Easy Map Reading and Terrain Analysis for Survival Navigation

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When it comes to wilderness survival, the ability to navigate through unfamiliar terrain is essential. Map reading and terrain analysis are two of the most important skills for effective navigation in the wilderness.

By understanding topographic maps and analyzing the terrain, you can plan a route, avoid obstacles, and reach your destination safely. Additionally, using a compass in combination with map reading can help you determine direction and stay on course.

I was lucky to learn map reading skills hunting white tail deer at an early age and later, I was fortunate enough to develop my map reader skills further in the Army.

In this article, we will cover the very basics of map reading and terrain analysis for survival navigation. Whether you are an experienced outdoorsman or a beginner, these techniques will help you read a map, perform terrain analysis and plan a route.

Understanding Maps

Maps to me are just cool. However, they aren’t all equal when it comes to land navigation. Some are useless and all are useless if your map reading skills are nonexistent.

There are a ton of different maps that you might encounter that represent a geographic area. Depending on the map and it’s intended purpose will also determine the map projection. Map projection is how cartography is able to present a two dimensional map from a 3d world.

Useless maps for navigation:

Thematic maps are great for displaying data in a region. We’ve all seen the red states vs. blue states map during elections. These are thematic maps. Once again, not very useful when trying to get from

Weather maps show weather across a location, whether it be a state, country or region. Great for knowing what’s coming, but not much use in land navigation.

Maps for land navigation:

Road maps that depict major roads, city streets, railroad tracks and other man made features for traveling by vehicle.

Topographical maps are detailed maps that show the natural and man-made structures of an area. They are an important tool for navigation in the wilderness, as they provide a wealth of information about the terrain and surroundings.

Map Key

Most maps will have a map key or map legend that identifies map symbols and what they mean. These paper map elements sheds light on how to read the map.

Compass Rose

A compass rose is a depiction of north, south, east, and west directions. On topographic ones, it is often depicted with true north and magnetic north. True north is not the same as magnetic north.


This difference in the two is called the declination which is referenced in degrees.

Map Scale

The map scale refers to the ratio between the corresponding distance on the map and the actual distance on the ground. For example, a map with a scale of 1:24,000 means that one unit of distance on the map represents 24,000 units of distance on the ground.

Notice the contour interval. For this map, its 40 feet of elevation change from one line to the next.

Understanding the scale of a map is important for accurate route planning and distance estimation.

Contour lines of elevation

Contour lines are one of the most important features on a topographic map. They show the elevation and slope of the terrain, allowing you to understand the geographic information. They’ll give you a mental picture of the earth’s surface.

Each contour line represents a specific elevation, and the distance between contour lines represents the steepness of the slope. By reading contour lines, you can determine the difficulty of a route and plan accordingly.

Tips for selecting the right map for your needs

In a SHTF scenario, you’ll need good maps to keep you moving from point a to point b. You could always rely on GPS devices and digital maps until the batteries run out. we prefer the the good old fashioned laminated paper map.

The best plan is to have topographical maps of your home location and surrounding area. I have maps of my home location and two major routes to my bugout retreat so if I have to abandon the road system, I can still hit the right direction on foot or cross country by vehicle.

I wish I could have them all from Alaska to Florida, but it’s just not practical. See what works best for you in your situation.

Terrain Analysis Techniques

Terrain analysis involves using your map reading skills to analyze the terrain and plan a route. By understanding the features on a topographic map and analyzing the terrain, you can plan a safe and efficient route through the wilderness. Here are some techniques for terrain analysis:

Identifying natural features:

Topographic maps include a range of natural features such as rivers, mountains, and valleys. Identifying these features can help you plan a route and avoid obstacles.


Hills are easily identifiable and are depicted by circling contour lines until you get to the top contour line which will be a closed loop.



Spurs come off of hills and mountains. Their contour lines will always point down hill.



Draws or wadis depending if you’re deployed to the middle east will be between two spurs. Their contour lines will be pointing uphill.



A saddle is when there are two elevated hills side by side. It’s called a saddle due to its appearance with the low spot between the two hills.


Cliffs are depicted by extremely close contour lines and sometimes merging lines, indicating straight drop offs.

Cliff in the image with terrain dropping off sharply to the west.
Same area on Google Earth to show the cliff.

Water obstacles:

Water obstacles can very depending on the time of season and last rainfall. These can be canals, rivers, lakes, streams, swamps and oceans. They’ll be depicted in blue. Remember, they can change over time and instantly. In Colorado, we get flash floods during rain storms in the summer.

Identifying man-built features:

Man-made such as roads, buildings, and bridges can also be identified on a topographic map. These features can be helpful for navigation and can also indicate potential hazards or obstacles.

Route planning:

Once you have analyzed the terrain and identified the features on the map, you can plan a route. This involves selecting a path that avoids obstacles and takes advantage of natural and fabricated features.

Navigation during the route:

As you navigate along your chosen route, you can continue to use terrain analysis techniques to ensure you stay on course and avoid obstacles. In the military, we would use corridors, boundaries and phase lines as a tracker to ensure we stayed on course.

By using terrain analysis techniques, you can plan a safe and efficient route through the wilderness. By taking advantage of natural and man-made features and avoiding obstacles, you can reach your destination safely and confidently.

Combining Map Reading and Compass Navigation

A compass is an essential tool for navigation in the wilderness. It works by pointing towards magnetic north, allowing you to determine your direction and stay on course.

With it being magnetically driven, keep your compass away from metal objects to read accurately.

Here are some tips for using a compass in combination with map reading:

Orienting the map:

Before you can use a compass to navigate with a map, you need to orient the map so that it aligns with the terrain around you. This can be done by lining up the north arrow on the map with the compass needle.

Taking a bearing:

A bearing is the direction from one point to another. To take a bearing with a compass, you need to align the compass with the direction you want to travel and read the bearing from the compass.

Following a bearing:

Once you have taken a bearing, you can use the compass to follow that direction. This involves holding the compass level and following the bearing in the direction of travel.

I like to point an azimuth and see what it lines up with. It may be a large identifiable tree or bolder in the distance. Keep my pace count rolling and walk to the object. Once there, shoot the same azimuth and pick another object. Rinse and repeat.

Obviously this doesn’t work well when traveling in the dense jungle, bare desert or at night.

Adjusting for declination:

Declination is the difference between true north (the direction to the North Pole) and magnetic north (the direction that the compass points). Depending on your location, you may need to adjust your compass for declination to ensure accurate navigation.

Switch Hands Often

I try to rotate the compass from one hand to the next. I’ve found that keeping it in one hand all the time will get me veering off course. Don’t know if it’s a mind thing or any truth. I just know it works for me.

Try it out and see what you think. We’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

Panic Azimuth

A panic azimuth is a direction you’ll travel if you get lost and can’t find your location. For example, if you went off the road to the west to explore an area for elk hunting, you would be heading in a westerly direction. You would be traveling on an azimuth of roughly 270 degrees.

For this example, assuming the road you left runs north and south, your panic azimuth would be 90 degrees. In the event that you can’t get oriented, you could follow your panic azimuth to the road.

You probably won’t end up right where you left the road, but you’ll be able to regroup by walking the road until you find your original start point.

Using a compass in combination with map reading can help you determine direction and stay on course in the wilderness. By mastering these techniques, you can become a proficient navigator and confidently navigate through the terrain.

Using Pace Count

Pace count is a method of estimating distance traveled on foot. By counting your steps, you can estimate the distance you have traveled and use this information to navigate more accurately.

Here’s how to use pace count in combination with map reading and compass navigation:

Determine your pace:

To determine your pace count, measure the distance of 100 meters and count the number of steps you take to cover that distance. If you don’t have the space, measure out 50 meters which is 164 feet. Walk it and then take your steps and multiply by 2 to give you your pace count.

Start counting:

Once you know your pace count, you can start counting your steps to estimate the distance you have traveled.

My pace count is around 136 steps. But to keep things simple, I only count how many times my left foot hits the ground. So in reality, for me, my pace count is 68. Your pace count may be different than mine.

By only counting your left foot, it’ll be easier counting when out for a 3800 meter hike.

Adjust for terrain:

Keep in mind that your pace count may vary depending on the terrain you are traveling on. Uphill and downhill sections, as well as rough terrain, can affect your pace count. Be sure to adjust your pace count accordingly.

Using pace count in combination with map reading and compass navigation can help you estimate distances more accurately and navigate with greater precision. By practicing these techniques and adjusting your pace count for different terrain, you can become a more proficient navigator

Common Map Reading Mistakes to Avoid

Even the most experienced outdoorsmen can make mistakes when navigating with a map. Here are some common map reading mistakes to avoid:

Failing to orient the map:

Before you can begin navigating with a map, you need to orient it so that it aligns with the terrain around you. Failing to do so can result in incorrect navigation and confusion.

Ignoring contour lines:

Contour lines are one of the most important features on a topographic map, as they indicate elevation and slope. Failing to read them properly can lead to incorrect navigation and difficulty traversing the terrain.

Misreading distances:

It’s important to understand the scale of the map you are using and to read distances accurately. Misreading distances can result in incorrect route planning and unexpected challenges along the way.

Once you learn and practice your pace count, trust it. I’ve seen more guys get misoriented in the wood line because they failed to trust their pace count.

Ignoring key features:

Topographic maps include a range of natural and man-made features, such as rivers, roads, and buildings. Ignoring these features can lead to incorrect navigation and make it difficult to reach your destination.

Failing to update the map:

Over time, the terrain and features on a map can change. Failing to update your map with the latest information can result in incorrect navigation and unexpected challenges.

During EIB, Expert Infantryman Badge testing at Fort Drum, New York, I messed up on the day time land navigation course. I got all of my points right but missed giving the proper location of my start point.

I later had to retake the day land navigation course after testing the next day during the night. My mistake was pacing off of a bridge on the main road. Little did I know, the bridge had been moved when the hospital was built for storm water run off.

When I retested that night, I paced from the main fence line to the base. And yes, I passed and earned the EIB. With an updated map, I could have saved my legs and self imposed stress.

By being aware of these common map reading mistakes, you can avoid them and become a proficient navigator in the wilderness. Remember to always double-check your map and orient it properly, read contour lines accurately, and update your map with the latest information.

With these tips in mind, you’ll be able to navigate through the wilderness with confidence and reach your destination safely.

Final Thoughts on Map Reading Skills

In conclusion, map reading skills and terrain analysis are essential skills for wilderness survival and should be a skill you practice along with your other prepping.

By understanding topographic features on maps, analyzing the terrain, and using a compass in combination with map reading, you can navigate through the wilderness with confidence and reach your destination safely.

However, it’s important to remember that becoming proficient in these skills takes practice and patience. Don’t be discouraged if you make mistakes along the way – learning from these mistakes is an important part of the process.

Familiarize yourself with the map legend and understand it in great detail so in a real life situation, you’re not trying to figure out what the map scale means. Like the saying, “an ounce of sweat in training saves an ounce of blood when the SHTF!”

With the tips and techniques outlined in this article, you’ll be well on your way to becoming a proficient navigator in the wilderness. We will cover more land navigation topics in greater detail in the future.

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