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.
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.
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.
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.