We teach map and compass skills in Scouting. We teach orienteering. We have you measure your pace, we do compass courses, etc. All this despite the fact that there are very few places where you actually need those skills. If you’re a good enough map reader, you can usually read the lay of the land with your map. Even at Philmont, I’ve never needed a compass. On top of that, we now have GPS, if we really want to find our way, right? For a lot of people, learning how to use a compass is just one more antique skill set the Scouts teach out of nostalgia.
I was on a personal tour of the north of Great Britain some years ago. I was determined to summit Ben Nevis, the tallest mountain in the UK. Several years before this, my Venturing Crew had been driven off the shoulders of Ben Nevis by a sleet storm on top of day-long rain. We were wet and cold and it just wasn’t safe to continue. I was back now to correct that earlier miss.
At the park trailhead, I bought a map of the mountain. Seemed plain enough. The map (not to mention signs at the trailhead) said that I really, really needed to carry a compass, because if the fog and snow reduced visibility to zero, you might have to follow bearings to make the dog-leg off the summit safely. Really? I hadn’t brought a compass with me, but I bought the cheapest compass they had in the store, just to comply with the rules. And then I was off.
The day was sunny and fine, and I enjoyed hiking up past the mountain lake in the saddle between Ben Nevis and its sister. As I climbed, the fog lifted with the sun; however, when I got up on the scree of the shoulder – as high as we’d gotten as a crew before – the fog no longer lifted. I could see 5 or so yards around me, but after that, nothing. And then suddenly, I realized that I had stepped off the path somewhere. I was standing on a blank mountainside of loose rocks, totally socked in by fog.
I waited a bit. I thought if I just climbed higher, I would eventually strike the path. I ascended a bit, and out of the looming fog to my right, a crag began to appear. Oh, dear. If that was the head of Five Finger Gully, it was not safe to continue. If you slipped off the mountainside there, it was about a thousand feet before you hit the rocks below. You’d have time to think about it before you hit.
I was stuck, lost, and afraid. I looked at the map, and it said that the path zig-zagged up the mountainside to the hollow crown of the summit (like the indentation in a molar). If I could walk straight north across the face of the slope, I should eventually strike the path again. I oriented the map and laid the compass on it. Picking up the compass, I held it in front of my chest, pointing north. My best guess was the path might be 200 paces ahead of me. I began to slowly walk north, counting my paces. When I hit 163, I stepped onto the path again, did a right-face, and followed the path to the crown of the mountain safely.
I followed others on the path to the summit. The fog was so thick, I couldn’t see anything not directly in front of me. I posed my water bottle and walking stick on the trig pillar and took a picture to prove I’d made it. And then I started back down the mountain. The fog had only lifted to the beginning of the crown, where the bare scree slope began again. But as I descended just a bit more, the sun broke out and it was a beautiful day.
In forty years of camping and hiking, I had never before had to depend on my compass skills for my life. But I was sure glad that I had learned how to do it, that day. And you never know when it’s actually going to matter. It might never; but some day, it might. That’s why we teach you how to do it.
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Art Collins has been in Scouting, man and boy, for over fifty years. He has led many different units and many different programs. As an ordained minister in The United Methodist Church, he has fostered Scouting as ministry in local congregations, as well as at the Conference and General Church level. His current Scouting position is as the International Representative for Hoosier Trails Council and as a member of the Council Executive Board. His current ministry position is Retired.