Land navigation is tricky. Especially if you don’t have the time, or area, to properly practice actual land navigation in an unknown area through unknown terrain. In my suburban area, I can not properly train my guys in land navigation, They would just say “I know where I am”, and that would be that. Technically, that is a form of land navigation called “Terrain Association”. We also have a lot of roads in the Northeast to use as a “land mark” to double check your location on a map. If you get lost, find the nearest intersection, pull out your Atlas or roadmap, and double check it. Bingo, you are right there… You have successfully located yourself on the map. But this is risky; Roads are high speed avenues of approach, and you are on two of them. That’s twice the trouble, good luck running if you get spotted.
Badlands Fieldcraft, a contributor to the mission at AP, has a great introduction to the kit you need. And some theories of use.
Land navigation requires less “stuff” than you would think. I think my water purification kit weighs more than my land navigation kit; A lot more. Although the maps are a pain to carry and protect.
Land navigation is very, very important. There is a reason it’s used to thin the heard at SFAS, Rangers, Recon, and countless other units worldwide. If you cannot find your friends or foes, you have a very serious problem. Plus you have exposed yourself; Not good. During the age of drones and cameras, you’ll want to move out during “G-Weather”. “G Weather” is usually low hanging cloud cover, rain, or snow that lasts a day or two. Snow is my last choice because of the ability to track your marks in the snow. There is a reason that the Taliban, AQI, and ISIS takes the winter months off. They know the score.
Land Navigation has some long standing myths and legends. I’m going to address some of those myths in this piece. There are quite a few. Some persist for understandable reasons, like a gun “Fudd” myth, others are harder to verify the origin of the rumor. The best answer is pretty simple, like “Who has the time to pretend getting lost in the woods, and possibly get lost for real?” Very few people. Mostly just military and a few Boy Scouts from the real sticks.
Myth Number 1, you have a natural sense of direction. Unless you are intimately familiar with your area of operations, you don’t have a natural orientation or some sort of magic brain compass. Truthfully, without a compass, if you walk into the unknown woods(At night or day), or a corn field, within 30-40 minutes you will make a circle back exactly to your location plus/minus 50 meters from your point of entry; Assuming there are no dead reckon points like a mountain. This is why the police wait for bank robbers at their point of entry into a woodline and then you see the robber reemerge down the street some minutes later. Our soon to be convicted felon didn’t have a compass… You naturally make circles, about a 2 kilometers in circumference. Your body has a built in safety mechanism. You automatically RTB; or Return To Base. Don’t be that guy; And don’t be the guy who uses the moss on the south side of trees, or the north side of trees, to navigate. The rising sun, or setting sun doesn’t work either as a land navigation tool. The moss grows on all different kinds of trees in different patterns and the sun changes throughout the year. For sailing you can use the sun and stars with a high degree of accuracy, assuming you have precision instruments, good star maps, or great memory. For hiking in the mountains and the woods it’s a very, very poor choice. I only use the sun as a metric of general cardinal association. I never have, and never will, voluntarily use it to actually navigate to a fixed point on a map.
Legend Number 1, If you walk into a corn field, you can follow the lines, but they are rarely straight, except in places like Iowa. In the woods, you can maintain a straight line of travel by using a simple trick. Cross on the left, and then right, and then left etc… etc… of each tree you pass. This will keep you in a relatively straight line in between shooting azimuths, or if you lose sight of your dead reckoning marker. People naturally favor passing objects on their left or right, the same way you favor your left or right hand. When evading at a high speed, don’t forget to use this trick, or you will circle back to your threat.
Dead Reckoning markers can be major landmarks such as a radio tower, building, or mountain. “Swimming” through the woodline works. One left stroke, one right stroke. In tall grass, you can hold out an open hand, take a fixed number of steps, and then switch hands, taking another fixed number of steps. Applying a small amount of “leaning” into the grass(So to speak). This method is tricky, and takes some practice. But you will instinctively favor movement to one side, and then the next. Maintaining as straight a movement as possible. It works much, much better than nothing. This works in the tall corn too, assuming the lines are not straight. It’s kinda like feeling your way through a dark room in principle. Bamboo is nearly impossible to move through, so I’m not even going to bother explaining that; Except to say you need to trail blaze and bushwhack. String lines help maintain a straight cut; Mason’s line is best.
Myth Number 2, “Ranger Beads”. Ranger beads are a marketing gimmick. One brush against a tree, branch, vine, or your weapon; And your ‘Ranger Beads” have been reset. At which point, they are no longer useful. Ranger Beads are garbage. Ranger beads would be sold in packs of two if they actually meant something.
Legend Number 2, You should make two “Pace Cords”. A pace cord should be about 18 inches long, you should have two of them, and you will want to tie a standard loop knot to mark every 100 meters of movement high on the pace cord. You want to easily tie 12-15 knots in a pace cord. Which is about “1 click” so to speak, granted, you should mark your pace count on the 100 meter step, but you simply don’t march in perfectly straight lines. Know your pace count, and don’t forget to mark your pace cord. Two are used in case you need to record your movement back, because of a wrong turn, change in terrain, or poor choice of route(Which happens NBD). The thicker the pace cord material used, the better. A large loop knot is easier to untie, and with cold hands or gloves, you can feel the knots easier in the dark. The reason you use a pace cord? Try counting your pace and remembering your pace count at the same time while shooting azimuths, using trig, and 8 digit grid markers. That’s a lot of numbers to remember… spare yourself the inevitable headache. Do you really feel like remembering all these numbers? Do you write down your rifle DOPE? Same principle. Have plans to burn these documents.
Myth Number 3, Your Pace Count. Your pace count changes. Roll your ankle and see what happens to your pace count… Or walk with someone who has a higher pace count in the “110” range at night. Guess what? You now have a 110 pace count “Mr. I workout all the time and have a 60 pace count“. No you don’t. Your pace count is somewhere in the high 70’s or 80’s. And your nighttime pace count in the woods is somewhere around 100-110. Probably more. Me? I’m in the 80-90’s day or night. Unless it’s really rough terrain. I’m 6’4” and I have a lot of experience in the woods. Uphill with lots of deadfall? It’s 110-120… easily. When I really move out, that drops down into a more “Danger Ranger” pace. But that’s a rare exception, usually movement to a TIC or “Troops In Contact”. That is no longer in my job description; Barring extreme emergency circumstances.
Legend Number 3, Test your Pace Count… Your pace count changes based on the incline or decline of the terrain, your pace count changes by day and night, and your pace count changes in the woods, on wet terrain, in different types of footwear, and your pace count changes based on your level of exhaustion. It can also change based on your gear; Your pace count in a combat vest is different than your LBE/rucksack. Also, your pace count changes based on mission; Like reconnoiter, which is a much, much slower pace or MTC/BC(Movement to Contact; Break Contact) which is basically a sprint. You need to test these all and memorize them. A 100 meter pace count range takes some practice and testing. Run your course a couple times, and pick the average. Don’t forget to run it at night, and in the rain/snow, and in different terrain like fields, jungles, prairie, or woods. Test uphill and test downhill. Test in boots, test in tennis shoes, and even snowshoes if you live in that kind of area. If you are getting swallowed by a marsh or glade, I would bet your pace count can hit the 150-200 range pretty easily.
Myth Number 4, Your Compass You should have two compasses. Of the same brand. You need to check both of these compasses for deviation from “True North” and you need to know your Magnetic declination; Which is usually, but not always, annotated in the legend on your map. Two different compasses vary, on average +/- 5 degrees in my experience. That’s not a big deal. It sounds bad, but it’s not terrible. If you have a compass that favors “Left” or “Right” take a few extra steps wide to the right or left on your first steps after shooting a new azimuth, or checking your azimuth. Or, even better, pick the tree 20 feet to the left or right(depending on weather your compass favors one or the other), not the one directly ahead and inline with the azimuth you “shot”. Problem solved. Know your compass like you know a rifle. National Parks are a great place to test compasses and get some fresh air. Usually a compass comes with a little piece of paper that tells you how accurate it is; Kinda like a competition pistol or rifle. Mark your compass with it’s quirks, or write them down. Kinda like zeroing your rifle or making a DOPE book. Scientific Processes.
Legend Number 4, Your compasses are precision tools. THEY will save your life. Take care of THEM, and THEY will take care of you. Treat your compass with respect. You want two compasses in case one of them gets eaten by the green monster. You will also switch hands with your rifle and compass. It’s nice to switch things up; Your muscles will thank you. I keep the front of my LBE fairly symmetrical. Same pouches, same bottles, same compasses. There is very little difference between the left or right side. If my kit is asymmetrical, the weight is generally balanced on both sides.
Myth Number 5 “The Green Monster”, The wood line, or the jungle, can change GREATLY in it’s flora as you move through your terrain. In my AO, we have salt water marshes, swamps, crop fields, prairie, and various species of tree and vine. A “Draw“, which is an area usually defined by an open water source at the lowest elevation, can have a variety of vines, poison plants, thickets of saplings, and specialized plants like very large ferns. You are best served navigating around a draw. Your movement can be as far as one click over, and one click up. Moving through a draw at the end of the summer in my AO is a disaster of a movement. Draws rarely get better the farther you move into one; “The Draw is a Wall”
Legend Number 5 “The Draw”, The Green Monster will eat every piece of gear you own. Compasses, rifles, water bottles, pouches, knives, axes, sleeping bags. Everything. Nothing is safe from The Green Monster. TIE DOWN EVERYTHING. Consider going around the draw, terrain permitting. The Draw makes a great place to camp, and a terrible place to cross. The draw is extremely noisy to navigate, and is nearly impossible to navigate at night without white lighting by necessity. Don’t forget to bring green glow sticks so your buddies can find each other and you. Some red ones if it’s REALLY dark with 0% lumen, canopy, cold, low clod cover. That’s dark… Chem sticks are brighter in the summer than the winter; Because of the hot/cold chemical reaction.
Myth Number 6, Your Map, your map is accurate… This is a myth. Your map has markers that simply aren’t there anymore, or were never there. Water, buildings, roads, railroads, and power lines may no longer be marked on your map. They are vestigial markers from a time long since past. During the age of rapid development, a map that is only a few years old can change radically. Roads are renamed, fields have been repurposed or cleared, streams can shift, developments can be built, and fields can be turned into “green” buffers zones to protect from excessive runoff. Expect this to rapidly change and become a reality with the current pace of flight from cities, the renaming of everything, and the “greening” of farmlands near waterways. This will change a lot more than you think on your map. Your map also changes by season. The date of the map will annotate the season it was made for.
Legend Number 6, Your Map is about 80-90% accurate. In my experience, you can have faith in about 90% of your map, but this depends on your location. Be VERY, VERY careful of microterrain. Microterrain can be misread very easily, forcing you to turn at a stream that isn’t marked on the map, but you think that you have hit your backstop. This can also be true for roads, and green zones. Most map makers include false roads, or other markers, that are used to identify copyright infringement. There is no road, pond, or farmhouse there at all. It is simply used to identify intellectual property theft. Do not select a random farmhouse, creek, stream, or road to meet your team at. Only use known places that exist that you have confirmed. Never pick a stream or river as a rally point. You can easily lose your team, and both of you will be convinced you are sitting at the same stream, creek, or river marked on the map. When, in fact, one of you is rallied on a piece of micro terrain not marked on the map, and the other is in the correct location, or vice versa. Likely, you are only a few hundred meters from each other.
Myth Number 7, You are the only one in the woods… The woodline is “full” of animals and people. Birds can give away your position, insects stop making noise, and deer run from you only to circle back eventually, probing your position. Wild dogs live in the woods, and you will encounter diseased feral cats full of mites, ticks, and fleas. “Florida man” released a dozen different animals into the environment that can kill you, or will try to. Feral pigs will attack and eat you. They are NOT afraid of you, despite your experience during hunting season(Including deer or elk). Moose are extremely dangerous if they have calves, and they are almost always found near fresh water. They are very territorial. In South Africa, during the civil war, dangerous game maimed and killed several highly decorated veteran Paratroopers during movements to contact(RIP Airborne). Wild horses are also not a joke; My Wyoming/Montana guys know the score… Bears, typically the Grizzly, have been known to stalk humans for days, watch camps, and will attack you from your blind spot. Wolves have been reintroduced into various parts of the west. Poachers are a constant problem during periods of civil unrest and normal activity. A buffalo, or stray cow of certain breeds, are extremely dangerous animals. In western states, you are almost always on a game trail. So is everyone else.
There are reports of packs of wild dogs, released during periods of economic collapse, roaming wild. Coyotes, typically not associated with stalking humans, or any live prey outside their weight class, are reported to be stalking humans and their pets lately. Frankly, the only thing in the woods not trying to eat you is the elusive, and very stealthy, mountain lion AKA Cougar. But there are reports of Cougars with cubs who will act very threatening. Good luck fighting a 120lb mountain lion hand to hand… I should mention falling trees as well. I have been walking in the woods and had very large trees land nearby, branches are broken free when you move through other trees, and deadfall is just waiting for that “perfect push”. Be careful. Maybe where a “bump” helmet? In my part of the woods, the squirrels drop acorns and sticks, harassing and barking at you. They are quite accurate. Wear your eye pro.
Legend Number 7, Be on guard at all times ready to flip that rifle safety… Be prepared to defend yourself from the occasional falling tree, wild packs of dogs, stressed animals, mothers, and other potential hazards. Such as alligators or these 25″ Ball Pythons(Thanks Florida Man). Don’t end up like those poor South African Paratroopers. They were armed with a fully automatic FALs and still fell victim to wild animal attacks. You may also encounter a homeless mental patient, or gang of them, in the woodline. Some types of Anarcho-Communist drug addicts tend to favor living near railroads and radio towers. Radio towers typically have access to “wall warts”, or power plugs to charge their phones. Drug addicts will camp in the woods for years at a time. They are surprisingly successfull. Especially in areas around small towns, or townships in the rust belt that have been turned into verifiable multicultural and diverse “Truck stops”. Be wary near bridges and water tunnels. Meth head prostitutes and “escaped” mental patients are everywhere, not just California. Major cities have circles of drug addicts living in the wood line around the perimeter, they are too weak and pathetic to survive in the city. The wood line is a very, very dangerous place… You can even walk off a cliff at any time, or fall into a washout zone onto sharp rocks. Check your contour lines on your map. This will give you warning.
Watch out for Venomous Snakes, Scorpions, Spider Nests, Bees, Fire Ants, and Cactus. Be careful climbing, digging, and walking.
Be Wary of Forest Fires and Prairie Fires…
I am sure I missed one or two lessons. Drop a well written comment and I will add it to this article. I am primarily interested in the West, Canada, West of the Appalachians, Florida, or Louisiana.
Thanks for reading. Get out of the house, go for a hike with a pack, and get some fresh air. Hiking strengthens your bones, and hard to workout tissues in your calves, ankles, and toes.