“I have never been lost, but I will admit to being confused for several weeks.” — Famous outdoor guy Daniel Boone
Like many of you, I own a smart phone. I also have a small GPS (global positioning system) unit. These techno gadgets (the phone includes a GPS) can tell me my location anywhere on the planet and how to get nearly anywhere else.
On a lake that swallows thousands of acres, the devices can return me to an unseen brush pile or ledge where fish are known to lurk. In the predawn woods, they’ll point a digital path to a deer stand or turkey roost.
They are dependable and accurate, reasonably affordable and widely available. Remarkable tools, truly.
Still, I harbor a small, intrinsic distrust of this electronic wizardry, as it is not infallible. Weather can have a negative effect. A dead battery renders them impotent. A communication tower must be within range. They are somewhat fragile, as high-tech and moisture generally do not mix. A wet iPhone, for example, is a dead iPhone.
Therefore, anyone venturing off the beaten path should pack a map and compass along with the GPS/phone.
A compass and map—ancient and arcane tools when compared with today’s satellite-linked gizmos—are practically foolproof and can make the user almost lost proof.
I like maps for their practical use afield and have a piecemeal collection reflecting places I have visited and some of those I would like to. But maps also tell stories. The journals of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, for example, chronicle the Corps of Discovery exploration in excruciating detail. But it’s Clark’s map that fires the imagination.
Compasses are just fun tools. As simple as it is dependable, a compass has a certain mystery about it. Hold one in the palm of your hand and it points north—day or night, sunshine or clouds, in sweltering heat or freezing temperatures—and no batteries required. A tiny magnetic dot is guided by an unseen force thousands of miles distant. In the woods, this simple directional information will help erase fear, ease fatigue and lead you home.
A few years ago, I took a friend’s young son deer hunting. We were hunting a patch of timbered ground in Ballard County, a 400-acre public tract south of the Sallie Crice/Terrell Landing Road and an area that is known to hold several deer. It also was far enough from the boy’s home to turn the trip into something of an adventure but not so far that the fatigue and boredom from the drive would erase the excitement of the hunt. And it’s flat, floodplain terrain, which generally provides for a fairly easy hunt.
The weather was overcast and warm with a forecast for more of the same. But by the time we’d reached our deer stand, a fog was rising. By mid-morning, the temperature had risen and visibility could be measured in feet. A gaggle of geese passed directly overhead just above the treetops, but appeared only as shadows in the increasingly dense fog. Hunting conditions were becoming unsafe. I suggested we head for camp and wait for better weather.
My partner instantly agreed. He unloaded his rifle, and we packed our gear. He then looked at me, expectantly.
Being surrounded by woods and a dense fog is about as disorienting as being on the dark side of the moon—maybe more so. At least the moon would be fog-free.
“Which way do we go?” he asked.
“Check your compass.”
“Your compass. You brought your compass, didn’t you?”
He shook his head.
“No sir,” he said, a hint of panic in his voice. “I don’t have one.”
“I’ll loan you mine,” I said, hoping to make the most of what my friend Joe Browning would refer to as a “teachable moment.” I fished a compass and map from my pack and unfolded the map.
My student was skeptical. How’s this going to help, he wanted to know, if you don’t know which way to go?
I located the road on the map and explained that the road would serve as our baseline.
“We walked north from the road,” I said. “We’ll use the compass to head south back to the road and where we parked.” I handed the boy the compass and told him to keep us headed south.
“That’s pretty cool,” he said when we stepped from the woods onto the gravel road. “You think Daniel Boone carried a compass?”
“No. That’s why he was lost most of the time.”
A handy guide on navigating with map and compass is Wilderness Navigation: Finding Your Way Using Map, Compass, Altimeter and GPS by Bob Burns and Mike Burns.
Readers can contact Gary Garth at email@example.com