Map and Compass – the Poor GeekDad’s GPS

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"Dad? How did people find geocaches before GPSes were invented?" A retro-GeekDad like me longs for a teachable moment like that. The short answer to my son’s question was, “We didn’t have geocaches back then – we just had buried treasure.” That got his attention! We found those treasures the same way they do it in pirate movies: with a map and compass.

(Photo by Ian Kelsal)

Maps and compasses are centuries-old technologies that have been honed over time to simple perfection. Today they’re inexpensive: a decent pocket compass is about $10 brand new, and if you know someone who used to be a Scout they may have one you can have to start out. (I still have my (mumble)-year-old Silva Boy Scout compass, scorch marks and all. But that’s another story.) Some maps can be had for free on the Web while others are just a few dollars, and are available from a number of suppliers.

The best compass for bushwhacking, hiking, backpacking, and treasure hunting actually has very few required features: a liquid-filled capsule containing the compass needle, and a baseplate with degree markings on a ring in which the capsule can be turned to align it to a map. The liquid filled capsule reduces needle jitter and bounce and also helps protect the needle from bangs and bumps on the trail. Less expensive compasses omit the oil fill and are hard to read and easy to damage. More elaborate compasses have sighting lenses or mirrors and are more complicated to use. Silva makes a number of fine, inexpensive compasses, and is the vendor of choice for the Boy Scouts of America. Brunton is another excellent manufacturer. Decent compasses can be found at just about any store selling camping gear, or can be ordered on line.

Maps vary widely in detail and accuracy but the best for outdoor activities on foot are topographic (topo) maps. Topo maps contain all the details you’d normally expect – roads, water, town boundaries, latitude and longitude – plus contour lines indicating the altitude and slope of the ground. That can be a huge benefit when you’re on foot and want to avoid steep terrain, or when you’re looking for a landmark to find your location on the map. In the United States the USGS (United States Geologic Survey) publishes detailed topo maps for every square inch of the country. Frequently USGS maps of the area are available from local outdoor suppliers or even local highway or planning departments. DeLorme publishes books of maps for each state; their maps are taken from USGS data but not all contain contour lines. DeLorme and others also sell mapping software containing printable digital maps for the entire country. Amazon.com sells many such map products by DeLorme and other suppliers. There are even Web sites where you can download image files of topo maps to print yourself. (One caveat – most ink jet printer inks aren’t water-resistant. Don’t plan on using maps printed with them in wet weather.) If nothing else, maps can be ordered directly from the USGS.

There are plenty of ways to learn how to use a map and compass. Silva has posted the directions for using their Starter model compass on line. Boy Scout Handbooks, Fieldbooks, and some Merit Badge manuals contain instructions for their use. Most books on backpacking or hiking have sections on their use as well. There are also whole books dedicated to the subject; one of the more popular ones is Be Expert with Map and Compass by Björn Kjellström. Your library should be able to provide enough material to get started.

So what can you do with a map and compass? Unfortunately, not geocaching. The resolution of most maps just isn’t adequate to find a cache. But taking a compass along on a geocaching hunt is a very good idea. Most GPS receivers can give you a bearing (direction) to the cache, but they can’t point out which way that bearing is unless you’re already moving in a straight line. That’s where the compass comes in – you dial up the bearing on the compass ring, align the needle on the base, and direction arrow points you the right way. A topo map is also helpful for finding a path to the cache – in the woods, the fastest distance between two points isn’t always a straight line. Use the map to look for trails, bridges, cliffs, and other features that can aid or hinder your progress.

There are lots of other things you and your kids can do with a map and compass. The younger ones may enjoy a treasure hunt. Go hide a treasure and make a map to it, with compass directions, and spring it on the kids on Talk Like a Pirate Day. For the older kids a map with multiple goals will keep them busy. For even more of a challenge, hide a clue at each goal about the location of the next goal. The oldest kids may enjoy an introduction to orienteering, a timed sport in which contestants must find their way though a series of checkpoints using a map and compass.

Both you and your kids will benefit from learning to use a map and compass. Being able to look at a city map and know where I am and where I’m going in a matter of moments has been invaluable. GPS is a wonderful technology but it has its limitations – it’s best at taking you from Point A to Point B and ignoring what’s in between. A map shows you more of the environment, and a compass makes you actually look at what’s around you. That’s how discoveries are made.

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