Basic Land Navigation

All of us use different ways of navigation in our daily lives. We follow roads and landmarks to get to our destinations. We use global positioning systems to tell us how far we have to drive and where to turn. However, what happens when things turn upside down for one reason or another by way of natural or man-made disasters and we have to fall back on our most basic skills of navigation? What that you say? I don’t have any basic navigation skills…if you will take a moment to read this article, I think you will find that you do and what you do have you can improve.

Probably the most obvious tool or device we can utilize for basic land navigation is the compass. The compass was first invented in China in the 2nd century BC using lodestones (an iron ore based mineral) which were determined to point out directions on fortune telling boards. Later the lodestone was carved into a spoon shaped device and the handle always pointed south. Eventually magnetic needles replaced the lodestones about 8th century AD and they were used on ships as navigational aids with the first document use by the Chinese in about the 13th century. Modern magnetic compasses are aligned with the earth’s magnetic field and generally have a magnetic needle that points to the North Pole. However, based on ones location to get the most accurate directions you need to adjust the amount of magnetic declination or in other words the angle of difference between the true north and magnetic north. This can be adjusted using a number of websites online such as the NOAA Geophysical Data Center. compass

Compasses are relatively inexpensive tools and you pick up decent ones for under $20 that will serve basic navigational purposes. Ideally your compass should have a rotatable bezel or dial on it to allow you to set direction of travel (more on that later) and some type of arrow, line or sight to help you aim. Additionally a measuring scale on the compass base is helpful as well. There are a number of inexpensive models with decent features from makers such as: Silva, Suunto, and many others. Once you have selected your compass you will find its relativity simple to use just about anywhere.

Start off by holding your compass in your palm. You choose which palm. I am a lefty so it always goes in my left palm.  The direction of travel should always be facing away from you and depending on your specific brand or model of compass can be an arrow or a sight similar to a gunsight. You want to think of this arrow or gun shooting out from you so that you always turn your compass in conjunction with your body. Otherwise you will just be going in circles. Grin. The round part of the compass is called the dial and rotates on the bottom part or base. If you remember from geometry class a circle has 360 degrees, so you should find numbers or the dial which represent directions. Inside of the dial or bezel is a liquid solution, usually alcohol based to prevent freezing, an outlined arrow, and a magnetic needle. Some compasses could also have a map scale on the bottom or edge of the base and sometime a magnifying glass.

Old CompassTo find a direction you simply hold the compass in the direction of travel (arrow or sight facing away from the body) and turn the dial on the base to the direction you want to go. For example, if I want to go due east I turn the dial of the compass to 90 degrees, and place the compass in the palm of my hand with the arrow facing away from me. Then I will turn my entire body to place the floating magnetic needle inside the outlined arrow inside the compass dial. Once that is done you should be facing in the correct direction and if you travel forward you will be heading, in this case, due east.

Now let’s try a little navigation. Place your compass into your palm and face the arrow away from you. Turn the dial to 360 degrees (due north), line up the arrow and needle by turning your body. Place a stick or some other marker into or on the ground (you will see why later). Now aim at landmark of some sort directly in front of your direction of travel (a tree, fence post, etc.) and walk 50 paces towards it and stop. If you try to follow the compass and walk how to walk in the woodswithout setting a landmark first you see the needle moves around greatly reducing your accuracy. Not a big deal over short distances, but it can be a real big deal over long distances. Once you have reached your destination set your compass to 120 degrees, line everything up again and walk 50 more steps and stop. Finally, set your compass to 240 degrees, line everything up again and walk another 50 steps. Are you back at your starting point? You should be if you followed the directions.

As far as maps go, you probably want to acquire some topographic maps of your area or whatever area you might be headed to in SHTF scenario and practice now. The United States Geographical Service provides maps free for download on their online store ( by clicking on your desired location. They can also sell you higher quality maps for a few dollars. In a nutshell maps are either setup in Lat/Long or UTM coordinates with UTM being a bit more accurate and easy to read. A map worth its salt should also have meridian lines on it. topo maps

To use your compass in coordination with your map simply follow these few steps. Ideally you borrowed or purchased a compass with a scale on it. If you didn’t no worries you can use a ruler to measure a distance between point A and point B using the scale on the map. Find out where you are (point A) and where you going (point B) and line them up on the map using the scale on your compass or ruler. The meridian lines on the map should be going north and south. Turn the compass housing or bezel so that the meridian lines inside of it are going north. In other words point the north arrow up in parallel with the lines on the map. Once they are lined up you can lift your compass off the map, turn your body so that the magnetic north arrow and the north arrow line up inside the housing. If you are in heavily forested or mountainous terrain you may not be able to see the objective you are trying to get to so you will want to choose a landmark to walk to and then repeat the steps above again to reach surviving and camping the mountainsyour destination.  Depending on your distance from point A to point B in combination with terrain, vegetation, or other obstacles you may have to set several landmarks. Just remember to connect the dots, repeat the steps, and you will make it to where you are headed.

I have given you a small piece of the puzzle to basic land navigation. Stay safe and remember that practice makes perfect.  Happy prepping!

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