Have you ever found yourself lost in the great outdoors? Even the most experienced hikers and survivalists can get lost from time to time. That’s why you need strong land navigation skills.
Years ago, I was in the US Army infantry. We learned basic land navigation skills from the start. After a decade of navigating in all types of environments, I feel extremely confident with a compass, map and pace count.
You will too after a little practice.
We’ll cover the basics of land navigation in this post. So, if you’ve ever been lost before, it’s time to boost your land navigation skills and prepare yourself for anything.
Table of Contents
What is land navigation?
Land navigation is a lifesaving skill that can save your life in an emergency. It involves using a map and compass to navigate your way through unfamiliar landscapes.
Land navigation skills are invaluable in many professions such as the military, orienteers and search and rescue personnel. You never know when you might get stuck out in the wilderness or need to navigate your way home after a hike.
Though mastering the fundamentals of land navigation may appear straightforward, it takes practice and repetition to develop your ability to determine direction without using tools.
In the military, recruits learn the basic skills of land navigation during boot camp before progressing to more advanced training. In fact, every leadership school I attended required a land nav course. The Army canceled it for a while, but luckily, they are bringing navigation back. Expert Infantryman Badge testing, pre-Ranger school, Ranger School and other schools require the ability to navigate as well.
On a typical course of military training, students must successfully complete multiple day and night land nav exercises in various weather conditions, rough terrain settings, and hilly regions.
Even if you haven’t undergone military or orienteering training, being able to navigate unfamiliar terrain is an essential skill for anyone spending time outdoors. Hikers often lose trails, hunters get lost, and canoers often end up stuck on rivers with no assistance or resources nearby.
Basics of land navigation
Outdoor adventurers or survivalists must possess basic land nav skills. If you get lost while hiking or become stranded in the wild, knowing how to find your way back home is a blessing.
Land navigation, also referred to as pathfinding, requires the use of maps and a compass to navigate unfamiliar terrain.
Land navigation techniques vary based on terrain and situation. For instance, if you’re lost in the woods, you might opt to search for landmarks or stars in the sky to guide you a route back home.
Celestial navigation, which relies on stars and planets to determine your location, is an ancient method that takes into account many variables. Unfortunately, it’s one of the most challenging to master.
These methods remain invaluable, particularly in remote parts of the world where satellite signals might not reach you. I saw the early GPS systems fail to get past the triple canopy of the jungle in Panama. You can use both stars and a compass to guide and orient yourself towards Earth’s magnetic poles.
Another essential technique for land navigation is water crossings. If you get lost in the forest, for instance, there’s likely to be a creek or river nearby that can help guide you back home.
In the future, we’ll write a full land nav course to cover all of it. Yes, it’ll be free. We’ll teach you everything we learned in the Army, hunting and living in the arctic.
Basics of map reading
Map reading and navigation are valuable skills that can be learned and developed, making them invaluable assets to those who spend a lot of time outdoors.
Maps come in many varieties, but they all share certain fundamental qualities. They should have a scale, colors that indicate various land features and contour lines to depict elevation changes.
Furthermore, maps need a legend – or key – which explains what each symbol on the map signifies so you can read it correctly.
They’ll also have squares of an area depending on the type. These are called a grid square. In the military we used 1:50,000 scale. In the civilian world, we generally use 1:24,000 scale. These can come in handy with a protractor for finding an azimuth for route planning.
Map scale refers to the mathematical relationship between land represented and distances marked on the map. To ensure accurate distances are shown correctly on a map, they should always be read right-side up (i.e., north and south).
Colors are used to depict different land features. Green, yellow or brown are typically used for land features above sea level and black, red or purple for those below.
Contour lines are squiggly lines with numbers next to them that indicate elevation changes. They usually form shapes resembling concentric circles and can be easily identified due to their distinctive appearance.
You will notice that the squiggly lines are closely spaced, signifying a steep slope; conversely, lines spaced farther apart indicate an easier gradient. The numbers next to each line indicate how high above sea level that point on the map is situated.
Orienting a map is an essential skill that all map readers should master. This method involves orienting it by use of a compass or aligning with key terrain features.
Basics of compass reading
A compass is a key tool for land navigation. It consists of three parts: a base plate, rotating housing and magnetic needle that points towards Earth’s magnetic north pole. Additionally, there’s an orienting arrow that rotates with the housing as well as a degree dial marked in degrees.
First and foremost, you need to learn how to utilize a compass properly. That includes understanding the various types of compasses, their basic functions, as well as how to read a compass map.
The magnetic needle is the most crucial element of a compass. As Earth’s magnetic field exerts torque on this needle, pulling it slightly toward North and South magnetic poles.
Its northern-pointing end is typically painted red, while its southern-pointing end is typically white. You must always double check to make sure which end of the needle points towards magnetic north or north.
Another essential element of a compass is the index line. This extends the direction of travel arrow, so it can be used to take bearings from two or more landmarks on one page of a map.
Once you have the bearing from a landmark, it is easy to locate your position on a map. This process is known as re-sectioning.
Repeating the same process with other landmarks on a map to locate yourself even farther away. This technique, known as triangulation, is an excellent way to build up your location on the map.
Once again, remember that a compass does not point directly north but rather towards the magnetic North pole. Depending on where you are located, this may differ by as much as 20 degrees!
It is essential to keep your compass at least a foot away from metal or electronics that could interfere with its heading. Furthermore, make sure it’s oriented so you can clearly view accurate readings and make navigation much smoother.
Final Thoughts on Land Navigation Skills
In conclusion, basic land navigation is an essential skill for anyone who ventures out in the wild whether it be in the arctic, forest, jungle or the desolate desert. Understanding how to use a map and compass, avoiding common mistakes, and navigating without a compass are all vital techniques you should learn.
As you continue to develop your land navigation skills, don’t be afraid to seek out additional resources or training. You’ll become more confident after practicing for a while.
So, if you’ve ever been lost before, it’s time to take action and improve your land navigation skills. With the techniques and tips outlined in this guide, you can navigate with confidence and increase your chances of survival in any outdoor environment.