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How often do you set out into the forest with nothing more than a GPS and maybe some sort of smartphone as your only means of navigational aid?

Technology today is amazing, and now, you can determine distance, get a 10-digit grid, see a 3D view of the terrain, set waypoints and find an azimuth—and you can do all this with a simple swipe of a finger.

I personally love gadgets that make doing complicated things easier. I have watches, global positioning systems, personal locator beacons, radios and a plethora of other electronic devices to help me figure out where exactly on the globe I am and where I need to go.

There are many high-speed navigational aids on the market today, but they all have one fatal flaw: They all require power to work.

Although these systems are all relatively reliable in their own right, and I have multiple backup systems if one were to fail, from a preparedness point of view, they all possess the same fatal flaw: They are battery operated. It won’t take an electromagnetic pulse to stop your electronic devices from working in an emergency situation. It might just end up being Murphy’s Law (that is, anything bad that can happen will happen at the most inopportune time), dead batteries or a malfunctioning recharging device.

You can find yourself lost in the woods without any idea where you are and where you need to go to reach safety if you do not possess the highly perishable (and, as of late, highly rare) skill of map-reading and land navigation.

“The first two things you should master in map-reading and land navigation is determining distance and direction.”

Determining Distance

The first two things you should master in map-reading and land navigation is determining distance and direction. This was the very first lesson I ever learned regarding land navigation.

Determining distance is not as hard as it might seem. The first thing I would suggest is to learn what your pace is. A “pace count” is the amount of steps an individual has to take using their normal walking gate in order to walk a specified distance on the ground.

It should be noted that you can use whatever unit of measurement you want based on the type of map you are going to use. I prefer a 1:50,000 MGRS (Military Grid Reference System) map, so I determine my pace using meters (because military maps use the metric system). The way I determine my pace is by taking a measuring wheel and marking out a 100-meter stretch. I then count every time my left foot hits the ground (the foot you choose is irrelevant) from one end of the 100-meter stretch to the other.

and divide by 3. The number I am left with is my pace (see the sidebar on page 90 for additional tips). An example would be that if my pace were 70 as I walk along a given route, every time I count 70 times that my left foot struck the ground, I would know I moved 100 meters.

I like to use a device called “pace beads” to keep track of my pace count. It is simply a string with beads on it that are tight enough on the string so they can be slid up and down and will stay in place. Every time I reach 100 meters, I slide one of my pace beads down the string. When I have slid 10 beads down the string, I know that I have moved 1,000 meters or 1 kilometer.

This information is going to help you immensely when it comes time to make your foot movement. But you are not there quite yet: You first need to determine the distance of your movement on the map. You can use the scale on the map or the scale on your protractor to measure the distance from where you currently are to the point on the map you want to reach.

The author and his dog take a break to check a map for the best fording site prior to crossing a water obstacle.

Determining Direction

Direction-finding is a key skill in being able to navigate from one point to another.

One of the two most commonly used ways to determine direction is with a map, protractor and compass. When using these tools, it is important to do the proper conversions before you start your actual movement. We, in the Special Forces, have a saying: “Paperwork before leg work.” It simply means to make sure you have all your plotting and calculations done correctly before you set off on a foot movement, or you might wind up expending a ton of vital life-saving energy moving in the wrong direction … this will only multiply your problems on the ground.

To determine direction using this method, you should first be able to determine your current location on a map, as well as the location you want to travel to.

On an MGRS map, everything is overlaid with 0-99 horizontally and 0-99 vertically numbered 1×1-kilometer grid squares. These maps are read to the right and up. In a six-digit grid (which will get you within 100 meters of your intended destination), the first two numbers are from the horizontal grid line (which runs east to west) on the map. The third number is also from the horizontal line, but it is from within the grid square that you are vectoring in on; this is further divided into 10 segments of 100-meter intervals each that you can guestimate with your eyeball. Alternatively, you can use a protractor for a more-accurate measurement. The next two numbers are taken from the vertical grid line (which runs north to south) and are followed by the last number, which is from the grid square, itself, just as on the horizontal line.

Once you determine your location on the map using terrain association, GPS or prior experience in the area, you need to mark that location on the map and then mark the location on the map you want to move to.

Draw a thin, straight line on your map from your current location to the location you want to travel to. Place the center crosshairs of your protractor directly over your location on the map and then find where the line crosses the protractor in the direction of travel. This will give you a grid azimuth reading.

Now, take your grid azimuth and convert it to a magnetic azimuth by factoring in the G-M angle, which is simply the difference between grid and magnetic north. The needle of your compass points to magnetic north. Grid north and magnetic north are usually not the same. Neither one points directly to the North Pole (called “true north”). In the East, in order to convert a grid azimuth into a magnetic azimuth, you need to subtract the G-M angle from the grid azimuth. You do the exact opposite in the West. You can locate the G-M angle in the marginal information portion of your map.

There is a lot of skill required to stay on azimuth for long distances through the woods, where constant compensations are needed to negotiate around obstacles and still remain on course.

Tips and Facts to Keep in Mind

You should consider getting your pace for multiple types of terrain, such as hills, forest, swamp, etc., so you know what adjustments to make based off the type of terrain you are moving through. You might be 70 paces on open terrain but move to 80 or 90 paces when moving through more-constrictive forest or swamp—where you are taking shorter and more numerous steps to cover the same amount of distance.

A map is nothing more than a topographical representation of the Earth’s surface as seen from above. “Terrain association” is when you associate features on a map with features you can identify on the ground in order to determine your approximate location on a map.

Upping Your Skill Sets

There are many skills to be learned when it comes to map-reading and land navigation—from the extremely simple to the much more complex. Regardless of the skill level you are at, direction and distance will always be factors in getting you from where you are to where you want to be, safely and as quickly as possible.

While this article only touches on some of the skill sets required to master land navigation, I hope it will motivate you to put away the GPS for a while and dust off the map, compass and protractor so you can bring those skills up to the same level as you currently have with the aid of electronic direction-finding devices.

The map, protractor and compass are the most basic and essential tools for map-reading and land navigation. Knowing how to read contour lines, natural and manmade terrain features, and other pertinent marginal data on a map—and then plot a course and follow an azimuth in order to navigate yourself from one known point to another in the wilderness—are all skills that will stay with you long after your GPS batteries go dead.

About The Author

Brian Morris is a retired Army Special Forces master sergeant with more than 25 years of active-duty experience. He is a former Special Forces weapons sergeant with multiple combat tours in the global war on terrorism. Morris is also an avid hunter, fisherman, outdoor enthusiast and self-proclaimed “prepper.” He is the author of two books: The Green Beret Pocket Guide and his newly published book, Spec Ops Shooting.


Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the March 2018 print issue of Gun World Magazine.