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Using just a compass for navigation

Old 02-21-21, 07:51 PM
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Using just a compass for navigation

A young Davy Crocket fan from next door asked me if I could cross the country (USA) with just a compass and my bike. I said sure, it is possible. Then I got to thinking and am now wondering just how could it be done and how long it would take. Anyone out there care to guess? I am thinking 6 to 8 months. The high population areas will be tough to navigate without getting killed.
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Old 02-21-21, 08:58 PM
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I don't quite understand the criteria. Are maps allowed? What about the rest of your normal touring and camping gear? Or are strictly limited to "just a compass and a bike?"

If maps aren't allowed, you ask locals along the way and take notes, as I'm sure Davy Crockett did. My last coast-to-coast ride of 4400 miles took eight weeks. If I had to poke around looking for unknown routes, I can't imagine it taking even twice as long.

I'd be more concerned about crossing the deserts and mountain ranges than urban areas. Cities are relatively easy to skirt.
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Old 02-21-21, 09:27 PM
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I'm sure you could cross the US without a compass even. Ride roads that go in the direction you want and if you need to even figure out what direction you need to head, look at the sun. Keep doing that until you reach an ocean.
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Old 02-21-21, 11:00 PM
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Seems like it would be an interesting challenge. You might end up on some dead ends and have to back track, but I'm sure you would have some adventures.
I think asking people would be cheating. A large prcentage of people have no idea where they are or what direction to go to get somewhere else. So it might not help anyway.
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Old 02-21-21, 11:09 PM
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Old 02-21-21, 11:17 PM
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I believe without a map, it would take much, much longer. As mentioned previously, you would hit a lot dead ends. I could not handle following a road going in the right direction and after 20 miles it ends in the middle of nowhere.
And yes, the early world explorers faced just that, for this reason they would be gone for years and many never came back
I was into orienteering when I was young, but in the bush, where I had to go from point A to B without trails or signage.
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Old 02-21-21, 11:46 PM
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I could image riding a number of roads and not even needing the compass. Don't know if they turn into real highways anywhere that would have to be avoided but I know 5 and 20 go from NY to Oregon and Washington, just ride one of those.
I've driven with nothing but a compass so I have to imagine a bike is more then possible just expect to add some time as you won't know the optimal route to take.
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Old 02-22-21, 01:20 AM
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I mean if you're just wandering or know a lot of the major routes then you can actually guess from there and even estimates detours at times. I ride all over my state without any navigation at all. Doing endurance rides for training before I ended up inadvertently becoming familiar with a wide area.
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Old 02-22-21, 01:28 AM
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There are these new things they have now - road signs. They'll tell you what cities next and how far away it is.

Or be like Lewis and Clark and hire Sacagawea.
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Old 02-22-21, 06:50 AM
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How do you cross the Mississippi? Finding a bridge might be time consuming.
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Old 02-22-21, 07:31 AM
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Yes it would be possible. One definite way to do it without any type of navigation would be to start on the east coast and ALWAYS turn right (or left, just the same direction) whenever possible at an intersection. If the new road dead-ends at the water or a national border or just a dead end, just turn around go back to the the last intersection you came to and turn right again. Eventually, you would actually end up circling the entire lower 48. It sure would take a really long time but it could be done. My guess is you could shorten it to where the road had to be paved. It would still work but be a lot quicker I would guess since you are eliminating tons of roads.

That said, if a person already knows the geography, it would probably only take only 10% more assuming you are allowed to read road signs. I mean if you head out from Jacksonville, FL, and follow signs to Tallahassee, Pensacola, New Orleans, Houston, Austin, etc. it would be pretty easy.
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Old 02-22-21, 07:58 AM
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Don't even need a compass. The rising and setting sun would tell you east and west. Mid day in North America would be tougher as the sun is nearly overhead and it's time consuming to determine in which direction it's moving. Crossing the Mississippi would be hit and miss finding a bridge for bikes. Eventually you'd hit the Pacific, somewhere between San Diego and Seattle. Might be dangerous crossing sections of the SW desert in summer if you veer in that direction. Dead end roads would be tiresome. It would help to have a general knowledge of the geography and terrain features of the U.S.

I love and read maps so have a good handle on the layout and directions of the National Routes, I.E. US 20, US 30 etc...And would pick one and use that. I think 20 would be a workable route.
It would be an interesting challenge.
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Old 02-22-21, 08:02 AM
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Just a compass and a bike?

I would worry more about being cited for indecent exposure (*) and not having anything to put air in my tires if they went flat than I would about getting lost or how long it might take.

Now if I could bring clothes, money, bike gear and interact with people, I don't think it would be too tough to look at the signs. A combination of following routes with signs that say "East" or "West" and calibrating with place names I recognize could lead one reasonably well across the US. This notion that roads somehow dead-end becomes less true when thinking of the of the larger routes. The harder part would likely be getting *out* of largest urban areas.

(*) Or depending on time of year, just plain exposure.
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Old 02-22-21, 08:06 AM
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Compass schmumpus, I challenge you to do it with just the compass AND only using one of those old grampy made water finding stick/ wand things (to find water to drink), then I'll be impressed.

Last edited by djb; 02-22-21 at 08:57 AM.
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Old 02-22-21, 08:51 AM
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Originally Posted by djb
Compass schmumpus, I challenge you to do it with just the compass AND only using one of those old grampy made water finding stick/ wand things, then I'll be impressed.
So you ride the dowsing rod like a hobby horse?
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Old 02-22-21, 08:54 AM
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Map and compass or just compass? If just compass that means your just traveling cardinal directions....about as effective as doing by the location of the sun as there are no other references such as terrain association (need a map), etc.
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Old 02-22-21, 08:58 AM
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Originally Posted by Unca_Sam
So you ride the dowsing rod like a hobby horse?
yup, writing/expressing an ideal fail on my part.....(edited it)
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Old 02-22-21, 09:13 AM
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Your real problems would not be the Mississippi river. That you have to cross once. Your real problem would in trying to cross anywhere in central Appalachia, That area is steep parallel ridges running NE to SW with the routes being water gaps. It's like crossing the Mississippi river every 10 miles unless you are on a known busy highway. Asking for directions there is mind boggling. The standard answer without so much as a casual care is. "You can't get there from here". Translation: "Its like taking the tonsils out through the ars hole. It's theoretically possible but I damned sure would not try it on that thing you are riding. Its 20 miles out of the way, all steep hills and curves with no shoulders or guard rails. There are shortcuts but you would get lost or find the Movie Deliverance has some truth to it "
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Old 02-22-21, 09:18 AM
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Sure could be done, and I suspect without too much difficulty. Probably a lot of mistakes and wrong turns at the beginning of the trip, but as time when went on and the rider gained experience navigation would be a lot smoother.
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Old 02-22-21, 09:48 AM
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Depending on your starting point, you could head north or south until you hit US Route 30. It runs from Astoria, Oregon to Atlantic City, NJ. Not saying it's the perfect bike route (it would be hell going over the mountains in PA), but it would get you there.
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Old 02-22-21, 10:30 AM
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Depends on the rules... The southern states would be the fastest and easiest. Starting in the east you could just follow US-90 as far as it went and generally head west from there. Your 6-8 month number sounds really high, That sounds more like walking across the country. You could manage it in a couple months without doing super long miles, You wouldn't really need a compass but one would be nice at times.

In any case you could avoid too much back tracking by staying on more major roads than you might otherwise choose. I kind of like roads with the US designation any way so for example US 90 is a good way to go. If you insist on a particular part of the country or really minor roads more backtracking will likely occur. For example, there are very few roads crossing Idaho.

It would actually be pretty fast and easy. The toughest part would be the Sierras, but getting over the mountains is much easier along the southern tier.
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Old 02-22-21, 10:33 AM
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Originally Posted by Steve B.
Don't even need a compass. The rising and setting sun would tell you east and west. Mid day in North America would be tougher as the sun is nearly overhead and it's time consuming to determine in which direction it's moving. Crossing the Mississippi would be hit and miss finding a bridge for bikes. Eventually you'd hit the Pacific, somewhere between San Diego and Seattle. Might be dangerous crossing sections of the SW desert in summer if you veer in that direction. Dead end roads would be tiresome. It would help to have a general knowledge of the geography and terrain features of the U.S.

I love and read maps so have a good handle on the layout and directions of the National Routes, I.E. US 20, US 30 etc...And would pick one and use that. I think 20 would be a workable route.
It would be an interesting challenge.

You are correct. My wife and I rode from Newport, Oregon to Boston on US 20 We didn't have a compass or a smart phone. However, we did have maps, usually state road maps, which were good for finding places to stay and campgrounds. The ride could have been done without maps, but would have resulted in more wild camping.

Last edited by Doug64; 02-22-21 at 10:37 AM.
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Old 02-22-21, 10:35 AM
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Originally Posted by andrewclaus
I don't quite understand the criteria. Are maps allowed? What about the rest of your normal touring and camping gear? Or are strictly limited to "just a compass and a bike?"

If maps aren't allowed, you ask locals along the way and take notes, as I'm sure Davy Crockett did. My last coast-to-coast ride of 4400 miles took eight weeks. If I had to poke around looking for unknown routes, I can't imagine it taking even twice as long.

I'd be more concerned about crossing the deserts and mountain ranges than urban areas. Cities are relatively easy to skirt.
Depending on luck of routing...out here, it is possible not to meet a soul for days on rural roads.

A few years back around Merritt reservoir in Nebraska I and a group of friends did a century. They were marked state highways and paved. In 8 hours we saw maybe 3 cars buzz by and not stop. And those were marked state highways near a national forest and reservoir rec area.
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Old 02-22-21, 11:26 AM
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Originally Posted by KPREN
Your real problems would not be the Mississippi river. That you have to cross once. Your real problem would in trying to cross anywhere in central Appalachia, That area is steep parallel ridges running NE to SW with the routes being water gaps. It's like crossing the Mississippi river every 10 miles unless you are on a known busy highway. Asking for directions there is mind boggling. The standard answer without so much as a casual care is. "You can't get there from here". Translation: "Its like taking the tonsils out through the ars hole. It's theoretically possible but I damned sure would not try it on that thing you are riding. Its 20 miles out of the way, all steep hills and curves with no shoulders or guard rails. There are shortcuts but you would get lost or find the Movie Deliverance has some truth to it "
Agree. I would be tempted to head N in PA and follow US Rt 6. It is far enough north to avoid most of those really annoying hills that go SW->NE. I've hear from folk that rode cross country, they said the Sierra's and Rockies were not as bad as the Appalachians..
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Old 02-22-21, 11:36 AM
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Originally Posted by Steve B.
Agree. I would be tempted to head N in PA and follow US Rt 6. It is far enough north to avoid most of those really annoying hills that go SW->NE. I've hear from folk that rode cross country, they said the Sierra's and Rockies were not as bad as the Appalachians..
My wife and I found that to be true. On this day in Appalachians, we rode over 3 hills that where a lot tougher than any thing we had to climb since leaving the west coast. This was the fourth hill that day, and I just pulled over and put my running shoes on and walked up it. As it turned out it was the last of the hard hills. The first thing I did when we got home was to change the 48/36/26 cranks to 44/32/22. It made a world of difference.


Last edited by Doug64; 02-22-21 at 11:40 AM.
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