Tools of the trade

Tools of the trade

1. Compass

When selecting a compass for navigating in the backcountry, there are a number of features that are necessary.

Primarily, you absolutely must be able to accurately shoot an azimuth.  I prefer mirror compasses for this purpose.  If you look at the geologist’s transit, it has a mirror sighting mechanism.  I’ve found that I can shoot consistent azimuths with a mirrored compass.

Second, if, like me, you travel internationally, you absolutely want a specialized type of compass that can be used anywhere in the world.  Different regions in the world have magnetic fields that vary and require compasses tuned to that area.  Buying a global compass means you only buy one compass and it works anywhere.

Third, adjustable declination is a very good feature.  You can compute declination each time in your head, if you want, but having a compass that you can tune to the exact declination means one less thing you have to worry about when you are focusing on everything else.

Fourth, the various map scales that are found on baseplate compasses are handy, but I tend to carry a separate protractor.  USGS maps are often 1:24,000, and many compasses include a scale for that.

Fifth, I like having inclinometers in my compass.  I often try to get a good idea of slope from maps beforehand, but having that inclinometer to measure and verify is comforting in avalanche territory.

My personal choice for a compass is the MC-2G IN GLOBAL from Suunto.  It has all the features I discussed.

2. Altimeter

Altimeters are another navigational tool for the mountains.  Often, when you get into the mountains you want, you can easily sight a few surrounding peaks and know that you are in the right area consistently.  However, when ascending or descending, you’ll want to know the altitude of landmarks that tell you when to look for a pass, when to look for a trail, when to look for a rappel, or a cave, etc.

In CONUS, there are options for reasonably priced altimeters because they do not need to measure to extremely high altitudes.

My choice for CONUS is the Brunton ADC Ridge Mechanical Altimeter because I tend to wear cheap watches without altimeter features while climbing. I have a bad habit of breaking my watches.

3. Map protractors

Protractors are used for plotting points and measuring distances on your maps.  You can often use a baseplate compass for this purpose, however when traveling internationally, you may be dealing with some very different map scales.  I suggest having a variety of protractors for different scales.

My choice for CONUS, because it has a variety of handy tools on it is the Brunton Quad Tool Map Measurer.  Other options are available at military surplus stores.

4. Markers / Pens

I use a variety of pens and markers for map marking purposes.

First, for field use, I highly recommend having a pen that has waterproof ink.  This is used for map marking, writing in journals, taking notes when performing first aid, etc.  A good pen is an essential piece of gear.  I use a Fisher Pens Bullet Space Pen.

For drawing UTM grids on maps, I like Pigma Micron pens.  They allow me to draw very fine lines of the same weight as the existing map markings.

For marking waterproofed maps, I use a variety of colors of Staedtler Lumocolor permanent markers.   For example, I may mark locations of basecamp, caches, etc.

5. Waterproof Notebook

A good waterproof notebook is an essential.  When you navigate off trail, you’ll want to keep notes about distances, times, locations, etc.  You will want to document whether water is readily available, any problems you may face reversing a route, etc.  This is especially true if you plan on returning to the area in the future.  The more detailed the notes, the better.

I like a small notebook without a spiral binding.  Rite in the Rain All Weather Journal Field-flex Pocket (3 1/2″ X 5″) is one of my favorites.

Watch for navigational tools of the trade part 2 next week.

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