers in the Sierra and then reenacted to get the feel of those early adventures. This is what he took on one of Muir’s climbs.

“I had a tin cup, a warm hat, and three small cakes of bread (one for each day Muir spent going to and from Mount Ritter) crammed into a thin, open-topped canvas shopping bag which I had slung across one shoulder. I judged that this ration and carrier were a reasonable approximation of Muir’s “little stock” of bread. Aside from my shoulder bag I had the clothes on my back and a knife and compass in my pocket.”

10:20 p.m. on July 30, 2019 (EDT)
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FlipNC said:

One more way a compass is still more reliable than a GPS...I was walking a large site for a client today and had to go through a wall of vegetation for an hour or so. In order to keep on my transect I relied on my compass. The GPS units...a $3k submeter and my phone were bouncing around so much and I was moving slow enough that they couldn't give me a consistent track or accurate direction. While that's not typical recreational hiking I do tend to find myself in thick spots when off trail.

If you think I'm exaggerating the thickness this was looking straight in from the edge. It took 30 minutes to reach the pines in the background. Twice that long if I didn't have a compass! 
20190730_103925.jpg

 

I use mine much much the same way for the same reasons in juniper/pinion woodland where the branches are hanging at eye level. Our gps swings too much when pointing direction. 

9:59 a.m. on July 31, 2019 (EDT)
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Interesting - what book?

In all fairness, GPS technology was not quite as good in Muir's era...

2:32 p.m. on July 31, 2019 (EDT)
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FlipNC said:

Interesting - what book?

In all fairness, GPS technology was not quite as good in Muir's era...

 

The book is Early Days in the Range of Light by Daniel Arnold. The author introduces us to the early explorers and climbers as well as the geology of the Sierras. He takes us through some of the gear evolution as well as the lack of it. He traces all the routes into, out of and during the climbs, where they camped, researched it all in archives. Then he does all of the adventures himself and with a friend or two at times. Here are just a few of the early characters you will meet and he does bring them to life at times.


E5EEFE08-5732-453F-86B0-42D59635B4A6.jpg

This is a time when there were no maps of the range and no trails to follow. Now of course trails cut through everywhere so a compass does become less carried by some if they follow the beaten trail. Since we still do off trail, cross country we still find it useful.


I have no idea why Muir didn’t carry and use a gps. Purist perhaps. ;)

8:04 p.m. on September 15, 2019 (EDT)
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A big no for me.  I do not carry electronic devices.  A map and compass are always a good choice.

1:04 a.m. on September 16, 2019 (EDT)
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I have and still use the same compass I got in Boy Scout camp for completing the course to get my Map and Compass merit badge. I got in in the summer of 1968. Its my oldest momento from my youth. It works without a battery that has to be charged.

8:51 p.m. on September 17, 2019 (EDT)
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I'll always carry one even if only a simple TruNord wrist compass.

12:05 a.m. on September 23, 2019 (EDT)
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I sure hope not other wise I am lost. 

3:49 p.m. on September 23, 2019 (EDT)
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I mentioned this thread to a friend.  He told me as long as I accompany him on trips he'll always know which way is north by the moss growing on my side.

Ed

2:08 a.m. on September 24, 2019 (EDT)
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Even a simple watch face can determine direction. Point the 12 at the sun, east is at 3 west at 9 and 6 is south generally speaking. 

Or pot a sick in the ground in the morning, and mark where the end of its shadow is in the afternoon draw a line from the mornings end to the afternoons end and thats east/west. 

Vegetation usually is heavier on the north side of hills and mountains. South sides are usually drier. 

I carry my 51 year old Boy Scout Compass more because of its memories than for  telling direction, but it does come in handy now and then.

1:21 a.m. on September 26, 2019 (EDT)
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GaryPalmer said:

Even a simple watch face can determine direction. Point the 12 at the sun, east is at 3 west at 9 and 6 is south generally speaking. 

Or pot a sick in the ground in the morning, and mark where the end of its shadow is in the afternoon draw a line from the mornings end to the afternoons end and thats east/west. 

Vegetation usually is heavier on the north side of hills and mountains. South sides are usually drier. 

I carry my 51 year old Boy Scout Compass more because of its memories than for  telling direction, but it does come in handy now and then.

The watch thing all depends on where your toes are pointing.  Think about it; a compass places north and south on the horizon, too, not above or below your feet.  This only works when the sun is near the horizon in the morning or late afternoon.  At midday the it can be a crap shot to orient using this method, when the sun is high in the sky.  And when overhead, which direction do you face?

Point of clarification:  When using the stick in the mud method, east is the the point on the line drawn that was indicated by the stick shadow in the after noon.

Moss (vegetation) on the north side of things - not a very reliable method as moss gross on all sides in shade, nowhere at all in dry climates, more greener on windward than lee slopes, etc.  Use another orienting technique.

As for a compass and memories - I didn't realize a compass could be used to navigate my past memories;)

Ed

3:24 p.m. on September 26, 2019 (EDT)
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I agree with Ed.

October 13, 2019
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