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In today’s world, navigation technology is moving along at what seems like light speed. We have sophisticated in-car GPS (Global Positioning System) units that speak directions and show traffic reports, maps that can show you detailed street views, smartphone apps that can display everything from speed traps to gas prices, and soon enough, self-driving vehicles for the masses.

While all of that information and capability at our fingertips is wonderful, it does rely on a lot of dedicated infrastructure. In events such as a natural disaster, an extended power outage, or even just a backcountry trip, this hi-tech safety net can come crashing down (both literally, and figuratively).

For example, depending on where you are in the country (or world), a rural road or trail can quickly take you out of cell phone service. And GPS maps are typically only as accurate as the data used to compile them. Not only that, but GPS satellites themselves can be subject to government-mandated error at the flip of a switch (aka “Selective Availability”), random testing & jamming, and outages due to solar storms or interference. Or, it could be something as simple as a dead battery, or fancy electronic gadget versus pavement.

All of this makes the case for keeping a map and compass nearby. For thousands of years, these two items combined have been used to accurately navigate across vast reaches of both land and sea. They are powerful tools and form a relatively cheap insurance policy.

Even better than just keeping them in a pack, kit, or glove compartment, is knowing how to properly use a map & compass. I’m certainly no expert, but here are a few of my favorite books on the topic, and there are countless videos and web sites devoted to the skill, too. (Google is your friend here.) After a little “light” reading, be sure to get out there and practice, practice, practice!

  • The Essential Wilderness Navigator (ISBN: 0071361103).
  • UTM Using your GPS with the Universal Transverse Mercator Coordinate System (ISBN: 0971090114).
  • Be Expert with Map and Compass (ISBN: 0470407654).

As far as which compass to choose, that question alone could fill up pages and pages of discussion. My personal choice is a lensatic military compass*, specifically the kind manufactured by Cammenga. They make both a glow-in-the-dark luminous version (Model 27), as well as a tritium-illuminated version (Model 3H, shown in this blog article).

*Note: One downside versus a baseplate compass is that you must also carry a protractor, but that tradeoff is worth it to me for the durability.

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