Navigating with Magnetic Compass & Handheld GPS

Today we heard that two teenagers were list in Algonquin Provincial Park, apparently they were part of a camping group that didn’t rendezvous at a meeting point. By the time this article goes to print, they will either have been reduced by the search & rescue, or end up perishing. Every year in Canada, more than 12,000 people are reported lost.‎ In most cases, they had no compass or map or GPS unit on them, or didn’t have the skills to use one. The typical cost of a search mission can be $30,000 to $300,000 per day. It goes without saying that many outdoor enthusiasts need to hear this, since a vast majority have no navigational skills or gear.

Humans have built in compasses that keep us stable when standing up, and prevent falling down or experiencing vertigo.‎ However, we don’t have an ability to walk in a straight line. Some research findings point to us having longer limbs on one side, and left brain versus right brain, that cause us to deflect to one side. In addition, we are used to following straight lines, eg. roads, hallways etc, whereas in the wilderness, there are swamps, cliffs, think bush, and obstacles that force our way. Typically, without a navigational aid, we walk in circles. We are good at remembering things, and that’s called Landmarking (familiar areas). Peoples of the past utilized routes, landforms, tradewinds, inukshuks, and trailblazing, to find their way.

Compass Selection, Bearings, Coordinates:

We always recommend a map friendly magnetic compass, and one that has a sighting mirror design. My favourite compasses are the Silva Ranger and the Suunto  MC. ‎They have sighting k notches in the mirror that make it easy to sight a bearing.

To take a compass bearing‎ in the field, simply dial the bearing degrees you desire, eg 90 degrees east, then rotate the housing until you park the red magnetic needle into the orientaring arrow, then point the direction of travel arrow at a tree or object, and walk towards it.

For a map bearing, there are 5 Steps:

-choose an A to B point/line on the map

-line the edge of the compass baseplate with the line‎, with the direction of travel arrow pointing from A to B.

-rotate the housing until the north Orienteering arrow points to the top of the map

-correct the bearing for magnetic declination, eg in our regions of Eastern Ontario, you add 12 to 14 degrees since the compass needle points westerly of true north, where the map points to

-point the direction of travel arrow, and start walkimg

Note: we recommend that you take a map & compass course!

Map Choices,  Reading Symbols, Coordinates:

‎There are many map types and scales available. Topographical Maps show details above water, whereas Nautical Charts show entails believe the water. Some of the more popular maps available include the following:

-1:50,000 Canadian Federal Topos

-1:20,000 Ontario Basemaps

-Canadian C-Chart Nautical Charts

-IBYCUS free mapping website for GPS

-Backroads 3-D Topo Canada for Garmin GPS

-OFSC Trail Maps

-SoftMap Topo Canada

-Crown Lands Maps, available from Backroads Map Company, and at the OMNRF  website

– Adventure Map Company, available for selected parks, eg Algonquin, Killarney

‎Crown Lands make up 90% of  Ontario. In most cases as a Canadian resident, you can camp or RV on crown lands, free of charge. Usually there is a time limit eg 60 days.

Topo maps detail topography, water, vegetation, and human activity, eg roads, towns, cottages. In addition, they note the magnetic declination, and coordinate systems, eg Later long and UTM.

On most topo maps, you can get a coordinate or location on the sides of the map for latitude, and top/bottom of the map for longitude. ‎This works well when combining a GPS unit, where you can get your lat/long position by turning the unit on, and wait 2 minutes.

Important map symbols are usually on the back or side of the maps, or on the software itself. On a topo, here are some important symbols:

-black dots are cottages or houses

‎-blue areas are water, lakes/rivers etc

-grassy symbol is swamps

-brown lines are contour or elevation lines

-white areas are open lands, eg prairie, farm fields

-intermittent black lines are trails and logging roads

-red and orange lines are paved roads and highways

-dash-dot-dash lines equal hydro lines

Most Outdoor recreation it’s on land use 1:50,000 scale topos, Hunters prefer a more detailed scale‎, and use provincial 1:20,000 base maps. Aviation uses 1:250,000 and 1:500,000 scales. 

TIP: don’t use road maps in the wilds.

Handheld GPS Unit Selection, Marking Way points, Go-Tos‎, Breadcrumb Trails:

There are many types of GPS systems available for different applications. Handheld GPS is the best for outdoor pursuits. My favourite models include the Garmin 64 and 62 push button units, and for some outdoor sports, eg snowmobiling and atv’ing, ‎folks prefer larger screen high resolution touchscreen models such as the Garmin  Montana and Oregon. 

When you buy a GPS unit, you will need to start it up to find the satellite almanac, and program the setups to customize the units of measurement, map datums, north reference, coordinate systems etc.

TIP: GPS units are set to default settings. You can add screens, customize screens and boxes, to your preferences.

Typical scenes include the follieing:

-moving compass screen

-trip computer

-menu and setups

-satellite reception and battery life

For extra money, I recommend GPS with a digital compass and barometric altimeter.

On the Garmin 64, pushbuttons ‎include in/out for zooming in and out on the map screen, a cursor for moving on the map screen, menu button to access important setups, a page button for changing screens, a save button for saving way points and routes, and a find/go-to button for activating a go-to.

To mark and save a way point, eg parking lot,‎ hot the save button, and give the point a name, then hit done.

Once you have stored way points, or if the mapping software has stored way points, eg gas stations, hospitals, attractions, then you can go-to a way point by hitting the “find” button, ‎scroll to the desired way point, and enter to activate. When you start hiking etc, keep the red trip pointer arrow on the moving compass screen to the top-centre of the screen, and you’re going the right way! Also, on the trip computer screen, you can see the “distance to next”, and that should be reducing. And there’s “off course” that tells you how close you are to the go-to bearing.

I often combine the use of a magnetic compass and physical maps, with a GPS unit.

The beauty of GPS compared to compass is that you can veer off of the straightened bearing to get around obstacles, or you can follow trails, as long as your distance to next is reducing.

The dangers of GPS include battery life, cold weather affecting battery life, atmospheric and solar conditions, and the computer chip malfunctioning or crashing.

Always carry a compass when GPSIng!

You can also activate a breadcrumb trail or track log, to record your footsteps, and if you need to find your way back!

TIP: don’t trust your automobile GPS in rural or Wilderness parts of Canada. Use your road maps to plan out your trip, or combine them with GPS! Avoid Mapquest and Google Maps, they are fought with errors.

Alternative Methods of Navihation, Watch Method, White Pines:

The White Pine tree is also known as the compass tree, since it’s the tallest tree in Eastern North America, and it points East. The strong northwest winds sculpt the soft branches on the taller trees to bend or lean east.

Using an analogue watch and the sun, you can find your way in the wilds, by simply pointing the hour hand at the sun, then halfway between the hours hand and twelve noon on the watch dial = South. (northern hemisphere). If you have a digital watch, you can use your own hands to simulate watch hands.

David Arama, WSC Survival School Inc and Marble Lake Lodge