Map and Compass Course Sets Path to Hunter Confidence

Map and Compass Course Sets Path to Hunter Confidence

To celebrate National Hunting and Fishing Day on Sept. 22, I attended a free Map, Compass and Survival Course offered through the Massachusetts Division of Fish and Wildlife’s Hunter Education Program. Students were required to dress for the weather and bring a lunch, water, sunscreen and insect repellant, but everything else would be provided at no cost. It was a three-hour drive from where I live to the state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation West Region Headquarters Visitor Center in Pittsfield, so I packed a lunch, downloaded “The Best Hunting Stories Ever Told,” edited by Jay Cassell and narrated by Jason Culp, and set out at zero-430.

Culp, using his best Teddy Roosevelt voice, took me on many a—by today’s standards, overindulgent—hunting adventure as the miles and time passed. When the sun rose, it looked to be a gray New England day, clear but not sunny, damp but not cold. Ironically, Google maps took me right by the Visitor Center and into the woods. Since the first part of the day would be spent in a classroom, I knew to U-turn back to the building.

Getting Oriented

Participants were loaned a compass and given printed handouts of course materials. We immediately got to work. The exercise was to line up the edge of our compasses from, say, Point 6 to Point 9, orient the bezel to north and record the bearing. Showing my age, I immediately oriented the map so Point 6 was at my center mass and Point 9 was heading away from me.

“Ah, we don’t do that anymore. Where did you learn that?” one instructor asked.

“The Army,” I answered.

He chuckled and called over one of the four volunteer instructors. Retired Lt. Col. John Green explained that it was okay to orient your map when you were out in the field, but that points were now plotted with north at the top of the page. Since I hadn’t absorbed much of whatever I learned in the Army, I adapted quickly. “Orient your compass, not your map,” I said. Green nodded.

Nobody mentioned to lean directly over your map, probably because this is not much of an issue for taller people. When you’re short and sitting at a table, it’s challenging to look straight down at your work. Kneeling or standing over your work helps. Normally, the preparatory work of plotting points can be done in the comfort of your home for greater accuracy. My other challenge came from being near-sighted; I took off my glasses to read the bearing. I got two different answers depending on whether both eyes were open or only my dominant eye. I never think about this when I shoot; it comes naturally. Now I had to be consistent with whatever method I chose.

A requisite discussion about the various norths came into play. A compass reads Magnetic North, which is always changing and can be thrown off by natural ores or manmade items such as belt buckles or firearms. Be careful if you’re planning your route on a metal table. Often we run out of daylight and want to head back from a different point than originally planned, or we see something we want to explore and have to insert a detour. If you have to set a bearing in the field, strip yourself of any metal and set it three feet away while you plot. Take the time to be precise. Being off a little at the start can result in missing points altogether when you consider degrees traveled over distance.

In western Massachusetts we were 14 degrees off True North and one degree off Grid North. We added those two numbers and subtracted the resulting 15 degrees from True North at 0/360 degrees, setting our bezel to 345 degrees. Although the instructors had done this next step for us, normally, you would then draw parallel lines on the section of map you would be using. These lines would be used to align your compass and accommodate the declination from True North. You want to do this at home—at your drafting table with a square rule if you have one—for accuracy’s sake.

The Universal Transverse Mercator (UTM) Grid had me giggling about grid squares, and right on cue one of the instructors shared a story about asking a clerk at an outdoor outfitter for UTM grids. The great thing is, you can actually buy them now. They’re made in clear plastic, which holds up better than hand-ticked rules made on card stock, which is what we used for measuring distances in the field. I doubt a single person actually used them, though. Most just bushwacked along their bearing until they reasoned by topographical association that they were close to their point and circled around looking for a wooden post painted white with a red top.

Survival over Lunch

Normally, a midday movie on outdoor survival is shown. It is the same one used in the Basic Hunter Safety Class, the only state-mandated class adult hunters must take before obtaining their first hunting license. When an audio-visual problem prevented its viewing, nobody minded. Most participants were licensed hunters who already had seen it. A discussion on survival and gear ensued. In Massachusetts, you can pretty much walk in the woods in one direction for five miles and encounter a road. That does not apply to other states where it may be better to carry everything you could need. Balance that with the fact that you can’t enjoy your scouting trip if you’re laden with half your body weight in gear.

Finding Our Way

After lunch, we broke into two- to three-person teams and were given our course. I joined an uncle and nephew from New Bedford. We plotted our points and compared bearings, coming within a few degrees of each other, before driving to the proving grounds. Apparently students in the past were not able to find their way to the field-exercise area. Either that or they wanted to abscond with one of the Commonwealth’s dwindling supply of compasses. Don’t be that person. A $15 to $25 investment is a small price to pay for a piece of equipment that can save your life. 

At the field, we first set our pace using a 100-foot mark-off. This is usually around 20 paces, which is from left (or right) footfall to left (or right) footfall. Then we were given a series of bearings and told to walk so many feet for each. In essence, we were supposed to land back at our starting point each time. You got a sense for how surprisingly accurate the system can be, but also how it easily could go awry.

The land we were traversing had catching features—a river and railroad tracks—to keep us contained. By the classroom instruction on topographic map-reading alone, one could make one’s way in the woods, most notably by reading contour lines and seeing how they applied to terrain steepness. The instructors covered understanding map colors and symbols, skirting obstacles and using your teammate to leapfrog along a bearing. Bearing means nothing if you deviate from the course. In thick woods this can be a challenge, so only going short distances using natural landmarks or your hunting buddy who you’ve verbally directed to be on point is the fastest method, no matter how slow it seems. Note to self: Use the grid square!

Hunting for a Spot

What proved challenging was the fact that the posts were planted 30 years ago. Where they were once in fields, they were now overtaken by woods. One post eluded us so we returned to a known point to head back to the vehicles, but not before an instructor came to check on us. In addition to being challenging, the afternoon was good exercise. My teammates and I worked well together.  

Acquiring Confidence

Michael Foley and Fran Tremblay are master instructors for this course. Along with Green and Ronald Rousseau, all four are volunteers who continue to dedicate their time to helping hunters and hikers like me stay safe in the woods. They also work together for a private volunteer rescue operation.

As hokey as it sounds, I cherish my graduate patch. I can’t wait to order a United States Geological Survey map and start practicing. Not only can Massachusetts’ free Map, Compass and Survival Course be taken repeatedly, but the actual course makes for good practice. Check out what your state has to offer. Staying safe outdoors one day may hinge on knowing how to use a map and compass to translate what is on your map to the surrounding area and pinpoint your location.

Editor’s Note: As the author notes, Massachusetts hunters—like hunters in all 50 states—are required to pass a basic hunter safety class before purchasing their first hunting license. Such courses are all thanks to the NRA, which in 1949 worked with the state of New York to develop America’s first-ever state-based hunter education curriculum. This is why hunter education cards at one time read, “NRA Hunter Safety.” In August 2017, the NRA took the next step, launching its free online hunter education course in Florida. The course is now available in multiple states as the NRA works to have it accepted by all 50 states within five years.