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Navigation 'En-Compassed'

Gear Matters: on walking and cycling gear for active holidaysEvery month our resident guide, John Millen, brings you an anecdote, update, or tip on the gear you are likely to use on a walking or cycling holiday. Always from his personal point of view. This month he looks at an essential walking navigation tool as he discusses how to use a compass. Why is it a good idea to bring one and what is actually that magnetic north the compass points to? 


Over the years I have unfortunately had to solve a number of ‘lost and found’ examples on walking holidays. It illustrates the importance of carrying a compass on a walking trip. Imagine getting stuck in a wood about a mile width and two miles long. You’re on a way-marked trail but proceed going round in circles for some hours, or back on the trail in the opposite direction. Without for example using a compass, a mobile phone with GPS, or a compass app, it will be hard to navigate your way out of those woods again.


How to use a compass - walking gear


We won't go into details here about all the options available regarding walking navigation, but even used simply, having a compass will tell you which direction you are heading, and when applied to a map, you can relate to features. Essentially if you come to a path junction and are not too sure, the map may tell you that the path to take is slightly south of west and so keeping your compass level, you work out which of the paths in front of you is the south of west one.


Another example is just getting off a train at your first night stop, you have a town map with north indicated perhaps, but several roads off to the street with your accommodation. A compass will show you the direction to trend in, even if there are no obvious street names, so at least you will be heading into the right sector of town. The distance to the location is another story!


At Sherpa Expeditions we always advise you to carry a compass to help you navigate. There’s no need to spend a fortune on these, but a simple 'Silva' or 'Recta' liquid filled-base plate style compass will do. My personal tip: keep it in pouch to avoid knocks and avoid those cheap button type compasses as they don’t always point North. 


Assuming that you don't have anything metal too close to your compass, or some types of rock such as in Borrowdale in the English Lake District, you will always get a magnetic north reading (and so also all the other cardinal points). A compass app in a phone is something different and once set up properly should not be effected by surrounding metal. These will need continued calibration though, as they tend to go off. That’s how simple walking navigation in essence is.


Walking navigation gear - Sherpa Expeditions


The Magnetic North points to a certain location in Canada that moves over the decades. Technically there is magnetic variation to take into account - the difference between the magnetic North and the North Pole. At present, in the United Kingdom at least, this difference is very low and thus at the level of our waymarked trails, hardly ever needs consideration while you’re navigating.


We would advise anyone booked up on a walking or even a cycle tour to carry a compass. It might not come out, but it might make all the difference in the odd case it is needed, if only to navigate your way to the nearest pub.

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