Map Reading and Land Navigation for G.O.O.D. Planning, by SSG Q.

Having the equipment and skill necessary to travel cross-country can prove to be very beneficial in a number of survival scenarios.  A key component to cross country travel is map reading and orienteering.  The equipment that you will need for this is a map, a lensatic compass, and a US Military Square 5×5 protractor.

The first item of equipment that we will cover is maps.  Different maps serve varied purposes.  A map used for navigating cross country will look very different from the maps that you are familiar with for use with travel on highways and paved roads.  For cross country travel a topographic map with marked grid square lines in a scale of 1:50,000 is the general accepted standard.  The 1:50,000 scale provides a good compromise between detail/accuracy and area covered.  If your plans include bugging out you should have 1:50,000 topographic maps that cover your entire route as well as a straight line distance between your start point and your destination.  Map coverage of your retreat area should include a 1:250,000 scale topographic map that can be mounted on a wall or table along with enough acetate paper and alcohol pens for operational overlays to include, but not limited to property boundaries with known occupancy rates of adjacent properties and buildings, fortifications, caches, and historical records of game animals taken by type/time/season/location.  Be sure to practice good OPSEC by taking down and storing your overlays when they are not in use.  You should also have 1:50,000 scale topographic maps covering the same area as your stationary 1:250,000 scale map.  A site that I am in no way affiliated with that will print a map for any area you desire is

The second piece of equipment that you need is a clear (not colored or frosted in any way) US Military Square 5×5 Protractor with a few aftermarket modifications.  Using a needle make a hole at the intersection of the crosshairs in the center of the protractor.  Now take a strand of 550 cord guts and route it through the hole that you made in the protractor and tie a knot in both ends so that the string stays in place.  Use the scale on your map to mark off 100 meter tick marks on the string starting at the center of the protractor with an extra fine tip black permanent marker.  The final modification is to carefully cut the excess material off of the interior of all of the grid scale triangles.

The last piece of equipment that is absolutely necessary when traveling cross-country is a quality lensatic compass.  You can find a brand new “Military Issue” lensatic compass with tritium illumination for between $70 and $100.  There are imitations that use phosphorescent material for illumination. Do not buy one of these compasses.  The phosphorescent material needs to be “recharged” using a flashlight when navigating at night and they are of poor quality compared to the compasses that are tritium illuminated. [JWR Adds: The genuine article has a Nuclear Material “tri-chop” symbol and NRC warning stamped into the bottom of the compass casing. Make sure those markings are there, before you buy, and make sure that all seven tritium vials built into the compass glow properly. Also, buy a compass that is less than 15 years old. (Tritium has an 11.2-year half life–so tritium vials lose half of their brightness every 11.2 years.) The model to look for will be marked: NSN 6605-01-196-6971. If you buy one that is marked with the contractor name “Cammenga”, then it won’t be older than 1992 production.]Once you have the proper equipment you need to learn how to use it.  This is best accomplished using the “crawl, walk, run” method.: 

Crawl:   The very first thing that you must always do is to turn your map until the north seeking arrow is pointing north.  Accomplish this by placing your map on a level surface and then open your compass and set it down next to the Magnetic North seeking arrow on the maps declination diagram.  Now simply rotate the map until the needle of your compass and the arrow on the map are pointing in the same direction.  This is called “map orientation”.  The best way to learn to read a map is to get a map of the type that you will be using, preferably 1:50,000 topographic, that covers an area that you are very familiar with.  It is even better if that area is where you are currently located as this will help you to match the graphic representations on the map with the real world places that they represent.  This will enable you to look at the landscape and your map at the same time and will give all of the lines and symbols on the map more meaning.  Unfold the map on a level surface, I rarely just hold a map in my hands and look at it while standing or walking.  While orienteering the time that it takes you to unfold that map and orientate it is a very helpful pause that allows you to get your bearings and make sure that you are on the right path.  I have been doing land navigation since I was 10 years old first as a Royal Ranger (a Christian faith based version of the Boy Scouts) and then in the military and during my time in the military I have never gone over time on a course or failed to find all of my points day or night, so don’t worry about the time this will take you, it is worth it.  Now begin by studying the map legend.  The legend will tell you what every color and symbol on the map represents.  Next, with the help of the information from the map legend, locate on the map any major intersects and/or landmarks that you are familiar with.  The entire purpose of the crawl phase is for you to match places that you know or can physically see with their graphic representations on your map.

Walk:  Now you will learn how to use your map and protractor to determine the distance and direction from one landmark or feature to another landmark or feature.  Center your protractor on any feature, building, or landmark on the map.  Now with the protractor centered over your first feature move the string along the degree scale at the outside edge of the protractor to determine the azimuth (direction) in degrees to your destination.  Write this number down, it is the “grid azimuth” and must be converted to a “magnetic azimuth” that you can use with your compass.  To convert a grid azimuth to a magnetic azimuth you must locate the Grid-Magnetic (G-M) angle found in the declination diagram of your map legend and do some simple math.  To find your magnetic azimuth if the Magnetic North line lays to the left of the Grid North line you add the G-M angle.  If the Magnetic North line lies to the right of the Grid North line you subtract the G-M angle to find your magnetic azimuth.  Before you move your protractor or map count the tick marks on the string between the two features to determine the distance and write the distance down. 

Run:  Plot a point on a map when given an 8 digit grid coordinate.  Determine the grid size you are working with by consulting your map.  An eight digit grid will look like this:  7840 0060.  From this grid coordinate 78 is the number of the horizontal line and 00 is the number of the vertical line.  You will find the intersection of Horizontal line 78 and vertical line 00 and place base of your grid scale triangle on that intersection with the vertical leg (right side) of the triangle aligned with the vertical 00 grid line.  Now slide your protractor to the right until the vertical 00 grid line intersects the 4 on the base of the triangle, ensuring you are keeping the base of the triangular cutout aligned with the horizontal grid line.  Now without moving your protractor, make a mark beside the 6 on the vertical leg of the grid scale triangle.  You have now plotted the point 7840 0060.  If the last number of either four digit set of numbers is not zero, say 0065 instead of 0060 then you would simply put your mark halfway between the 6 and the 7 on the vertical leg of the grid scale triangle.  An eight digit grid coordinate is accurate to within ten meters.  You can use this same method to determine the grid coordinate of any feature on the map.

Moving through the brush can be disconcerting for a lot of people, but that feeling will go away the more you get out and practice your land navigation.  Before you attempt any land navigation you must determine your pace count.  To do this measure off a 100 meter course through an area that is typical of the terrain that you will be navigating through.  Now walk the course leading with your left foot and keep count of every time your right foot strikes the ground.  Do the same thing walking the course in the opposite direction and the average of the two times is your pace count.  Remember that when walking uphill your pace count will be higher than if you are walking down hill.   Most people if told to walk in a straight line with no reference points will eventually end up walking in a very large circle.  To mitigate this move from object to object along your path by shooting an azimuth to each object and then moving to that object. Repeating this process while you navigate should keep you from walking in circles.

 To use your compass to “shoot” an azimuth there are two methods, compass to cheek and center hold.   The compass to cheek method is preferred when moving during daylight hours.  To use the compass to cheek method open the cover of the compass until it forms a 90 degree angle to the base.  Make a pistol with your hand like a child would do with your index finger and thumb extended and the rest of your fingers curled.  Place your thumb thought the thumb loop and your index finger along the side of the compass base.  Steady the hand holding the compass with your other hand.  Position the thumb that is through the thumb loop against your cheekbone.  Look through the lens of the eyepiece and move the eyepiece up and down until the dial of the compass is in focus.  Rotate your entire body until the proper azimuth is achieved.  Now align the sighting slot of the eyepiece with the sighting wire in the cover and find an object that is intersected by the sighting wire.  Now you will move to that object keeping your pace count and once you have reached it shoot the same azimuth and find another object and walk to it.  You will repeat this until you have reached your destination.  For night the center hold method is preferred. 

Open the compass so that the cover forms a straight edge with the base and move the lens of the compass out of the way.  Make a pistol with your hand like a child would do with your index finger and thumb extended and the rest of your fingers curled.  Place your thumb thought the thumb loop and your index finger along the side of the compass base.  Take your other hand and place your thumb between the eyepiece and the lens and extend your index finger along the remaining side of the compass.   Now with your arms at your sides with elbows bent at a 90 degree angle turn your body until the correct azimuth is attained and walk making sure to maintain that azimuth by checking you compass every few steps.  When using this method and stepping around small obstacles go first to the left or right of one obstacle and the around the next obstacle on the opposite side.   If you have gone the appropriate distance and direction and do not see your destination take the following steps.  First, lay your map on the ground and redo all of your plotting and calculations from the very beginning.  If you verify those calculations as correct then mark the spot where you are and walk 100 meters in the same direction that you were previously traveling keeping an eye out for you end point.  Once you have walked 100 meters turn around and go back to the point that you marked.  Now add 90 degrees to your direct of travel and go for 100 meters returning to the point previously marked on the ground.  Repeat this process, adding 90 degrees each time, until you are back at your original azimuth.  I tend to drift to the left when navigating so will typically find my point when I add 90 degrees and walk for 100 meters.

Nothing will ever replace repetition when it comes to developing and maintaining your map reading and land navigation skills.  Start off with short distances of 100 to 200 meters and work up from there.  In closing always remember:

  1. Take the time to lay your map out flat and study it
  2. Always orient your map
  3. Write down your azimuth and distance
  4. Map Reading and Land Navigation are perishable skills
  5. Carry a GPS for backup (while the satellites are still working)
  6. Re-certify your pace count often