I recently wrote about the Ten Essentials, which includes quite a few extremely, ahem, essential items. But which is the least useful? From my perspective, it’s the one I’ve carried for more than 20 years and barely ever used: a compass.
It can also be used to triangulate your position if you have clear views of known landmarks, and to identify an unknown peak or object by marking its precise direction and plotting it on a map.
A base plate compass (read: no batteries required) is recommended.
Why don’t you need a compass?
Unlike most other items in the ten essentials, the functions of a compass can be largely replaced with other skills and essential gear.
First, if the sun is out and you know the time, it is extremely fast and simple to orient yourself if you know the basics of how to navigate with the sun. Short story is this: The sun is due south when it reaches its highest point in the sky (high noon), which usually occurs sometime between noon and 1 p.m. It moves a rough 15 degrees per hour from east to west (left to right if you’re facing the sun).
Around 3:30 p.m., for example, the sun would be in the southwest. This works even if you are in mostly shaded (forest) conditions. All you need is a glimpse of the sun or a good shadow on the ground to indicate its location. Of course, this doesn’t work in cloudy, stormy conditions (when a survival situation is more likely to occur).
Second, you should always carry the best trail map your can find for the area and keep close tabs on it (and your location) throughout the day. If you’re like me, then the vast majority of the hiking you’ve done in the Lower 48 has been on trails, rather than bushwhacking adventures in dense woods. For on-trail hiking, good map-reading allows you to have a good handle on your location at all times and essentially negates the need for a compass.
Third, in the event of socked-in conditions—which do occur regularly on New England’s high peaks—you will likely still be on established trails, which in many places are backed up by large cairns at relatively short distances. (If you’re hiking outside of the region in trail-less wilderness, a compass is definitely a good idea; one of the few times I’ve used one is in the Alaskan backcountry).
Fourth, there’s a good chance you already have a compass (or an alternate way to identify your location) on one or more of the devices you’re carrying. I have a useful wrist-top compass built into my altimeter watch, for example. Most GPS units and smart phones have them as well. Yes, they are prone to breakage and battery failure, but having multiple back-ups (altimeter watch and GPS unit, say) minimizes the risk.
Can you get away without carrying a compass? Most of the time, yes.
Should you carry a compass? It depends. Definitely carry a compass if you are heading somewhere where becoming disoriented is a possibility. Two of the most common scenarios for this include off-trail travel in dense forest or vegetation; and travel to areas where low-visibility conditions may occur, such as above-treeline or in a snowstorm.