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The Bulletin
By Jim Witty
January 10, 2001

A global positioning system --- GPS for short --- is a receiver that brings all the power of satellite technology into an individual hunter’s, hiker’s or snowshoers hand.

It’s reliable. It’s accurate. It’s definitely cool. But it’s no substitute for a detailed map, no replacement for a good compass.

Central Oregon wilderness survival instructor Bob Speik knows all about the state-of-the-art units and helps others to use them to stay found. But his three hour small group sessions on wilderness navigation go heavy on the basics. Map and compass skills are essential.


Because the basic function of a GPS receiver is to calculate it’s present position. It can tell users how far they are from their rigs and what direction

But even on receivers with lots of bells and whistles, mapping displays are nowhere near as detailed as a paper topographic map. (Speik’s favorite GPS unit, the Garmin E-Trex at less than $150 doesn’t have any maps at all, and a compass is not a built-in feature.)

Map and compass work in concert with a GPS receiver.

Speik, 72, is adamant about the proper equipment. He favors the Suunto compass (between $19 and $30 locally) adjusted to Central Oregon’s 17 degree declination and advises replacing the flimsy lanyard with a longer shoestring-type cord that allows you to hold the compass at the waist.

“A compass does you no good if it is inside your pack,” Speik says. So wear it around your neck and use it, he implores.

A word about declination.

The north pole that the compass points to is not the one with elves in it. True north and magnetic north differed by 725 miles as of 1998. The fact is, magnetic north is constantly moving because of the Earth’s molten core, and in Central Oregon non adjusted compasses are off by 17 to 18 degrees. Elsewhere in the country, the declination is different.

In addition to a quality compass – one that has a rounded base at the back that fits in your hand and a screw you can turn to adjust the declination – always carry a map of the area you are traveling in, preferably a United States Geological Survey 7.5 minute topo, each of which covers an area of about 7.5 miles by 6 miles, Speik advises.

Knowing how to use map and compass in tandem with a GPS is critical. The books 
Staying Found” by June Fleming, published by The Mountaineers, and “GPS Land Navigation” by Michael Ferguson, Glassford Publishing, are good for starters, according to Speik. There’s also information on the Internet and courses such as the one Speik offers.

An up-to-date GPS receiver has 12 radio channels and displays your location in numbers that need to be related to a map. The map function on some units is adequate for Rvers but not of much use for hunters, hikers or anglers.

“It’s about as detailed as an auto club map,” Speik says.

Most useful is the present position function and the receiver’s ability to store a large number of positions, called waypoints.

Once these are stored, the GPS can calculate the distance and direction between present position and another recorded location, your truck for instance.

Numerical coordinates can then be used to pinpoint your location on a map and to plot a route on the GPS unit.

Several adjustments must be made right out of the box. They include changing the unit to true north, so it coincides with your map, adjusting the unit’s grid system and changing the map datum to NAD (North American Datum) 27 to correspond with the one used to prepare your topo map. 

It’s not rocket science, but if you don’t take time to study it, it can seem like it.

Despite it’s new millennium technology, the GPS does have it’s limitations.

“It’s not a cell phone, a compass or a map,” says Speik. “It won’t keep you warm if you become lost. You can’t eat it or drink it.”

The upshot: there’s no substitution for proper preparation.

Speik is preparing a small card he is planning to distribute through outdoor outlets in Central Oregon containing the four basic responsibilities of the wilderness traveler.

In a nutshell they are: Tell a responsible person where you are going and when you’ll be back. If you don’t return on time, that person bears the responsibility to call Deschutes County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue at 911.

Bring along enough extra clothing, food and water in a daypack to survive several hours or the night outside.

Carry a map, compass, GPS and know how to use them.

Carry a cell phone. Leave it turned off in your pack so you can call out if you need to but the office can’t call you.

Speik, who has taught wilderness courses at Central Oregon Community College for several years and has trained search and rescue volunteers, Forest Service employees and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife volunteers, offers his Wilderness Navigation: GPS, Map and Compass course to small groups of from two to five students from his home in Bend.

He also covers other essential equipment for winter and summer excursions and the basics of layering to stay comfortable. Cost of the seminar is $30.

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Mountain climbing has inherent dangers that can in part, be mitigated