How To Make Sure You Only Get Lost When You Want To

Here’s the scenario: it’s summer and for whatever reason, you decided to go for a hike.  You grab your daypack, toss in a Cliff bar, some wet wipes and a bottle of water.  On the way out the door, you grab your cell.  You don’t bother with a compass because you have no idea how to use one, and even if you did, who needs a compass when you have a cell phone.

You make it to the park, find a trail and start walking.  Something catches your eye.  Maybe it’s some hot little jogger, maybe it’s Big Foot, it doesn’t really matter- what matters is that you ditch the trail.  The freedom is intoxicating.  You are out in nature and loving every minute of it.  But then your feet start to hurt, which is your body’s way of telling you that it is time to head back to the house.

One problem, you don’t know where you are.

No worries, you tell yourself.  I’ll just pull out this cell phone, turn on the GPS and…. nothing happens.  You try it again, same result.  You are about to reset your phone when you notice NO SIGNAL at the top of the screen.  That is when it hits you. Technology has failed and you are lost.

On September 4, 2011, I was halfway through with basic SWAT school, when dispatch called and advised that a hunter had gone missing in Meeman Shelby Forest. Since I was still in training, and the cadre didn’t want to hear me breathe much less talk, I knew that my role would be for observation purposes only.  So I kicked back and resigned myself to watch the show.

And oh what a show it turned out to be.

For those not familiar with Shelby Forest, it is a 13,000-acre state park in Southwestern Tennessee.  The park is a great place for disk golf, canoeing and/or camping and perfectly safe as long as you stay on the trails. 

To this day, I still don’t why Mr. Bill and his buddies decided to go to Shelby Forest to hunt squirrel.  I don’t know if Mr. Bill was an outdoorsman, but what I do know is that he didn’t have the faintest idea of how to navigate in the woods.

I know this because, well, he was lost.

Worse than being lost was the fact that the only provision he carried with him was a shotgun, two bottles of water, 15 shotgun shells, a half can of dip and a small flashlight.

To make matters even worse, when Mr. Bill lost sight of his friends and it started getting dark he didn’t just sit tight and hope they would come back.  No, he started wandering around like a bastard child on father’s day, and that was how Mr. Bill discovered the side of Shelby Forest they don’t advertise; the 9,000 acres of poison ivy, briars, terrible terrain and cypress swamps full of pissed off cottonmouth’s side.

In all fairness, Mr. Bill wasn’t the only one having a hard time.  The search teams had problems of their own; mainly there was no cell reception in the Forest, which meant they couldn’t use Google Earth or the GPS feature on their department-issued cell phones.  I saw a few handheld GPS, but apparently, no one had bothered telling their operators that you actually had to change the batteries more than once every two years for them to work.

And then there were the maps.

The search and rescue team had two choices when it came to maps.  Option A) was a mixed bag of outdated survey maps or option B) the Welcome Center maps that featured a cartoonish deer and smiling raccoon who warned campers “not to feed the wildlife.”  The search continued in this general vein of tomfoolery for five days.  FIVE DAYS, and in the end Mr. Bill wasn’t rescued by any of the search and rescue team.  No, an accountant riding his Harley Davidson Sportster through the park found Mr. Bill walking down a road.

Needless to say, the After Action Review was not rated PG.  However, there was a silver lining.  Three weeks later I graduated SWAT school whereupon I was finally allowed to say, “hey you guys remember that lost hunter?  Well, there is a better way to do something like that.”

Little did I know that such an innocent statement would eventually result in me being responsible for designing and implementing a Tactical Man/Tracking Land Navigation course for the entire county.

The first thing I did when I learned of my latest charge was break out my dusty copy of FM 3-25.26 (The Army Field Manual for Map Reading and Land Navigation).  Just because I knew how to read a map and use a compass didn’t mean I knew how to design a course.  Luckily ol’ FM 3-25.26 had my back and when I read: “land navigation teaches the ability to traverse unfamiliar terrain by foot or in a vehicle and includes the ability to read a map, use a compass and other navigational skills,” I figured these were the cornerstones on which I would build my kingdom.

Reading a Map

A map is a graphic representation of a portion of the earth’s surface drawn to scale, as seen from above.  There are a bunch of different maps, but the one most suited for our needs is a Topographic map.  A topo map portrays terrain features and elevation changes in a measurable way and has colors, symbols and labels that represent features found on the ground.  A map’s margin provides some very useful information, which is why I always advised my students to “use the test to take the test,” my way of telling them to use all the information on a map to help you out.

Information such as a map’s scale, which is the ratio between the distance on a map and the distance on the surface of the earth.

Generally, military maps come in three basic scales:

Small – the standard size is 1:1,000,000 and covers a large area at the expense of detail.

Medium – Standard Size 1:250,000 and contain moderate amounts of detail.

Large – Usually 1:50,000 and are the most common in the military.

Orient your map– There are two important things to remember when dealing with a map.  If you were to take your map and lay it on a table anywhere in the world, the top of the map would represent grid north.  I am not trying to insult anyone’s intelligence here, but this is kind of important.  Orienting your map means that if you are facing south, it is a good idea to turn your map so it is facing south.

Super Wal-Marts – Before the compass, astrolabe and whatever the else sailors use these days, ancient mariners stayed in visual range of land.  It is easy to get lost in open water because there were no landmarks.  This is called terrain association or to borrow a phrase from an instructor at Fort Benning, “finding your Super Wal-Mart.”  Your Super Wal-Mart is a distinguishing landmark that you see on both the map and on the ground.

Grids – Imagine that you are a pizza delivery guy and you get an order.  While the cook makes the pie you find the address on the map and plan your route. In the car, you pull out of the parking lot and follow the roads, signs, and landmarks until you arrive at the address.

Now imagine the same situation but all the addresses in the city have been removed.  A map without a grid system is like a city without addresses.  The military uses the Universal Transverse Mercator (UTM) Grid system, which breaks the map up into 1000 meter grid blocks, and then you can use the corresponding coordinate scales on the protractor with the corresponding map scale to plot a point.  These “grids” then become an address.

 

Compass – A compass is an instrument that contains a magnetized pointer or arrow that shows the direction of magnetic north and bearings from it.  It is the most important tool in our Land Navigation bag.  You could, in theory, write an entire article on a compass but for brevity’s sake we are going to focus on three parts of the Silva Starter– and how to use them.

  • The Needle – All compasses have a needle the one on the Silva Starter is half red and half white. The red part is magnetic and will always point towards magnetic north.  The Silva comes with an orienteering needle drawn inside the face of the compass, which rotates with the bezel (more on that later).
  • The Bezel – The rotatable ring around the outside of the compass with the cardinal directions (N,E,S,W) and numbers on it- you guessed it, that’s your bezel. Since there are 360 degrees in a circle you will notice that the scale goes from 0 to 360.  Most of the time we won’t be heading “due” East (90 degrees) or due “south” which is why there are a bunch of extra numbers on the scale.
  • Direction of Travel Arrow – This is the arrow painted on the base of your compass. It is our sight, and like the front sight on a pistol, what you see is what you get.  Pretty simple.

Azimuth – An Azimuth is a word the military uses to express direction from a fixed point.  In this case, the fixed point is you and your compass.  There are two ways we can get an Azimuth using the Silva:

  • Aiming the direction of travel arrow at something you can see (your super Wal-Mart). This is the easiest way to “shoot” an azimuth and all it requires is for you to literally point the arrow at the target.

Note:  Not trying to insult anyone’s intelligence, but it is worth mentioning the fact that as you move away from the North Pole, the magnetic arrow will also move- this means your compass is working!

Once your direction of travel arrow is lined up with your target simply rotate the bezel so the orienteering arrow lines up with the magnetic arrow.

The number now lined up with your direction of travel arrow is your AZIMUTH.

323 Degrees

2 – For all you Land Nav purists out there I realize this second technique isn’t textbook, but since it is my article….

To find an Azimuth for a target you can’t see with your eyes, but can see on your map, we use our map and compass together.

-First, we want to orient our map so our grid lines are straight up and down.

-Next, we place our compass on said map and turn it until the Direction of Travel arrow points towards our landmark.

In this case, it is a road and our Azimuth is 323 degrees.

-The final step is optional, but it will save your butt.  Once you have annotated your Azimuth, rotate the bezel ring so the outline of the orienteering needle is lined up with the magnetic needle.  Try to keep them lined up as you walk to insure you don’t drift.

 

The Pace Count – The final piece of the puzzle is the pace count and like everything else, it requires a bit of preparation.  Since military maps are in meters it is easiest if you measure off a hundred meter stretch somewhere outside.  Mark the start and end point and start walking, counting every time your left foot hits the ground.  My pace count is 64 left steps.  If you are super motivated jog the hundred meters and come up with your running pace count.

Do this two or three times and find the average number of times your left foot hits the ground in a hundred meters and you now have your pace count.

Putting it all together – Now that we have our pace count, azimuth and distance it is time to get moving.  The steps are simple.

  • Orient your map and compass the direction you are facing.
  • Identify a prominent terrain feature you see in front of you and find on the map.
  • Aim your compass at the feature and find your Azimuth.
  • Use the scale to find the distance from where you are to where you want to go.
  • Using your pace count, start walking. Once you reach your pace count you have gone 100 meters.  If you have a long distance to travel, say 500 meters grab five little pebbles before you step off and every time you hit one hundred meters drop a rock so you don’t lose count.

Land Navigation is a perishable and somewhat arcane skill, but it has proven its worth time and time again.  I know that in the digital age it is not cool to carry around a compass and paper map, but then again neither is getting lost.  So the next time you or someone you love decides to go commune with nature, do them a favor and square them away before they leave the house.

 

About the Author – Joshua Hood graduated from the University of Memphis before enlisting in the Infantry.  As a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne, he deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan. After separating from the military he joined the Shelby County Sheriffs Department and served as the sniper team leader for their full-time SWAT team.  He is an author, FBI Firearms Instructor, speaker and currently works as the Director of Veteran Outreach for the American Warrior Initiative.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

{ 26 comments… add one }
  • Jerald Koester September 20, 2019, 6:58 am

    Good article. Remind me of basic training at Ft. Lenord-in-Woods, Mo. It is easy to get lost and GPS , is great. But when driving on a t.rip be sure to have a state/or states road map for backup. Also, most folks don’t know that the top of the so is always north. And the sun comes up the east, so facing east means West is toward your back, South is on your right and North on your left.

    Of course if you don’t know your left from your right,I guess you can be lost.

  • Sarthurk April 10, 2018, 12:11 am

    First of all, I apparently was born NOT stupid. Secondly, My Dad was a forester, and cruised timber all day when I was little. And he took me along on occasion. Then he bought a tree farm in the midle of nowhere up the headwaters of the Applegate River, and we’d go there every weekend and he cut me loose, and I’d go explore. Then He and my brother and I would hit the high lakes trails here and the on the west coast, Cascades, etc. He showed us kids how to use a map and compass. Then to boot, my Boy Scout Troop master, was the State Cartographer for the State of Oregon. Nobody in our troop got lost. We kicked ass in Camporee competitons for orienteering.
    Growing up, I went hunting a lot! Had my maps, looked ahead of time, but I always knew where I was.
    The only thing I worry about, is getting confused in the middle of a big city.
    But, that’s why I don’t go there.

  • JCitizen April 9, 2018, 10:43 pm

    What? They don’t have a compass app?? LOL!! Naw, seriously, I did see a compass app once, so you could use that until the batteries die, and then switch to your “backup” compass. =)

  • Michael April 9, 2018, 2:42 pm

    I have been using a compass for almost 50 years now, both as a former Marine and as a Timber Cruiser. I use a Suunto MC2 with adjustable declination. I have worn out 1 (all the Black/Red off the Numbers/Scales) and am now working on my second. Great compass. I tried GPS, but has a tendency NOT to work in heavy cover, as requires 3 Sats for signal acquisition. Compass never fails, even if I can only see 5 meteres ahead. Might I also add that I also know how to ID the North Star and other Constellations at night. Any person travelling in unknown territory should avail themselves of all resources: GPS; Compass; Sun Shadow, Star Nav. It’s not difficult, and is really a lot of fun. Especially when shared with your friends. Never Eat Soggy Worms (N/E/S/W)

  • Rick April 9, 2018, 12:24 pm

    And, the presumption is that electronic devices will fail (they certainly can) – but the good ol’ compass won’t?

    Ummm… speaking from three decades in the airborne biz (mostly airborne recce) and a geomatics degree heavy on mapping and surveying – wrong. Compasses can and will fail – just like a standalone GPS or cellphone GPS will.

    Does the writer carry a backup to his compass (just like you should have a backup to a GPS)? Is he aware of whether or not the region he is in has magnetite deposits (and there are a lot of them – go take a look at the geological survey to check). He’s fully conversant on declination, true north, map north, and grid north?

    Just a couple of questions I’m asking for a friend…

    GPS or compass – both require a backup, and both require learning the skills and maintaining competence. Basic map reading is another skill – although many of the features of GPSs (i.e. saved start points and breadcrumb trails) will at least get you back to where you started from, or to the destination point you entered, should you lose or forget a map.

  • DIYinSTL April 9, 2018, 12:05 pm

    Despite the praise of other readers, this article is full of errors. Whether minor (the entire compass needle is magnetized, not just the half painted red) or major (you always orient the map using magnetic north and point it that way, even if you are facing south) if you follow the authors instructions there is a good chance of getting lost.

    • Jack April 9, 2018, 1:19 pm

      I assume the author meant that the south side of the map should be pointed south. But you know what they say about “assume.”

  • Rick Burgess April 9, 2018, 11:09 am

    If I was lost w the woman by the tree at the beginning of this article……I would hope to remain lost for the immediate future.

  • Jack April 9, 2018, 10:01 am

    Good article. But some mention should be made of magnetic declination.

    • Jim88 April 9, 2018, 1:18 pm

      Good point Jack. “Magnetic Declination” for those who aren’t aware is the difference between “true” north – what the map shows you as north, and “magnetic” north – which means your compass needle is actually pointing at least a little bit (to the right or left) off of true (map) north. This difference is the “Declination” and declination varies in different parts of the country (the world). Not a worry for a walk in the park, but useful when crossing oceans or maybe going cross country in unfamiliar geographies, like soldiers may be doing. Most topographical level maps will note the declination in degrees east or west of true north. In the US for instance, if you are hiking in northern Maine, your compass needle points about 17 degrees west of true north (left of map north) and northern Washington State about 16 degrees east of true north, (right of map north). This won’t interfere with your basic map/compass skills, but it’s good to know it exists.

  • John L April 9, 2018, 9:40 am

    Good reminder. Electronics are a useful convenience, but assume they will fail. We are all born with the ability (eyes and a brain) to get around just fine. Being observant of your surroundings goes a long way in finding your way back. One quick trick when out in the wild. Make sure to regularly turn around and take a quick mental photo of your back trail.

  • Jet April 9, 2018, 9:26 am

    You lost me with that first picture. I was thinking blanket. We need a blanket, lol.

    • Charlie BROWN April 9, 2018, 4:48 pm

      Jet, That was the best laugh I have had all week, but it’s only Monday.

  • JGinNJ April 9, 2018, 8:53 am

    I once took a casual hike with a young boy in a park out West. The trail was clearly marked with piles of stones. I had a primitive park brochure (along the lines of the smiling racoon map) and was going on a circular route back to the parking lot, but found almost at the end that our way was blocked by water from a rare but recent storm. I didn’t want to retrace my way back because it was a long hike and it was getting late. I asked some other hikers about directions based on the map I had, to bypass the blocked part and go directly to the lot. They were not going back immediately, but told me which way to go – as it turned out in exactly the wrong direction. A long hike before I discovered that when we arrived at a very steep cliff and had an expansive view of a valley with nothing recognizable in sight. It was getting late in the day and we turned around and retraced our path. The piles of stone were much more difficult to identify, but we made it back – with me shouting for help because of fear I would not be able to stick to the path as it got dark. Hike was fine but once I hit the truck my knees gave way (the kid held up much better). The moral of the story is that even for some casual adventure it is a good idea to slip a few things in your pocket, and a compass takes up little room.

  • M Hatch April 9, 2018, 8:46 am

    Really enjoyed the article, great ‘refresher’ even if it was with my morning coffee. Excellent!

  • Tom Hart April 9, 2018, 8:45 am

    Just like any perishable skill, when the time you need it arrives, the time to prepare has passed.

    Great article, thx!

  • JT April 9, 2018, 8:11 am

    Great article but the problem the I see is this… you have to know where you are so you have a starting point on the map. If you don\’t have a clue where you are, then the greatest help that a compass brings you is the ability to walk in a straight line until you find a road, stream or the shore of a body of water versus walking in endless circles.
    I learned this the hard way in my youth and I\’ll share the story later, need to get to work right now.

    • DIYinSTL April 9, 2018, 12:27 pm

      If you can locate two geographic or structural features that are identified on a decent topo map then you can “shoot an azimuth” to each and triangulate to determine your location. If you are on a trail or road then the direction to a single feature will intersect with your location on the trail.

    • JT April 10, 2018, 8:39 am

      So, to continue my learning ways…
      About 40 years ago, I started deer hunting at Ft. McCoy, WI, about 80 square miles of landscape with a couple of main roads that had some gravel thrown on them for looks but the balance of the fort was tank trails and sand/dirt roads. You had to have a 4-wheel drive truck with chains, tackle and come-alongs or you didn\’t hunt McCoy, period. Prior to hunting McCoy, I hunted farmland where getting lost meant clime a hill, spot a road, go to said road and wait for dad drive around, find you and pick you up.
      My brother was in the National Guards, he did weekend and summer camp training there, he had detailed engineering maps, worked in the motor pool and knew his way around the camp in the dark. He was the \”beer run\” guy during summer camp because he knew how to get off post without going through the guard gates.
      So, my second year hunting there went like this. Opening morning deer hunt, hop in Jeep Cherokee with 4 guys and my brother driving. Drive to McCoy and enter, sit back for 45 minutes and watch said brother drive in the dark to a spot he has picked out on \”north camp\”. I have no idea where we are and the map of the camp that I have is the last page of the regulation book, it\’s 4\” X 6\”, shows the few main roads and where the 2 emergency phones are located within the 80 sq. miles.
      Said brother drops me and a buddy of his off on a sand road, points to the right and tells us to split up, walk in until you hit the creek and take a morning stand. No problem, no worries.
      We split up, walk in to the edge of what\’s now a swamp since the beaver dammed up the creek. We\’re in the flatlands of McCoy, nothing but swamp oak and pine, everything looks the same in all directions. Daybreak comes and it starts snowing, big wet flakes and it\’s snowing hard. Two hours later, my dad\’s old plaid wool coat is soaked through to my shoulders and there\’s 4\” of fresh snow on the ground, visibility is maybe 50 yards. I decide that this is not going to be an all day hunt, my partner that I really don\’t know had the same idea, we hook up somewhere in the woods to walkout together, he decided which way we should go, he\’s about10 years my elder, I follow. We walked for about an hour, snow falling off of the pine bowes on us, we\’re now soaking wet when we find some tracks, which are ours… about where we started an hour ago. Compass? No, he doesn\’t have one when I remember that in my dad\’s old coat pocket there\’s a flip top nickel plated compass that I kept because I thought it was cool looking. Well, how does this thing work? All I know that the needle points north but we have no idea where we are, which direction we walked in from, where my brother dropped us off or which direction to go to get back to our drop off point. I lead, we walk north, bump into the swamp again, skirt it to the northeast, find the thickest briar field in camp and finally stumble out on a sand road 2 hours later, bleeding faces, wet to the bone and 8\” of fresh snow. Left or right on the road? We go right.. the wrong direction. 2 or 3 miles later my brother picks us up and comments… what the hell are you doing over here? Thanks bro, let\’s go to town and get a burger and a beer and dry out.
      Lessons learned that day. Have a good map, a good compass, take a bearing when you walk in so you know which way to walk out, have a clue where you are when you start hunting. Buy a new waterproof coat, hat, gloves and pin on a 2 dollar \”floating compass\” so you can keep your bearings when you\’re in the woods, on a deer drive or after recovering your deer. Learn how to use your compass!! Good thing that we weren\’t hunting the mountains or national forests that day or the result could have been much different.

  • Rod Leonard April 9, 2018, 7:58 am

    Joshua comes across as a first class jerk. He knows his map reading but he is your worst nightmare to have as an instructor. This guy needs to develop some people skills.

  • David Douglass April 9, 2018, 7:38 am

    Very good article. I would add one item to the list of necessary tools, and that is a fluorescent red permanent marker, to use on the pebbles, which I would recommend the largest markers possible, and place them in the most visible position possible.

  • Jay April 9, 2018, 7:07 am

    It’s not just maps and navigation most have no clue about these electronic days! I discovered years ago when helping a friend build his house and using us free laborers, aka friends to do so, just how many people had no clue how to read and use a tape measure and figure out out simple math to use in the process!

  • Tim Allen April 9, 2018, 5:02 am

    Good article. I wrote a curriculum for land navigation, with the belief that outdoors enthusiasts would flock to me and pay for the comprehensive and valuable lessons. I advertised the course for more than a month, posted flyers at popular outdoor supply stores, and only had four people sign up. On class day, only two people showed up. By lunch time, one of them was ready to quit and go home. The other student was doing well and he helped me convince the other guy to stay. I think about trying it at again. My class is 8 to 9 hours of classroom instruction, but it covers a lot of very useful information and classroom exercises with maps and basic compass skills. I could use an extra day to go out into the field and do some compass course training, but it is difficult to get outdoorsman to give up one day, much less two. I\’m retired military and wanted to supplement my retirement with this course. I provide the students with some manuals and basic navigation tools to keep for their own use. I provide them with a list of written and internet sources that support the lessons I teach, and a source for purchasing additional tools according to their needs, like tools to use with their particular map scales. I personally love maps and have quite a collection. I tell people that reading and studying a map is like reading a good book, and a good map will have as much info as a book, but you have to know how to read it. These are skills even the most casual outdoorsman should learn.

    • justjim April 9, 2018, 9:07 am

      I took a refresher course recently and the thing it lacked was out-in-the-field practice.
      What’s your AO for holding this course?

  • Tim Allen April 9, 2018, 5:00 am

    Good article. I wrote a curriculum for land navigation, with the belief that outdoors enthusiasts would flock to me and pay for the comprehensive and valuable lessons. I advertised the course for more than a month, posted flyers at popular outdoor supply stores, and only had four people sign up. On class day, only two people showed up. By lunch time, one of them was ready to quit and go home. The other student was doing well and he helped me convince the other guy to stay. I think about trying it at again. My class is 8 to 9 hours of classroom instruction, but it covers a lot of very useful information and classroom exercises with maps and basic compass skills. I could use an extra day to go out into the field and do some compass course training, but it is difficult to get outdoorsman to give up one day, much less two. I’m retired military and wanted to supplement my retirement with this course. I provide the students with some manuals and basic navigation tools to keep for their own use. I provide them with a list of written and internet sources that support the lessons I teach, and a source for purchasing additional tools according to their needs, like tools to use with their particular map scales. I personally love maps and have quite a collection. I tell people that reading and studying a map is like reading a good book, and a good map will have as much info as a book, but you have to know how to read it. These are skills even the most casual outdoorsman should learn.

  • Jonny5 April 9, 2018, 4:08 am

    Great article. A skill which we should all acquaint ourselves with regularly.

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