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Be Expert With Map and Compass, The Complete Orienteering Handbook

Author : Bjorn Kjellstrom
Published : 2009-12-09

With all the electronic gadgetry that exists -- cell phones, GPS units, personal locator beacons -- why bother learning how to navigate like pathfinders of the last (20th) century, with map and compass? Well, for starters you won't worry about your batteries failing you.

Sadly, I must admit that my map and compass skills are horribly, horribly rusty. Many years ago, while filling out some spare credits in my college days, I actually took an orienteering course in which I learned how to negotiate through the backcountry with map and compass. I recall that the first field trial ended miserably, with me and my partner finishing, if memory serves me well, ahem, dead last. But that was motivation, and we crushed the competition in the next field trial.

That class taught me that orienteering not only was fun, but that map-and-compass skills were valuable and shouldn't be overlooked.

But that was many, many years ago. About five years or so ago I invested in a book and a new compass with hopes of brushing off the rust that had bogged down my skills and once again becoming at least passable in the field. After all, it's easy to see the merits of being able to navigate in the backcountry with map and compass.

Well, sad to say but the book pretty much never stirred from its spot on the bookshelf, and the compass stayed safely tucked away in the drawer. But the arrival of a new book, or at least a new edition of an old, but venerable, book on orienteering has me once again anxious to get out in the field and rediscover those long-lost skills.

Be Expert With Map and Compass, The Complete Orienteering Handbook ($18.95) first came out in 1955 when Bjorn Kjellstrom decided it was time the general public had a guide to help them attain map-and-compass skills. The late Mr. Kjellstrom certainly had the credentials for this task -- a Swedish champion in orienteering, he was one of the founders of the Swedish Orienteering Federation, and helped launch the U.S. Orienteering Federation, of which he was director of for several years.

The third edition of this book arrived in December, and it has been revised and updated by Mr. Kjellstorm's daughter, Carina Kjellstrom Elgin. While the book maintains the strong underpinning of how to become competent with map and compass, Ms. Elgin has brought it into the 21st century by addressing GPS devices, noting helpful websites, and providing an updated guide to international orienteering symbols.

Perhaps the most obvious reason to become proficient with map and compass is what I noted in the second sentence above. Your batteries might fail you or there might not be a cell phone signal. More so, the skills improve your self-reliance, something that shouldn't ever be overlooked or undervalued.

The book starts slowly, introducing the importance of map and compass skills and how they're used in every day life. But then you dive into the nitty-gritty in Part 1, learning about the details of topographic maps -- how they're made, what the squiggly lines represent, the various scales mapmakers use, how to tell paved roads from dirt roads, and springs from wells. The authors even suggest field exercises you can try to hone your skills. And they provide a fold-out map attached to the book's back cover for use in developing your map-reading skills.

Compasses aren't given short shrift, either, as a primer on their history is contained in Part 2. This section of the book also details today's compass designs, explains what the various components and scales on compasses are used for, and instructs you on how to find your bearings. Again, the authors provide you with exercises -- some that involve the map provided in the book -- to build your compass skills.

Parts 3 and 4 are devoted to orienteering, both the simple skills of navigating your way across a landscape as well as the challenges of competitive orienteering.

Today's counterpart to competitive orienteering, in which individuals or teams see which can most quickly negotiate a course requiring you to use map and compass to find checkpoints, is geocaching, where much the same is accomplished, but with GPS devices. While geocaching certainly is growing in popularity, interest in map-and-compass orienteering is not waning. According to Be Expert With Map and Compass, in 2009 the annual O-ringen orienteering competition in Sweden attracted 8,000 participants from 43 countries.

Not only does this book provide a wealth of information, information that can make you more comfortable in the backcountry, but reading it with your youngsters could help increase their interest, and comfort, in the out-of-doors.


Your post has only served to remind me that I need to get even more outdoor hobbies. Thanks ... I guess ;-)


My travels through the National Park System:

Thanks for reminding me of an old friend - Somewhere around here I have a first edition from my days in the Boy Scouts in the early 1960s. There's no better reference than Hjellstrom.

I fell in love with maps and a compass while running around the wilds of northern Alaska. Topographic maps were treasure maps, particularly when I began traveling in the Brooks Range. Back in the early '60s I would cross large expanses of open tundra by dog team relying on the Eskimo compass. The Inupiaq had to travel over virtually featureless terrain in order to live off the land. They would maintain a course using the shape of snowdrifts to guide them. The drifts were usually formed by the northeast wind during the early winter. An Eskimo hunter would cut across the drifts at a given angle. Even at night they could keep a course by the feel of the drifts. They wore soft soled mukluks (tutuliks) and would let their foot drag over the drifts while feeling how the drift ridges were aligned. They also relied on the stars, wind direction and even the northern lights as travel guides. If a recent storm happened to confuse the drift alignment an Inupiaq musher would carefully cut away the top crust of the hard pack snow to expose the buried dead grass. The tips of the grass usually pointed southwest having been beaten down by the fall winds.

And don't forget that cable "dish" antennaes generally point South ;o))

Semper Fi

... and lichens and mosses are generally on the north or northwest side of trees. In the neotropics, traveller's palm isn't actually a palm, but it does tend to orient itself (N-S on flat land if I recall correctly). The direction of sunrises & sunsets vary with time of year (due east & west at equinoxes, maximum shift toward the equator at hemispherical winter solstice, etc.) but for us in the northern hemisphere the sun is due south at local solar noon. Night orientation is even easier, although night orienteering can be problematic.

I fear that far too many people are venturing into the backcountry today relying ONLY on their GPS units for wilderness navigation. I love my GPS, but its only one of several tools that I use to navigate. I've never had a compass fail to work, but my GPS unit has failed numerous times. With electronic instruments "failure is always an option"!

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