My choice for a micro compass for backpacking

One of the smallest things in my gear list is a micro compass. Before I will tell you why I prefer a micro compass above a normal magnetic baseplate compass for backpacking, let see how the thing looks like.

Clipper micro compass from Recta.

The micro compass I own is the Clipper from Recta. It is really tiny by only measuring 30x25x10mm and has a weight of only five grams. So the weight savings over an usual compass, being it only marginal, is a nice bonus. It has a clip attachment which makes it possible to clip the compass on a strap on your backpack, a sleeve of a jacket, on the edge of a map or most preferable on the wrist band of a watch. The clip attachment is intended for straps and wristbands not wider than 22mm. However I find that this locking mechanism does fix the compass also really well on many straps wider than 22mm, a map or a sleeve, even though it may fall off if you’re not cautious. It has a rotating bezel with scale markings every ten degrees. The compass needle is very responsive which is necessary I think for such a small compass. Otherwise an “accurate” reading becomes even more troublesome seen the scale markings and size of the compass. More on this later. The only small disadvantage I have noticed while wearing it on the wristband of my watch is that it started to irritate on my skin if I tighten the wristband too much on my wrist. So I keep my watch a bit more loose on my wrist what stops the irritation.

Clipper clipped on the wristband of the Techtrail Loft outdoor watch.

Micro compasses don’t seem to be a wide business so to speak and the other tiny compasses you find usually lack in basic functions the Clipper still has. The Commet from Recta is the only other micro compass on the market comparable to the Clipper I am aware of. Suunto used to offer the same micro compasses like Recta (Suunto Comet and Clipper), but they are no longer in production these days. The Comet is exactly the same compass as the Clipper. It only differs from the Clipper by not having the clip attachment. It has a small thermometer with short ruler attached to the compass instead.

Clipper clipped on a map.

Now, why have I ever considered choosing such a small thing and don’t use a normal baseplate compass or a GPS for backpacking in three season conditions? While GPS devices seem to have become quite popular these days, a map and compass should remain the tool everyone could handle for navigation in my opinion. GPS devices undoubtedly have their benefits next to a map and compass in extreme winter conditions and for off trail hiking in vast dense forests or in fog on vast plains, though a GPS also has its limitations. For me being weight and the possibility of empty batteries as the two main concerns not choosing a GPS device for normal three season conditions. Furthermore solely relying on a GPS without a map and compass as a back up can bring you in an unpleasant situation or even the worst in danger. So in summary, orientation and navigation skills with a map and compass are rather essential for backpacking, especially when going off trails.

This I was also learned on a mountaineering class I followed years ago. Needless to say there was a large chapter dealing with orientation and navigation, including a day of practicing the theorie in the field. Everyone attending the class was obliged to own a transparent baseplate compass with a least a rotating bezel with north lines and markings at least every two degrees (mine had a three degrees interval so I did not follow the rule). A declination scale or a prismatic compass was optional.

Now, it seems obvious that such a compass what allows an accurate reading is necessary for mountaineering or specific orienteering. For normal backpacking, even off trail, the need for a sophisticated compass may be different in practice. That is what I learned myself while backpacking over the years. For years I’ve been using a baseplate compass before switching to the Clipper.

My 19 years old baseplate compass next to the Clipper.

The Clipper micro compass has a rotating bezel where the markings have an interval of only ten degrees. Together with the very small size of the compass, this doesn’t sound like you can make an accurate bearing with it. That is indeed the main disadvantage you have to deal with when using such a micro compass. For me however, I don’t really feel the need for very accurate bearings in the field. Let’s explain my findings. I’ve noticed that in practice it is just impossible for a solo hiker or even for a group of hikers to keep walking in a straight line while trying to maintain the same direction with the compass in fog or dense forest. Many people seem to deviate from the direction they try to follow even without noticing it. Furthermore terrain obstacles like rocks, trees, bush, swamps can make it impossible to keep walking in a straight line. Circumventing those obstacles by making additional bearings is only inducing new errors and is often in practice time consuming if you want to do it as exactly as possible. Moreover, usually I don’t need to follow a direction accurately while hiking off trail. Deviating a bit usually doesn’t make a serious problem. In case of orienteering where you have to find a specific object on an exact location this becomes another story, but not for normal backpacking.

A few years ago I participated in a mountaineering course in the Austrian Alps were we made a week long trip on glaciers walking from mountain hut to hut while climbing peaks during the day. On several days the weather was not always ideal and we crossed a few glaciers in a white out. This was off course the ideal opportunity to test the theorie in practice. So we crossed those glaciers, each roped team on its own, by letting the last person in the team walk with the compass, giving instructions to the person in the front to maintain the right direction. Afterwards when we crossed the glacier the weather improved and we climbed a peak above the glacier. From the summit we all had a view on our tracks over the glacier and were surprised by what we saw. None of our tracks went in a straight line! Seen over the entire length all of them deviated to either right or left from the proposed direction and some even not by a negligible amount. Even one team had made an insanely meandering track. It was so exaggerated that we even couldn’t believe they had not been crossing the glacier carelessly. However the guys in the team claimed they really had not been making a joke. Navigating in a straight line and trying to keep the same direction seems to be very hard in a group. Now if exact navigation is impossible in a group, then it is even so for a solo hiker. I’ve tested this myself a few times on the snow by trying to navigate on the compass in good visibility while keep looking at my feet over a long stretch so I couldn’t correct my track by orienting on the surroundings. My track usually slowly deviates to the left. So that leads me to think why should I make use of an accurate compass if practical use proves these accurate bearings often don’t come into its own?

Dag 4: Vernagthütte (2766m) - Rauhekopfhütte (2732m)
Glacier walking in fog while navigating on compass trying to complete a pre-written roadmap.

Furthermore before I was using the micro compass I noticed I often didn’t use my baseplate compass at all. I developed the habit to hike with the map in a ziploc bag to protect it from rain. This I keep in a pocket somewhere in my clothes when I don’t need the map while walking. Sometimes I put the compass on the map in the plastic bag, but I soon noticed I found this annoying every time the compass obstructed the view onto that part of the map covered by the compass each time I wanted to throw a quick look on the map. So I often ended with the compass put in the plastic bag on the other side of the map, in another pocket in my clothes or even in my backpack and in all these circumstances not even using it for the entire trip. This made me think why taking the weight of this compass with me while I am not actually using it? Furthermore, if I have to think about every situation where I really needed a compass to navigate over all the years, I can only remember a few situations and all those situations were winter trips in the snow where I did not have a GPS with me. In all those situations dense fog or vast forest were the elements that made orientation and navigation a hard task. On all other trips in three season conditions where orientation has been difficult, eventually I could always find an object somewhere in the field which could make my position on the map at least approximately correct without using the compass.

Dachstein 200902
On this winter trip on the forested Austrian Dachstein plateau I didn’t have a GPS with me. I tried to navigate with map and compass even though the dense forest and complex karst topography on the plateau made it impossible to know my exact location. At the end I was snowshoeing for two days without knowing exactly where I was. But by just keep going northeast I finally reached the edge of the plateau where I continued along the edge until I found a place where I could start descending down. An accurate compass does not come into its own in such a situation.

Now I could not justify going completely without a compass, so eventually I tried switching to a micro compass which now has the great advantage for me I can clip it on the wristband of my outdoor watch so I can consult it immediately when needed while it never hinders while walking or doing any other task like checking the map. I’ve been using this micro compass for two years now and I must say I even enjoy walking with it. I notice I check the direction regularly while hiking off trails just by lifting my arm before my face while keeping the compass horizontally, while before I even didn’t bother spending the time with looking at my baseplate compass. It has not only changed the frequency I use a compass now, it has also changed my style of navigating off trail in a positive way.

So if you ever find you have comparable experiences like me when you take a compass with you while walking and actually almost never make use of it, maybe you can consider a micro compass if you don’t feel the necessity for very accurate bearings. For me this micro compass is obviously an improvement on my gear list since at least I now use a compass regularly while walking and I don’t have an arguable item anymore on my gear list which doesn’t seem to justify its weight. For those interested, the Clipper can be bought from Ultralight outdoorgear.

Tarping with the Grace solo Spinntex .97

In June 2007 I bought myself a lightweight solo tarp, the Grace solo Spinntex .97 tarp from MLD, which was later on replaced by the Grace solo spinntex EXP (EXP stands for a slightly different spinntex fabric). Today Ron Bell no longer offers the spinntex version what I regret. The years before I started with tarping I had only used a Hilleberg Akto tent. At that time I wasn’t yet hiking lightweight, but the desire to be able to sleep very high in the mountains and why not on top of a rocky mountain summit where it’s impossible to pitch a tent, convinced me to search for an alternative for the Akto. And as I wanted to start going lighter, I decided to try a lightweight combination of a bivy bag and a solo tarp. In this system the bivy bag acts as a barrier against the wind and insects and the tarp acts as rain protection and prevents formation of condensation in the bivy bag during sky clear nights.

Greenland 2009: Tasermiut fjord & Cape Farvel
The tarp pitched on the edge of a terrace above Itillersuaq valley in Greenland.

Greenland 2009: Tasermiut fjord & Cape Farvel
On top of the mountain ridge above Aappilattup Avanna fjord.

Greenland 2009: Tasermiut fjord & Cape Farvel
On the rocks in the couloir under a mountain pass in Greenland.

Now, four years later and a lot of tarping experience richer, I can ensure you it’s a joy to use such a small and lightweight tarp. The views you get from under the tarp and the possibilities to tarp very high on a mountain in exposed rocky terrain makes it indispensable for me compared to a tent. What I enjoy the most is the ability to admire the sunset and sunrise from the tarp while standing high above a valley or on a mountain. At one night in Sarek I awoke from a slowly approaching reindeer herd grazing nearby in the valley. They didn’t seem to be afraid of my tarp and a few moments later I became surrounded in the middle of the herd. A few reindeer came so close to the tarp eating berries, that I could have touched their heads with my hand if I wanted to, but instead I just remained quietly smiling in my bivy bag watching the animals eating in the dark. Than later on when the herd slowly moved away from the tarp, I suddenly heard a running reindeer approaching. She had separated from the herd and wanted to pass along the tarp. Because she was not able to notice the long guyline extending from the back side of the tarp, she suddenly tripped over the guyline, fell to the ground and let out a cry of fear. Then she got back at her four legs and finally joined the herd. This is one of those hilarious moments I’ll never forget about tarping in the wild.

Sarek 2008
On the summit of Tjågnårisvarasj (1207m) in Sarek with an incredible view in the Sarvesvagge.

Rocher d'Archiane
On Rocher d’Archiane in the Vercors next to the abyss.

Mont Aiguille
Sunrise on the summit of Roc de Peyrole (2016m) in the Vercors with Mont Aiguille (2087m), Belledone and Ecrins in the background.

But I have to admit, tarping with such a small tarp is not always that fun and comfortable so I think it will not be suitable for everyone. In july 2007 I took the tarp for the very first time on a long trip through Jotunheimen together with an MLD Soul bivy, the bivy bag I usually use with the tarp. The weather was depressing most of the time during that trip because of daily rain. It even did rain non stop for over 24 hours a few times during the trip. I experienced one serious storm with winds estimated to reach 90km/h or even more. I received the tarp from MLD just a week before the trip, so I didn’t had the opportunity to make a test under wet and windy conditions before heading to Norway. But once on that trip in Jotunheimen, I rapidly learned how to make a bivouac with such a small tarp in extended rain and winds without experiencing any real problems. People would normally choose a tarp with beaks or a shelter for more protection if they will expect rain and wind. But I can tell you, a solo tarp will work as well but will not be as comfortable in every situation though I have to admit.

Greenland 2009: Mellem Landet
Bivouac along Qooqqup Sermia glacier on Mellem Landet in Greenland. Here I only had a thin and small carpet of moss growing on the rocks to ditch the stakes.

Sarek 2008
Windy bivouac in Sareks Jiegnavagge. Note the wall of rocks at the back side of the tarp for protection against the wind.

The grace tarps are not rectangular but are wider in the front than at the back side. This means you can only pitch the tarp in an A-frame or keep the back side to the ground. I bought the tarp with the back pole option but I’ve never used the tarp with the pole yet and probably never will. In case of rain I keep the sides of the tarp low to the ground. This reduces the risk of rain splash wetting my bivy bag. When there is a lot of wind I often search for some rocks on the ground and build a wall against the back side of the tarp. This acts as a windshield and works pretty well and in case of rain the wall prevents the rain drops from wetting the back of my bivy bag. The drawback is that you’ll have to spend a few minutes to collect rocks and construct the wall.

Karwendel 201105
In the Lamskar in the Karwendel while a wall of rocks and snow protects against a cold breeze.

Bivak Høgbrøthøgde
On the south slope of Høgbrøthøgde (1821m) in Jotunheimen with view on the frozen Store Mjølkedalsvatnet (1340m). For protection against the rain and wind I’ve pitched the back side rather low and constructed a wall for extra comfort.

Greenland 2009: Tasermiut fjord & Cape Farvel
On the col above Klosterdalen in Greenland with the towers of Ketil (2005m) towering above the other side of the valley. A large wall of rocks previously constructed by people can be used to block the wind too.

In some areas on the tundra, rocks are absent or you are not able to pull them out. In case of a rainstorm in such a situation, I pitch the back side of the tarp to the ground. The inner space under the tarp is very reduced in this case and you cannot move around under the tarp which is rather inconvenient if you have to change clothes. That’s the negative side. Another option is to search for a rock face or a very large boulder and pitch the tarp in the leeside of the rock in an A-frame. The boulder acts as a wind break and collects the horizontal rain in the storm. This has not always worked well for me though because the boulder really needs to be very large. In Jotunheimen I’ve made a bivouac sheltered behind a huge rock once, which protected the tarp perfectly both from wind and rain. The next time I had to search for a large boulder in a rainstorm happened in Sarek and I had a bad experience that time. The boulder was too small, only a few meters wide, and that caused very turbulent winds in the leeside of the boulder. Rain splashed under the tarp and my sleeping bag became a bit moist. In such case you better move the tarp in the wind and pitch the back side to the ground.

Bivak Gjende
At lake Gjende (984m) in Jotunheimen. This was my very first night under the Grace solo tarp and because there was a lot of wind and I was not able to construct a wall of stones against the back side of the tarp, I kept the back side against the ground.

The really arduous situation where it becomes awkward with such a small tarp is under a heavy rain shower or thunderstorm. Rain splash will inevitably jump under the tarp wetting everything as will be the case with hail stones. Moreover, thunderstorms in the mountains are often companied with severe wind gusts which can blow from any direction, making it even more difficult to stay dry under the tarp and augmenting the risk of pulling out the stakes blowing the tarp away. Until now, I’ve only experienced one thunderstorm with hail while on a trip with the Grace solo tarp. That was in the Vanoise area in the Frensh Alps. So for a longer summer trip in the mountains at mid latitudes where you cannot rule out the risk of a heavy shower, I wouldn’t trust on such a small tarp anymore unless you want to use a waterproof breathable bivy bag completely made from eVent or similar fabrics or if you have additional beaks to change the tarp into a fully enclosed shelter, this might work too. A shelter like the trailstar or a mid seems better to me than an open tarp in this case. Heavy rain showers rarely occur in the regions around the polar circle on the other hand. So it’s still possible to use a small solo tarp in those areas if you can deal with the afore mentioned minor drawbacks should you experience stormy weather.

Sarek 201009
On the snow in Sarek’s Basstavagge. Here the snow was wet so it was an easy job to pitch the tarp onto a wall of snow to remain sheltered from the freezing wind.

Despite the fact a tarp is only recommended for 3-season use, the Grace solo tarp can handle wet snow pretty well as long as there isn’t too much wind and you’ve pitched the two panels rather steep so most of the snow slides from the shelter by itself. Really dry snowfall like is mostly the case during winter, can be very problematic because the snow might blow under the tarp accumulating against the bivy bag. I’ve experienced a snowstorm once during a late October trip in the Pyrenees and after a few hours I got completely buried under the snow in my bivy bag because of heavy accumulation under the tarp. Below treeline however a tarp might still be comfortable during winter as long as there is no heavy snowfall, though I’ve never tarped in the snow in a forest yet.

Sarek 2008
Cold morning at the lake Snavvajavvre (977m) in Sarek after a night with wintery showers.

I chose the spinntex version over silnylon or cuben fibre. Cuben was to expensive for me and silnylon looked a lot heavier. Besides I don’t like the idea of a tarp becoming slack because of the stretching of silnylon when the humidity increases during the night as is mostly the case. Its durability looks acceptable for me till now, even though Spinntex is not as durable as silnylon. If you choose a spinntex version there is one thing you should definitely check before each serious trip and that’s its waterproofness. Under a silnylon tarp or shelter with a weathered coating you will probably experience some misting in case of rain. Spinntex has bigger micropores than silnylon so under spinntex with a weathered coating you will not experience misting but rain! I can speak from experience unfortunately. Fortunately strengthening the coating is not difficult and doesn’t take much time like I’ve described earlier in applying a new silicone coating to the tarp.

Sarek 201009
In Sareks Ruohtesvagge. On that trip the tarp leaked twice in moderate rain because of a weathered coating. I had tape taped on the ridgeline because at that moment I still thought the tarp leaked through its seam. A few nights later however, the reality became clear.

If I would have to choose a new tarp today, I wouldn’t choose the Grace solo tarp anymore though. To get a little more protection and a bit more pitching options, I would choose a slightly larger rectangular tarp to be able to pitch like a half pyramid. For long trips with the risk of really inclement weather or thunderstorms, I now use a trailstar instead. But as long as my Grace solo Spinntex .97 is not worn out, I will still remain sleeping under it as a happy user. And to end a few more tarping pictures from my Greenland trip.

Greenland 2009: Tasermiut fjord & Cape Farvel
Morning at the edge of the abyss above Aappilattup Avanna.

Greenland 2009: Tasermiut fjord & Cape Farvel
On the mountain slope above Itillersuaq valley. If you are able to find a small place for your body to lie down, it will even become possible to sleep on a slope.

Greenland 2009: Tasermiut fjord & Cape Farvel
On the hill Qalutaassuaq (245m) with the lake Tasersuaq and the surrounding mountain peaks in the distance.

Trying a new pair of trail runners: Inov8 Flyroc 310

My first pair of mesh trail runners, the Salomons XA Pro 3D Ultra, are about a year old now. They are still in a fairly good shape but not good enough anymore for a 5 week trip in the rough mountainous part of Northern Norway. So I decided to search for a new pair. Why not try something different, and explore another brand? A lot of praise can be heard about the trail runners of Inov8. After a bit of research the Flyroc 310 looked to fit my needs best.

Inov8 Flyroc 310

Inov8 Flyroc 310

Unfortunately there are only a few stores in Belgium that list the Inov8 brand and none of them have the more interesting Inov8 shoes for serious hiking like the Roclites 285, 295, 315, the Flyroc 310 or the Terroc 330. I went to one of the Belgian retailers and searched the right fit for me in a Mudclaw 272. I asked them if they could order a Flyroc 310 but for the price they asked you can better forget about it. So I ordered my pair online in the UK.

Inov8 Flyroc 310

Trail runners must be bought large. In warm weather your feet will swell and in cold environments you want to wear thick wool socks or even a gore-tex sock. In the store, wearing a thick pair of wool socks, a size UK9.5 fitted right for me so I ordered a UK10. They weigh 774g.

Inov8 Flyroc 310

I’ve hiked in them all the time on the trip through the Karwendel. They fit perfect and are a joy on my feet. Rock climbing over cable sections was no problem. I even wore flexible crampons on the Flyroc’s to climb over steep frozen snow in the morning hours (more about this in a later post). They also dry out a lot faster than my XA’s after packrafting. So far they don’t show any serious trace of wear. So it seems I’ve found my perfect pair of trail runners for my upcoming long trip this summer!