Why You Still Need a Compass, and How to Use One

Think you'll never need a compass? Think again, and heed these tips for navigating with the most underestimated tool in your hiking pack.

Authored by Erin Malcolm

Courtesy Suunto

In an age where advanced outdoor tech is all the rage, don’t forget about the tried and true instruments that will always have you covered—like the compass. Says Joshua Baruch, owner and senior guide/educator at Boulder-based Colorado Wilderness Rides and Guides, “Technology keeps improving every year, but there’s a gap in terms of what the tech is able to do. Making sure you can still do accurate, reliable navigating allows you to make better decisions in the field. It’s important, even if you’re using mobile apps or other technology, to have a fundamental basis of how to use a compass.” Baruch used knowledge from his 23 years of backcountry experience to compile his most valuable pointers for best utilizing the centuries-old navigation device:

Always maintain the same orientation in reference to your body.

Baruch says, “Instead of turning your compass, turn your body—making sure the compass is oriented in reference to your center.” He recommends using your belly-button as your center point of reference.

Supplement navigation with other technology or mobile apps, but never replace the compass entirely.

Baruch says, “On long trips or in cold environments, using a compass instead of relying solely on applications will ensure you’ll still be able to navigate if batteries die or conditions deteriorate.”

Pay attention to your surroundings.

Baruch says, “A compass is a metallic instrument, so while you’re taking readings, it’s critical to make sure that you’re not on metal or in a metal environment. Materials in your environment can inhibit proper use of the device.”

Visit Colorado Wilderness Rides and Guides or read their “Essentials of Backcountry Navigation” article for more information.