Channeling Lewis and Clark: Learning To Use A Compass

Map and Compass

As my trail running adventures lead me further afield, I am beginning to realize that running technique and strength training aren’t the only skills I need to master. Given my increasing slate of outdoor adventures, I need to up my basic emergency and survival skills.

Last year, I took a wilderness first aid course. I very much enjoyed that class- it taught me so much about how to handle medical emergencies when out of the range of 911 or when rescue or aid is hours (or days) away. The skills also came in handy a few months later when I face planted on the trail.

But I Have GPS On My Phone…

In the past few weeks I have come across several articles about fairly experienced hikers not being prepared and getting lost for several days, or in one case recently, dying. Combined with the knowledge that my cell phone, which gets great reception in everyday situations is usually worthless on the trail. Even on trails in an urban environment (there is a redwood forest in the middle of Oakland, when I am there, I have zero reception). If I were to get lost on the trail, calling or using my phone’s GPS would both be out of the question.

I am also fascinated by the true stories of the old-time adventurers and explorers: the aforementioned Lewis & Clark, Ernest Shackleton. Masterful navigation skills almost always plays a role in those tales. Learning more about the subject can only increase my enjoyment of those stories.

Kickin’ It Old School

Knowing that 21st-century technology could potentially be out of the question, its time to dust off my inner girl scout and really, truly, learn how to use a map and compass.

I found a basic map and compass skills class at the local REI. I have taken several REI classes- and traveled several times with REI Adventures. I’ve been 100% happy with every experience, so they seem like a good place to start (honest, I am not being paid by REI to say this… but REI… if your listening… I’d be open to it).

There were two options for the course: the practical class at Mt. Tamalpais in Marin County on a Saturday morning or the community room of the local store. I know the practical application in the field would have been great, but since I have an aversion to crowds and chaotic parking lots, Mt. Tam on a Saturday is something I should likely avoid. I wasn’t sure how much about map reading you can learn in a community room, but that fit better into my schedule and ultimately I thought it was more important just to take the course.

The Compass Class

I think I was at a bit of an advantage, I’ve always had a really good sense of direction (unless I’m driving in Alameda, for some reason that town always leaves me turned around), but I was surprised at how complicated this was.

Ultimately, I learned quite a bit in the class: declination, topographic maps, handrails and backstops, the difference between field and map bearings. I will need to take out my (newly purchased) compass and topo map of the Oakland hills on a few local outings to practice my new found skills in an environment where I am relatively comfortable. Trying this for the first time in an unknown environment may be a little much.

I think a little compass may have to make its way into my hiking pack and my trail running water pack.

It is the kind of class that I would recommend for anyone who spends a bunch of time outdoors. You never know.

Better safe than sorry.

While I’m at it I should probably brush up on my wilderness first aid.

Sara is a runner, running coach, writer, blogger, and a lover of all things written.

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