How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love my Compass

An embarrassing camping moment…

With all due respect to Stanley Kubrick, this is a tale about what happened when I failed to follow plan C (for Compass).DSC_0084ces400

I was backpacking with my son’s Boy Scout troop in Harriman State Park and it was a beautiful moonlit night in mid-November. Most of the boys were camped in the lean-to and a few were in tents right next to it. As is our practice the adults were camped separately, on this occasion about 200 feet away.

At bedtime I made a quick “separation” break into the woods about 150 – 200 feet from my tent in the opposite direction from the shelter. Aided by the bright moonlight, I found a nice clump of rocks to go behind and then easily walked back to my tent.

In the middle of the night, nature called again. By this time the moon was gone and a thick fog had developed. Wearing a headlamp, I headed in the direction where I knew to find the rocks and this time counted my paces. I had no problem walking to the same set of rocks. When I was ready to return to my tent, I reversed direction and counted out the same number of paces. Where I should have found my tent, there was nothing but foggy woods. Wary of continuing to walk in the wrong direction I reversed and found the “separation rocks” again, although it took a bit of searching. Trying again, this time I was more careful in counting my paces back in the correct direction where I knew my tent to be. It still wasn’t there. Even with a headlamp, everything looked different in the fog; I was disoriented.

I found my way back to the rocks again and mulled my options. I couldn’t be far from the tent and just by staying put until daylight I’d eventually be able to find the campsite in a heartbeat. However, I’d been looking forward to a great night’s sleep in the woods and standing around a pile of rocks stamping my feet to stay warm for hours wasn’t what I’d had in mind so I devised a strategy of taking short trips out and back from the rocks to see if I recognized anything. After about 30 minutes of tentative exploration I recognized a rock feature that I knew was very close to the tents and my late night wandering finally ended. The risk I took, even with my cautious strategy, was that wandering could take me farther from the tent site to the point that I’d still be lost after the sun came up.

In the past, I’ve carried a compass in similar situations and used a bearing to and from a late night excursion, but on this occasion I had let the full moon lure me into a trap.

Now I ain’t much of a hand at makin’ speeches. But I got a pretty fair idea that there’s something doggoned important about keeping your compass on hand at all times in the back country. (Thanks again Stanley…and Slim).