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Discussion: The Right Direction with a Thumb Compass

in: Orienteering; Gear & Toys

May 25, 2017 4:27 PM # 
I wrote a blog post on thumb compasses.... enjoy!


If you enjoy sports like orienteering, adventure racing, or just hiking in the woods, you’ve probably used a compass. Most of us are familiar with the basic base plate compass, but many, especially in orienteering, have long since switched over to thumb compasses.

Let’s take a closer look at what a thumb compass looks like, how to use it (there are a few methods!), and what some of the more popular choices are.
May 26, 2017 12:21 PM # 
Thank you. I enjoyed the blog.
All the big guns can't be wrong. The thumb compass must be the way to go and has been for some time.
But what about all those schools and groups that have invested in and continue to be drawn to the cheaper base plate compasses?
What about those wishing to get the superior distance measurement that comes with the base plate?
There is a way to get the best of both worlds. Forget about the Silva 1-2-3 method. The base plate compass can be used like a thumb compass. Every orienteering leg involves travel at an angle off the magnetic north (meridian) lines. That is the way the thumb compass works: line the needle up with magnetic north and travel at the same angle off the needle as off the map's nearest meridian line.
I'm teaching the orienteers with base plate compasses to align the compass housing orienting lines with the direction of travel arrow and LEAVE IT THERE.
To get and follow a bearing:
1) Align the needle parallel to the meridian lines and
2) go in the direction of travel indicated.
That's it. Forget the Silva 1-2-3 It's the Quick Bearing Method.
May 26, 2017 2:11 PM # 
Nice article. Some comments.

I'd say in reality the order of those steps in those methods is the opposite. We are always already running to the direction we think is the correct direction to hit the feature we are supposed to identify next on the way to control further away. We on the fly keep map&compass at level for a second to let needle settle and then peek is the needle parallel with north lines (or what ever depending the method). If it isn't we correct our running line accordingly by looking up ahead with that much correction and then soon check it again same way. This is why needle being fast is meh (we never turn with a map/compass at level and wait for needle to follow), but stability is essential.

I always find these instructions and thumb vs. base plate comparison misleading. Compass use is only a tiny little part of the direction handling process and direction handling is just a part (but important part) of the navigation process. Two orienteers can have almost identical technique for direction handling even if they use different type of compasses (base plate - thumb). And two orienteers with same kind of compass can have entirely different techniques. These methods presented here are mostly just techniques for "reading the direction" and my opinion is that's maybe only 1% of the direction handling process in whole. In addition, these articles too easily give impression compass use is a standalone technique, and it is about figuring out the correct direction and then running there. We never do that, we don't even try to do do, we teach kids to not do that. No, it is integrated to the navigation we do. See, we try to have feature(s) in mind we plan to see "soon" and we use various direction handling tools to make it happen. Based on that task (what kind of feature(s), how far, how easy to spot, how good is the visibility) we select, tune and focus in our direction handling methods to get the needed accuracy. To know the target features and circumstances we need to plan ahead, and like this direction handling becomes a natural part of it all. If we instead just try run to correct direction we fail to understand the accuracy needed and have no idea of features we are supposed to see. Being able to use and identify best types of features is essential part of direction handling and so is methods to keep direction by looking ahead - those make much more difference that the shape of the plastic around the needle (or is runner having compass at all), or how the direction is read. Differences in the way direction is read from map&compass is pretty much obsolete in direction handling and navigation process in whole. But I understand articles like that might be too much for most readers.
May 26, 2017 2:26 PM # 
It comes down in English to 3 D's - Direction, Distance and (map/terrain) Details. Beginners should put them in that order. With experience you may prefer to re-order them.
May 26, 2017 3:10 PM # 
Thanks for the feedback!

I didn't intent the post to say thumb compasses are better - I think they're for a different purpose. I definitely find, based on my own orienteering experience, thumb compasses to be faster, for me. And, they're attached to my map hand, all in one.

Teaching compass use is best done on a baseplate compass, no doubt. Most beginners don't, and maybe shouldn't use, a thumb compass before they are very comfortable with all of the features of a compass.

Hope that makes sense...
May 26, 2017 3:52 PM # 
@gordhun: my opinion is the opposite. I'd rather have beginners focusing on what the see on the map and in the terrain as first priority. To quote Jagge, focus on "features."
May 26, 2017 4:51 PM # 
Yes, I'd rather have beginners focusing on the map features, too. However that does not seem to be the way their minds work. It may not have to be with a compass but they seen to need some directional cue to get started.
It is also helpful that if they cannot read the map or the map is not very good for reading the direction and distance will give them a better chance of success.
May 26, 2017 8:27 PM # 
Depends if the map has the wrong features in the right place, or the right features in the wrong place... ;)
May 27, 2017 12:55 AM # 
I'll disagree strongly with baseplate being best for beginners. It leads too easily to use of the compass disconnected from the map, and with tunnel vision. Take the bearing, put away the map, focus on the compass and what's directly in front of you. Ninety percent of what could be seen in the terrain, isn't, because it's not where the compass is pointing. The pace runs out, and either the beginner has found the location, or hasn't, and in the latter case, has little of the info that would tell them whether they've gone too far, not far enough, too far left, or even perhaps started the bearing from the wrong location. A recipe for hit or miss frustration. (A beginner needs to understand that a compass doesn't tell you how to get somewhere; it tells you which way is magnetic north (from which you can infer east, south, bearing 132, etc.). Sans map, or sans viewing the terrain, it's pretty useless for finding orienteering controls. I think that we should have the confidence to teach beginners how to navigate (awareness of terrain, map, compass all used together) rather than following their lead (compass, map in pocket, eyes in one direction, if that's their tendency).)

Gord's way helps a bit, because it makes the orienteer use the baseplate like a thumb compass. Using a baseplate like a baseplate should be discouraged until the beginner has learned to use it like a thumb compass.

Teaching land navigation to my local search and rescue unit, I included relocation training, simply to get them away from compass and map tunnel vision, and actually look around to see the terrain. (I ran them off the map along a streamered route across a few ridges to a bag of maps in a reentrant.). It worked. The more we can get beginners to use awareness of terrain, and map, as much as compass, and not be stuck head down following a bearing, the more they'll see, benefit, prosper and enjoy. My 2c.
May 27, 2017 1:20 AM # 
The clip-on compass had many advantages for beginners, mostly through combining the map and compass as a unit. When Silva stopped making it I asked coaches for suggestions and they said "can we get them straight into thumb compasses?" Moscow has a cheap needle (Model 22) and, fitted into a thumb base, its selling like hot cakes around here. It has a wobbly needle, but it encourages "holding, folding and thumbing".

This discussion thread is closed.