The Lay of land Navigation

Every great journey beings with a single step. That single step has launched expeditions across the vast Americas centuries ago, it has sent missions down to Antarctica, men have sailed across the vast oceans into the great unknown, and in the modern era, there is talk of a mission to mars. None of these great steps leading to adventures forever burned into the pages of history, without a basic understanding of navigation. Even as the explorers covered vast and uncharted areas they had compasses, sextants, and training on how to determine their location due to the position of the stars at night and the sun during the day. As they made their journeys across the planet they left their legacy in the maps they made based on their adventures. Charts that later evolved into maps that are loaded on mobile devices, tablets, GPS devices, hell even my friend’s fish finder has charts on it now.

Land Navigation is a skill that each of us needs to learn before we plan on doing any sort of trip into the bush, no matter how simple and trivial the trip may seem. Now it would be impossible for you to learn land navigation based on an article, but you can get a good step in the right direction. After all every journey requires that single step we talked about, including the journey before the journey. The journey into the world of bushcraft education.


Maps are simple, basic, effective, and they do not require batteries. You do not need to worry about a map working due to signal, you don’t have to worry about the information on the map being corrupted or incorrect due to the lack of a recent update. With a map all you need to worry about is, “Can I read this damn thing?”

The maps I like to use are similar to the maps the military uses. I learned my land navigation basics going to high school in JROTC and from there I have applied and built on what I was taught. Maps are overhead images of the ground you are walking or riding on. The maps all have reference points, roads, towns, terrain, water, and its all organized within a series of grids. These grids are used, so we can determine our location. Once you know where you are on a map, you can go anyplace on that map that your body can take you.

Maps have colors on them to help you quickly identify what you are looking at, the colors are black, blue, brown, red and green. Black is for roads, and generally anything local, state or national governments, such as the marking for towns and cities. Anything man made, is black on a map generally. Blue of course is water, or areas with water like swamps. Brown are contour lines, and we will cover in more detail, but they show you what the terrain is going to look like where you are going. Red on a map generally means built up/industrial areas to show population density, so areas around towns and cities that are marked as red are generally populated areas. Green is natural, undeveloped areas such as forests, jungles…basically the woods are green on maps.

Contour lines are my favorite part of land navigation. They are thin, brown lines arranged in a pattern to show differences in elevation. How the contour lines are arranged show how steep a hill might be or how shallow a valley is, basically once you learn how to read contour lines maps are no longer 2 dimensional objects and you start to see everything in 3D. Learning to read contour lines is essential in determining where you are located. Terrain features are the best means to get your bearing when you are in the middle of nowhere and see no red areas on your map. So once you get them down you will be able to look down on the map, and look at the world around you, to determine where you are.


Armed with the ability to read a map, even with no compass and having no fancy GPS, you have a good and fighting chance to determine where you are and where you need to be in order to change your situation. However having a compass with a map, and subsequently knowing how to use said compass, will make that educated guess, into a without a doubt location.

There are a host of different compasses out there on the market that are good for the tasks at hand, and I recommend that you find the one that works for you, or do what I did, stick with the first one you learned. I personally like a compass with a built in protractor. This way I can plot courses on the fly a lot easier, I can determine things like back azimuths extremely quickly, and it helps to have something handy for scale to measure distance.

Compasses give you what we call an azimuth, a direction, or degrees. Most compasses will give you 360 degrees of direction in a full circle. They are pretty simple to use on their own and with a map, they take a little time, but are simple and easy to use. Once you know where you are on a map, you can then use the compass to determine what direction you need to move. A compass with a protractor built in will help you use the map and compass together, and it will show you how far you have to go as well. So armed with this information there is nowhere you cannot go, so long as you can physically get there, know how to read a map, and have an understanding of a compass.


Now of course it seems like I have been dogging a little bit on the much loved and marketed GPS. GPS’s are great tools, they are basically little computers built in with maps and directional software that can pinpoint your location on a map within a very close distance, 5 meters. This is all something you can do with a map and compass, but GPS is generally more precises and a lot faster, it is a computer linked to 24 satellites after all.

There are a lot of good and trusted brands of GPSs out there, and finding the one you like and that fits your budget is generally not that hard. There are a host of them out there from water-proof wrist GPS units, to full on tablet sized units. They all vary in price, features, quality, accuracy, and they all are wonderful tools that can really save you a lot of time.

They do require batteries, they do require user input, and the do require updates. So it is possible for these units to fail you. They are designed to not, but anything that requires power to run can and will fail you when you need it most. So even if you opt for a GPS unit for hiking and camping, do yourself a tremendous favor. Get yourself a map and compass, and learn to use them.

Using a GPS in tandem with a map and compass will really cover all of your bases and if it seems redundant, good. We are talking about your survival, we are talking about you having the power and the means to get anywhere you want to go on this planet, and where you are going might be harsh and unforgiving, the wild tends to be that way in general, so anything you can do to give yourself an edge is not only smart, but essential.

Final Thoughts

So without a doubt you need to get yourself a map and compass. These two items and a knowledge of how to use them, will make you a better and more skilled adventure seeking hiker. You will have the confidence to go further and explore more than you ever thought possible. So gone are the days where you see something off in the distance asking yourself “I wonder how I get there!?” you now have the means to find that out for yourself.

Basic land navigation is easy to learn, and takes years to master. You need to practice as much as possible and try to find someone that can help show you as well. The idea is, we never stop learning. The world around us is constantly changing, so we need to be able to face those changes by being educated about the world around us…and what better way to start to understand the world around us, than by knowing where you stand on it…so learn some basic land navigation.

Stay alert out there, stay safe, and have fun! I will see you on the trail, with my map and compass!

John Abshire

Born in North Carolina, raised all over the world and currently living in the Rocky Mountains above Montana. I have spent most of my life fishing, hunting, exploring and adventuring. While the adventure continues I have started to jot a few of them down and write. I Love Fly Fishing and sharing what I know with others. Fish on!

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