In my previous post, I gave you some ideas on how to become a better navigator.  Before you can work on those skills, though, you’re probably going to need a compass.  And before you ask, the answer is no, GPS devices are not allowed in adventure racing.  So let’s talk about compasses.

*What?!? Two posts in a row about orienteering?!? *

Yes.  It’s that important.  The ability to use a map and compass is absolutely the most crucial skill you need if you want to be a successful adventure racer.  It can mean the difference between a great race and the dreaded DNF (Did Not Finish).  It doesn’t matter how fast you are if you don’t know where you’re going, now does it?

With so many makes and models out there, picking a compass may seem like a daunting task at first.  You don’t need anything fancy, though.  Like many beginners, you may be tempted to get a really cool-looking sighting compass such as the Silva Ranger (shown below).

Sighting Compass

Looks cool, but not the best choice for adventure racing.

A sighting compass can be used for adventure racing, but I don’t use one nor do I recommend using one.  You don’t need the sighting mirror which just adds weight and bulk, and it really makes the compass clunky and awkward when used during a race.  Another reason I don’t use or recommend a sighting compass is the price.  You’ll pay 50 bucks or more for one of these, and I suggest saving that money for a different type of compass which I’ll discuss in a minute.

So, what should you get?  I use a three-compass system that has worked quite well for me.  I always carry a baseplate compass, a wrist compass, and a thumb compass.

Wrist and Thumb Compass for Adventure Racing

A bit blurry, but here are two-thirds of my three-compass system.

A baseplate compass  is what I recommend as your main compass, especially for beginners.  You can take a precise bearing with it or use it to get a general sense of your direction.  You’ll pay anywhere from 10 to 30 bucks for one, and they are a breeze to use.  They are inexpensive, accurate, lightweight, and durable.  I always carry one of these in my pack while racing.

When doing what I call “dirty nav” (navigation that only requires knowing the general direction instead of a more accurate bearing), I use a wrist compass.  I just wear one of these babies (usually 10 bucks or less) on the band of my watch, and with just a glance at my wrist, I know my direction of travel.  A wrist compass is fantastic while on the bike or in the boat so you won’t have to dig into your pack or pocket every time you want to check your direction.

When the navigation gets more involved, however, I bust out my trusty thumb compass.  At first, I didn’t care for the thumb compass, but after some practice, I’ve grown to love it.  On a tricky orienteering section of a race, the thumb compass allows me to always know my location on the map and my direction of travel by holding the map and the compass together.  The needle settles super-fast for navigating on-the-go, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.  It will cost around 50 – 60 dollars, but it’s worth it.  The money you saved by buying a baseplate compass instead of a sighting compass should be spent on a thumb compass.

The three-compass system is what I use when adventure racing.  Do you need a baseplate compass, a wrist compass, and a thumb compass?  Of course you don’t.  If you’re only going to get one compass, get a baseplate compass.  It is a do-all compass that won’t let you down.  Then you can add a wrist compass for the “dirty nav.”  Then after gaining some experience orienteering, grab yourself a thumb compass for navigating the more technical sections on the go.

Once you decide on a compass, get out there and use it!  Practice, practice, practice, and then practice some more.  Too many people train their tails off running, paddling, and biking, but they often neglect the critical skill of orienteering.  Don’t make the same mistake.