Earlier this week I had the pleasure of spending two days with Robert, a professor at UCONN and longtime outdoors-man. Robert came up to Northeast Mountaineering to brush up on his wilderness navigation skills. We spent Monday morning at the Bunkhouse reviewing and adding to our collective “improvised” navigation skill set before simplifying our map and compass methods (plotting whiteout navigation plans, re-section, triangulation). After an introduction to the powerful trip planning tools CalTopo and Avenza we headed to the Green Hills Preserve for a bushwhack up Hurricane Mountain and a quick out and back hike to Black Cap to re-enforce our morning session.
On Tuesday we enjoyed a 9 mile loop hike through the Sandwich Wilderness and around Square Ledge. The weather and views were stellar along with the conversation!
After finishing another Wilderness Navigation Course today for the Appalachian Mountain Club in Pinkham Notch I decided it was finally time I post a review on the one piece of equipment I have carried in the mountains for over two decades. My compass, the Sunnto MC-2.
The compass is the 2nd piece of equipment listed in the often referred to “Ten Essentials” and is a must for anyone heading to the mountains for a bit of adventure. A great gear list for hiking & backpacking can be found here on http://www.hikesafe.com
Since this piece of equipment is so important it’s wise to put a little thought into your choice. For the money, I have not found a more fully functional compass that can do as much as the Sunnto MC-2 anywhere, which is why I have happily replaced mine three times in the last 20 years when I misplaced (or loaned) it to someone and never got it back.
Without getting into the intricacies of accurate map & compass work I want to call out exactly what sets this compass apart in the field.
How important is a sighting mirror? Depending on the range to your target the sighting mirror can play a significant role in accurate bearing reading. It allows you to hold the compass at eye level and arms length and still read the information given on the dial/bezel. Two “sights” are present, a higher “gun notch” and a level gap below the mirror, so you have better accuracy based on relative elevation to your target. I find I can get a bearing 3-4 degrees more accurately with this style than a regular “base-plate” type compass. In my lectures I compare the accuracy of this style compass to a rifle aimed from the shoulder vs. a pistol fired from the hip. A sighting mirror is more accurate hands down. It also has the added benefit of being an excellent signal mirror for search and rescue aircraft and allows me to easily put my prescription contacts in on multi-day trips!
While technically an off-shoot of the sighting mirror the fact that a fully opened Sunnto MC-2 can cover 7 inches across a map makes it really convenient for taking bearings and plotting location with known points (re-section & triangulation). These skills, when used with smaller base-plate compasses, often involve estimation, map folding, or the use of a straight edge to get an accurate reading. With the Sunnto MC-2 plotting on a map is simple.
Large clear dial
The orienteering lines are highly visible under the bezel/dial, making accurate measurement possible from any north-south lines on the map or along the edge of the map.
A clinometer measures slope angle. This is extremely important for those travelling in avalanche terrain as a difference of 5 degrees of slope can often mean the difference between a slope being stable or unstable. Savvy mountain travelers in avalanche terrain are constantly checking slope angle, and to do so accurately one needs a clinometer. The Sunnto MC-2 has one built in that can function on the slope like the photo above, or in conjunction with the sighting mirror while looking up or down a slope.
The above photo of me measuring slope angle was coincidentally taken moments before a human triggered size-able avalanche caught 5 people on Mount Washington. One of the people caught is just disappearing out of the safer area we where at before the incident occurred. My write up of this incident is here.
The Sunnto MC-2, like many top tier compasses, allows one to set the magnetic declination for the area of operation. I am not going to dive into a detailed conversation on declination in a gear review but simply put this is a solid feature for a vast majority of recreationalists and mountain professionals. There are many professionals out there that feel it is almost required. Since I teach courses to people with various pre-owned compasses my personal opinion is if one truly wants to understand solid map & compass work one needs to be able to navigate with an adjustable or non-adjustable compass. That being said, the fact it is an option on this compass is win-win, I just choose not to use it.
A small feature, but helpful none-the-less! This feature really helps when decoding small print & icons on a faded map!
1:24k and 1:62500 scales
The Sunnto MC-2 has two distance scales along the side calibrated to the two most popular USGS map scales. Combined with the included lanyard it should be quite easy to accurate estimate distances on your maps.
In case you want some manufacture specifications here they are:
High grade steel needle with jewel bearing
Balanced for northern hemisphere
Adjustable declination correction
Liquid filled capsule for stable operation
Mirror for sighting bearings and signaling
Sighting hole and notch for accurate bearings
Luminescent markings for working in low light
Metric scales and inch ruler
Baseplate with magnifying lens
Detachable snap-lock lanyard with wristlock. Easy to detach for working with the map
Suunto limited lifetime warranty
Made in Finland
There is little improvement to suggest on such a well crafted piece of outdoor gear. For global travel Suunto does offer a slightly more expensive global version but for anyone staying in the northern hemisphere you can pick this compass up at a great price on Amazon right here. Using that link will help support this blog and earn you karma and increased karma means less chance of getting lost*.
I’m giving a away a mint condition Suunto MC-2 through Rafflecopter! You can get up to five entries in the contest, just click the Rafflecopter link for details!
Update 9/30/16: CONTEST OVER! Congrats to Charles D.!
Disclaimer: David Lottmann has bought this compass, more than once with his own money, because he thinks it’s the best damn compass out there. This post contains affiliate links that help support this blog.
*not getting lost depends on trip preparation, not karma, but ordering through those links can’t hurt
This past Saturday I led an 8 hour Wilderness Navigation Course for EMS Schools North Conway. A few guides from a NYC outdoor adventure company and mountain enthusiasts from around New England met at 8:30am for some classroom discussion and exercises before we traveled to a field location to practice our newly acquired skills.
This is a great area to explore off trail. It is a fairly active site for rock collectors, or “rockhounding“, and we came across a lot of fresh piles of crushed rock and sand where intrepid collectors had found veins of rock in search of semi-precious stones. There is also some type of tree research nearby as we traveled through a stand of younger trees all tagged with metal numbered tags. I’m curious to their meaning.
After plotting a course back to our starting point we embarked on the well traveled Black Cap Trail. Before reaching the ledges we found a nice specimen of the edible and easy to recognize “Chicken of the Woods“. It was clear someone had foraged a bit of this specimen but there was plenty left for those inclined to gather some to cook later.
One we reached the first view point we stopped and practiced some terrain association, peak identification, and single point resection.
After looking at some glacial striations and some classic “flagging” in the trees (both can help with finding direction) we reached the small summit and made our way down to the Black Cap Connector Trail. We then looped back towards the Cranmore Trail.
Looping back on the connector trail
With a little bit of time left we decided to squeeze in one more bushwhack so we headed a short ways down the Red Tail Trail before plotting a course off trail with the goal of hitting the Black Cap Trail right at the info kiosk about .3 miles from the parking lot.
Everyone followed their own route and hit the Black Cap trail within sight of the kiosk. We returned to the parking lot for a quick debrief.
I really enjoy teaching this course. It’s especially fun to challenge yourself by not always following the beaten path and when you go off trail you’re much more likely to have wildlife encounters. By the end of the course most everyone was sold on the model of compass I’ve been using for almost 2 decades so I will plug it here for those shopping for a great quality compass.
While I might take the time to give this compass a full review soon for now I’ll briefly state the sighting mirror and long straight edge make taking and plotting bearings fast and intuitive. The clinometer is a great feature for winter/avalanche terrain but is also useful for determining if you are actually higher than that nearby peak. Unfortunately this model isn’t currently in-stock at EMS but is available on Amazon here.
Do you have a favorite compass model? Let me know in the comments below!
This was the last Wilderness Navigation Course we had planned at EMS Schools this summer but I think there might be interest in running another one this Fall. I will update this post if we put another one on the calendar and send out a quick post if one is scheduled. As always you can follow me on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
My head is still spinning from some of the info I’ve been able to pick up this past weekend. It all started Saturday morning with Marc Chauvin’s, of Chauvin Guides, informative presentation on creating geo-spatial PDF’s that can be uploaded into a smartphone GPS app to supplement your outdoor navigation capabilities. This somewhat esoteric topic is right up my alley and while the content could seem a bit heavy at times Marc’s energetic & well timed presentation made it easy to stay fully engaged from one concept to the next.
I won’t go though the step by step process here but if you are interested I’ll make some suggestions. First, get to know http://www.caltopo.com. A colleague pointed me to this website a year ago and it took me awhile to give it a solid look. This seminar gave me the kick in the pants I needed to start playing around with it and I am simply amazed at what the free version of this website offers. It is hands down the best online mapping resource for outdoor recreationalists. The potential use & application of this program is so large I can only scratch the surface here, but to wet your appetite the first thing I did was create some routes down the popular ski routes in Tuckerman Ravine using satellite imagery, which, with the click of one button, could easily be imposed over USGS Topographic info:
This a more accurate way of measuring important drainage scale info than estimating off a topographic map, and the website easily displays information about each run, for example, Hillman’s Highway is .42 miles long and drops from 5179′ to 3923′, and total vert. of 1256′. You can also get “Terrain Statistics” for each route you created, for example, Right Gully:
What really got me excited was seeing the layering potential of the website. Being able to layer crowd based info (like unofficial mountain bike trails) on top of verified info (like USGS maps) is amazing, especially when you can make these maps GPS enabled on your Smartphone! To top it all off though you can have the software shade specific slopes based on info you specify.
For example, if your local avalanche bulletin suggests to avoid slopes NE-NW aspect above 7000 feet that are steeper than 35 degrees due to a Persistent Slab problem? You can actually enter this slope criteria and these areas will be shaded! It really is impressive. A short video of the developer that references this ability right at the end:
Marc has made an excellent video highlighting this feature. Check it out here:
Once you have a decent understanding of CalTopo you can use the website to print or export custom PDF maps. The fun doesn’t stop here though! The next step is to download the Avenza PDF Maps app. This free app lets you import your newly created PDF maps and make them “geo-spatial”? What does that mean? It means you can use these maps with the GPS chip of your smart phone to show your location. Marc has been getting into the mountain bike scene lately and there are many mountain bike trails that you won’t find on regular USGS or even hiking maps. With this two-shot combo you can upload any map, “sync” it with a base map, and voila, you can navigate and see your location on the hybrid creation!
For practice in the class we imported a Green Hills Preserve map that showed some popular mountain bike trails over your standard USPS map. After “geo-marking” two reference points on the map it scaled and aligned perfectly.
If I was still at the Grand Summit Hotel when I took this screenshot my location would have been pinpointed on this map with a little blue dot.
Finally this technology is easily shareable. The CalTopo website will create unique URLs of your creations that you can easily share with climbing & hiking partners. I’m planning on having a master map for our back-country skiing trips on Washington that guides can edit as they get more accurate GPS positions on first aid caches, drop points, bailout options, etc.
I planned to talk about our pre-winter EMS Schools training but I’ve run out of time so that will come later. Also, there’s been some healthy debate about whether one should trust their phone GPS over a dedicated unit. I’m writing a detailed post looking at some recent research and arguments for and against using your phone GPS for wilderness navigation. Please stay tuned for that!
When the leaves start to fall the guiding season winds down… until the snow flies! I’ve had plenty of time to hike with my son Alex, and have enjoyed sharing his adventures on my other blog, http://www.adventurewithalex.com.
Many months ago at a Flatbread Fundraiser I offered my Land Navigation Course as an auction item to support Mountain Rescue Service, of which I am a volunteer. Janis, of New London, NH placed the winning bid, and after some correspondence we choose today for the course. This morning she and 3 hiking companions joined me for some pretty heavy morning classroom, followed by a beautiful field trip in the Green Hills Preserve.
All four of these women had ample hiking experience, much in the winter, and all had entertaining stories of close calls or mini-epics when confused and turned around in the wilderness, from Vermont to Alaska!
Land Navigation continues to be an oft neglected skill that I hope those who spend time in wild places continue to seek out. It’s a thrilling experience getting “lost” in the wilderness, but even more exciting finding your way back out again with more than simple “dead reckoning”.
In these structured 8 hour courses I try to convey the essential map & compass skills in as simple and easy to remember ways as I can… and for the most part I am successful However it is always up to the student to practice their craft after leaving the structure of the course, and I was happy to see the eagerness of all 4 women to return home and hone these newly discovered (or revisited) natural skills.
I’ve partnered with the AMC this summer to offer my 8-hour Land Navigation Workshop through their Highland Center and Pinkham Notch locations. The Appalachian Mountain Club is such a historically rich and diverse organization with such a wide range of outdoor educational programs it really is an honor to get to work with them. I conducted a staff training event for some of their naturalists earlier in the season, and instructed a day at each location as part of a weekend workshop at both venues, the 2nd was this past weekend.
Class started at 9am and we covered improvised “survival” navigation, interpreting topographic maps, and proper use of a magnetic compass including triangulation, single point re-section, and creating white-out navigation plans. After lunch we headed out for a short hike up to Square Ledge for some practical app. I’m grateful to the AMC for helping get these important skills to more people who would like them, and look forward to the next opportunity to partner up again!