Navigating in the Woods With GPS and Compass

compassToday I tried an interesting experiment. I used my cell phone’s GPS and Google Maps and my compass to navigate to an objective in the forest out behind my house. I’d like to say it was on purpose, but what happened was I left the house and had the wrong map in my pack for the area I wanted to operate in. Oops.

But instead of cancelling the hike (never happen) I pulled out my cell phone and called up Google Maps and then the GPS was kind enough to mark my position on the map. I wanted to navigate to a stream I’ve seen on the map since I moved in four years ago, but simply haven’t found the time to get out and find it. Two young kids will do that to you.

Anyway, my wife decided to take the kids to Augusta and suddenly I found myself with a few hours of free time on my hands. Unheard of! I grabbed my pack and headed into the woods and that’s when I found out I didn’t have the right map.


One thing I’ve noticed about GPS is that it doesn’t orient you to north on the device. At least it’s never done it for me. I was hiking a trail I knew and the GPS showed me where I knew I was, so I considered that to be my baseline. I then turned my phone so that the trail I was on was oriented properly and using my compass I was able to shoot an azimuth to the stream. Now, a stream is pretty hard to miss since it’s long and in this case ran from north to south. All I did was shoot an azimuth of 90 degrees (east) and walk that route and I was set. I did use some discipline in trying to move from point to point using my compass and I used my pace count in case I had to back track.

On several occasions I stopped to check my position with the GPS and after some initial confusion figured out how to orient myself to whatever it was displaying by figuring where the stream was and orienting the line on the map. At one point I went to check my location and it told me that I was in the next town about ten miles away. Whatever dude, I put it away and went back to my compass. Soon after that little incident I found the stream. Sweet!

I set up a quick camp, had some lunch and coffee, and continued to march.

The Cool Stuff

Using the GPS was an overall good thing, but the really cool thing was that while it showed me where I was on the stream (mostly accurate from what I could tell), I could scroll ahead using the map and zoom in on certain terrain features using the satellite view. For example I knew there were two houses ahead of me close to the road I wanted to exit out on. I knew the road I wanted was within 1000 meters of my current location. I figured out the area I was standing in that showed up so well on the map was actually a beaver dam. There was lots of cool info available if you’re willing to be patient and look at it.

The Not So Cool Stuff

The battery was being used at a much greater rate than it usually does. I was checking it fairly often and taking the occasional picture, and couldn’t help notice that the battery quickly went to half charge. Kinda scary, especially if you needed to rely on it as your only source of navigation.

At one point I hit a Y in the stream and couldn’t figure out using the GPS which way I needed to go. I got my compass out and figured out the right direction, but to me it was an indicator that I needed a lot more training on GPS before I’d trust myself to navigating with it for real.

Random Notes

Walking through dense forest using a compass is difficult. In more open space you can shoot azimuths off objects a good distance away and then walk to it keeping track of your pace count. In the Maine woods if you get a stretch 100 meters long you got lucky. Often times you only get ten or twenty steps (or less) before you have to stop and reshoot your azimuth.

This time was no different and in some cases I was just bulling through dense brush holding onto my compass, which allows for “drift.”  Drift is when you’re heading in the right direction, but you’re drifting from your point target.  A water tower for example, instead of stream or river.

With a river it’s no big deal because eventually you’ll run across it, but if you drift off a point target it’ll be hard to find it, if not impossible.

Overall it was an enjoyable day and I felt like I learned something too.  I’m not ready to completely trust a GPS to guide me around, but for the most part I feel a little more comfortable using it.

Anybody got any cool GPS or orienteering stories?

Questions?  Comments?

Sound off below!

-Jarhead Survivor

12 comments… add one
  • Road Warrior February 19, 2014, 8:09 am

    I use Trimble Outdoors and ActInNature apps for navigation while hunting, and always have a charger or spare battery with me. The ActInNature app is really great when you’re out with other hunters, because it shows other people who are using in app in your area….so if you’re all converging on a point during a drive, or want to meet up with someone, it shows (within 10meters) where they are. Pretty cool shit….The maps and navigation gear are pretty great too. But a compass and a return azimuth are always with me, too.

  • riverrider February 19, 2014, 10:04 am

    never use gps. too easy for uncle to flip the encryption switch and besides it always gives the wrong directions to my house. when folks come to my house for the first time, i offer directions, they say “no need, i have gps in the car.” a few hours later i’m getting a call,”where the hell are you?” depending on the maker it sends people either in the opposite direction or insists that you’ve passed my house about a mile before you get to it. i like that part. …besides like you said, batteries……

  • Leon February 19, 2014, 12:04 pm

    I’ve had my GPS disagree with my topo map and compass. I stuck with the old school tools and did fine. My GPS is as reliable as the batteries in it.

  • Novice February 19, 2014, 1:31 pm

    I use the GPS on my iPhone when I’m out hunting. It’s cool to be able to see where I am and zoom in and out. It does eat the battery though so this year I bought a USB battery pack to go with it. It’s basically a battery pack with a USB port to plug the phone into. It doubles my battery life.

    I still carry a compass (I am a prepper after all) in case the phone dies or loses signal. I check my direction in relation to the woods prior to heading in.

  • V February 19, 2014, 2:02 pm

    OK here’s a puzzle for you. I just recently purchased a GPS for my car. I don’t have a smartphone because I live in an area with very poor cell reception. Why couldn’t I attach my GPS to a small battery or small solar panel and carry it with me on foot ? Any help would be appreciated.

    • Ken February 19, 2014, 5:45 pm

      Check out buying a Garmin Rino. I have a Rino 520 hcx and it is pretty reliable and you get a frs radio besides the gps.

  • Slickpreps February 19, 2014, 2:53 pm

    This is one skill I have forgotten unfortunately. I have become far too dependent upon GPS.

  • Ken February 19, 2014, 5:56 pm

    I don’t like to use the GPS on my phone unless I am driving. If I am in the woods then I probably do not have reception anyways.

    I like using my Garmin Rino 520. Its antenna is great at picking up the satellite signals even if I am under heavy cover or indoors. The FRS/GMRS Radio can get a little more than 2 miles in hilly terrain. I highly recommend the Rino 520/530

  • Chuck Findlay February 19, 2014, 9:08 pm

    I don;’t have a smart phone with a GPS, don’t want one. do have two GPS units, a Garman for the car and a Garman hand held (E-Trex something.) The car unit will only run a few min without outside power, it’s useless for cross country walking. The hand held one runs for 22 hours on a set of AAs. It’s black & white (grey scale) has a smaller screen then the car unit. But for hiking, kayaking or bike riding it’s perfect. I know it’s old by today’s standards, but it works well and did I mention I can run it got over 20-hours on a set of batteries?

  • Chuck Findlay February 19, 2014, 9:21 pm

    But I still have a compass on me almost all the time. And I can look at the trees to find direction day or night it works well.

  • Pineslayer February 20, 2014, 12:31 am

    I need to play with my Garmin more, it is nice, I am a Neanderthal.
    I love my compass and my sense of direction. I really should learn the tech for the sake of learning. Funny timing for me as I got a book today entitled, “Staying Found”. The complete map and compass handbook, by June Fleming.

  • Don February 20, 2014, 4:26 pm

    I am way too old school to buy a phone. I learned how to navigate with a compass in The Army and I have kept that skill fresh for over 25 years. why try to fix something that has proven itself for thousands of years?


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