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Wilderness Navigation Tutorial

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Recommended Books

The Essential Wilderness Navigator by David Seidman

Survival Wisdom & Know How: Everything You Need to Know to Thrive in the Wilderness by the editors of Stackpole Books.

How to Stay Alive in the Woods: a complete guide to food, shelter, and self-preservation by Bradford Angier.

When Technology Fails: A Manual for Self-Reliance, Sustainability, and Surviving the Long Emergency by Matthew Stein

How to Survive the End of the World as We Know It by James Wesley Rawles

When All Hell Breaks Loose by Cody Lundin

SAS Survival Handbook: How to Survive in the Wild, in Any Climate, on Land or at Sea by John Lofty Wiseman

US Army Survival Manual: FM 21-76 by Department of Defense

Primitive Wilderness Living & Survival Skills: Naked into the Wilderness by John and Geri McPherson.


Geomagnetism and Declination

Survival IQ

Wilderness Survival Guide

Wildwood Survival

Earth Caretaker


The Tracker School
Watertown, New Jersey. 

Sierra School of Survival
Placerville, California

Twin Eagles Wilderness School
Sandpoint, Idaho.
New Jersey school.

Vermont Wilderness School

Aboriginal Living Skills School

Alderleaf Wilderness College
Monroe, WA

Primitive Ways
Hayward, California

More school links...

Another directory

Survival Tips

Reading topographic maps
PDF version

Using a compass and map
Backpacker's Field Manual

The Universal Transverse Mercator System
University of Wisconsin

Minimum requirements for survival

Backpacking Tips & Techniques

How to start a fire
Simple Water Purification

Survival Video Tutorials

Best survival knife
Making a Bow and Arrow

Building a shelter

Edible Wild Plants
Bradford Angier

Edibile Plants

Directory of Edible and Medicinal Plants

Traps and Snares

How to spear fish

Preparing fish and game for cooking
Survival IQ

TV Programs and DVDs.

Discovery Channel's Man vs. Wild series with Bear Grylls. Three seasons available on DVD. (Some used copies at I Shouldn't Be Alive is another series that recounts true stories of people marooned. See also the series Dual Survival

Health | Gear | Disaster Monitoring | Medicine | Skills | Evacuation | Food | 2012

Wilderness Survival

Continued from Page 3

Getting Lost and Found

Using situational awareness skills and standard navigation techniques are the best defense against getting lost. (Be sure to read our Navigation tutorial.) For instance, when hiking through unfamiliar terrain, every 15 minutes or so make a mental note of your location by observing your compass heading, angle of sun, landmarks or other markers, like the vegetation, topography, pattern of stars in the sky, prevailing wind, etc.  You may even want to sketch out a rough map on paper as you go. Also make note of the time it takes to walk in any one direction. 

To lessen the chance of getting lost on a return trip to your camp, set up your base near a river, fire road or other baseline. Then strike out in a fairly perpendicular direction from it.  On the return, you'll know you have to turn either left or right when you reach the baseline. And to be sure which way you need to turn, you can also purposely veer to one side of the camp as you walk toward it. That takes the guesswork out of the equation.

If you discover or think you might be lost, immediately stop and establish a new starting point or base. Notch a tree, pile up some rocks, or tie a bright cloth to a branch. Once you're rested and thinking clearly, start hiking again. Trace ever-widening circles around the base as you search for familiar terrain or the trail you were on.  As you move farther away from the starting point, bend branches or blaze trees along your path so you can stay oriented and know the way back. Mark your blazes so that they can be seen in either direction (coming or going). Also cut them into the bark diagonally, with the higher end of the blaze pointed in the direction of the base. 

One method of staying on a straight course as you move along it is to line up two trees or other landmarks ahead as you walk. If you start seeing the two of them separately, stop and realign your position with them. When you reach the second tree, repeat the exercise by lining up two more landmarks that lie directly ahead. (You can also look backwards at the two previous points to verify your direction.)

Using the Sun to Tell Direction and Time

Since the sun shines most of the day in the southern part of the sky, shade is prevalent on northern exposures. This simple rule of thumb can sometimes make up for no compass. In addition, moss grows thickest on the shady side of trees and rocks, so even on a cloudy day, you can determine your cardinal points.

Stick and shadow method - Since the sun travels from east to west, shadows travel from west to east. Thus, if you plant a stick in the ground, mark the end of its shadow with a stone and return in twenty minutes you can mark the new spot where the shadow stops and lay a stick between the two points. This is your East to West direction, with West on the end marked by the first stone.

Use a watch to determine South - Hold the watch with 12 o'clock to your left. Now move your arm so the hour hand points at the sun. The spot halfway between the hour hand and 12 o'clock is south.

4 p.m.
On a sundial, two halves of a semi-circle are marked with lines to catch the shadow of a triangular gnomon that rises perpendicular to the clock face. The right half represents 1:00 p.m to 6:00 p.m. The left half 6:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. 12:00 is at the top. Notice the spaces between the lines are uneven. That's because the sun moves faster up from the horizon than it does across the noon sky.

More Orientation Tips

Makeshift compass – Rub a needle or metal wire against your head (or stroke it with silk) to magnetize it, then float it on a leaf in water.  If you stroke the needle from eye downward, the eye will point north.

Celestial Navigation - At night, all stars circle Polaris, the north star, which never moves. The two stars on the outer part of the scoop of the Big Dipper point to Polaris. Orion, the Hunter, travels SE to SW each night in the winter.  Your latitude on earth is the same as the angle of your location looking up at Polaris. 

Declination/map versus compass North – When reckoning your way using map and compass, keep in mind that the magnetic poles of the Earth are located at different locations than the geographical poles. Thus, a north-pointing compass will always lead you a little astray from the geographical north on a map. For instance, in California, compass north is 14 degrees east of map north. On the east coast compass north is 10-25 west of map north.

Assess the remaining daylight - To judge how long it will be before dusk, raise the closed fingers of one hand between the sun and the horizon. Each finger is worth 15 minutes, and each hand an hour.

Setting correct time on your watch - Use a pine needle to mark a razor- thin shadow on the dial. Find the halfway point between that line and 12 o’clock (using the shorter arc).  Turn the hour hand to this point. 

Starting a Fire

Because matches get wet and cigarette lighters run out of fluid, you should learn a variety of ways to start a fire in the wilderness. Any fire requires you to scavenge and assemble three things before you start:

You must now generate sparks to light the tinder. You can use mineral-rich rocks and/or steel, concentrated sunlight, battery leads, electrical wiring or steel wool. If you have none of these, you'll have to generate an ember with friction, by rubbing a wood stick inside a wooden hole. However, you do it, once you have the spark or heat, and generate an ember or two, you'll have to blow on it to ignite the flame. Here are several specific methods for starting a fire:

Flint Striker - Most survivalists carry a flint striker which they use with a knife or piece of steel to make sparks. If you don't have these, jasper, quartz, iron pyrite (fool’s gold), agate, native jade and other mineral-rich rocks will generate high-heat sparks when struck together.  Or strike the rock against the back of your knife. (If the knife is high-carbon, strike it against the rock.)

Bow and Drill Method - This is a traditional firestarter, and the most labor-intensive. Friction against wood is created by rubbing a thin pole back and forth, with its spear-shaped tip scraping inside a wooden cavity of another piece of wood. Alternatively, a long length of twine, vine or plant root can also be pulled back and forth through a stretch of wood. The process takes time, since you need to heat the wood to about 800 degrees Fahrenheit to get it to burn.

Concentrating Sunlight Method - Use a magnifying glass, camera or binocular lens, broken glass, bottom of an aluminum can or clear ice. Focus a sharp beam of light on your tinder to get it to ignite after a few minutes. This works a little better on a hot, dry day. Make sure your tinder is bone dry as well.

Yucca Wood Method: Yucca wood is found in arid climates (like Mexico) and has a low ignition point.  Cut two sturdy 6-8 inch strips and tie them together with a pebble on each end to allow air space between them.  Make a longer 12-16 inch strip and rub it inside that space to generate an ember.

Other Fire Hints

There are many different types of tinder available in the wilderness. As you hike, be on the lookout for Old Man's Beard (a yellowish, fuzzy material on pine branches), dry moss, lichen, grass, evergreen needles, nests, pussy willow fuzz, dry-rot wood, dry fungi, bark fungus, pith from elderberry shoots, down from milkweed or birds, goldenrod heads, dry veggie fibers, bat dung, resinous dead twigs. Liquid resin is stored in the knots and blisters of pine trees; it flows out when you cut into it. Birch bark will also work; cut a length of it and roll it up for extended use. Note: never cut bark from a tree more than halfway around its circumference or you may kill it.

More Kindling and Fuel Sources- Softwood (needles, scales, conifers) makes best kindling.  Hardwood (maples, hickory, oak, elm, beech, chestnut, poplar, spruce, tamarack, white pine) makes hot long-lasting fire.

Long Fire - Better for cooking multiple dishes and providing warmth when sleeping.  Use the base of a rock cliff or pile a stack of logs to reflect heat back from the far side of the fire.

Sleeping Warm - Heat up ground for sleeping by burning a fire on it. Build a fire on either side of your outdoor bedding, but also dig trench to prevent yourself from rolling into a fire.  Fill it with evergreen boughs and border them with rocks to prevent catching fire. Use heated stones like a hot water bottle.

No-Wood Fire -  Drip melted animal fat down onto a rack of bones hanging over a small kindling fire.

Wood Pile -  To build a log storage device next to a fire, use two stakes, two vertical support poles at back and two diagonal poles running from front to back that will hold cut logs.


Socks - Whenever possible, daily and squeeze out water - don’t wring them.  A good hiking sock has no ridge at the head to rub against your foot.  If socks wear out, use moss.  Your feet are your most important body parts in the wilderness. If your shoes wear out, tear up your shirts to improvise a new pair.

Shoe Fixes  - Birch bark makes great inner soles. If needed, break in leather boots by standing in water for 15 minutes, then walk in them until they dry.  Fold socks over boots to keep out debris.  Don’t use rabbit fur for an exterior sole because it wears out quickly. Use bark or rawhide instead.

Leather Care – Never dry leather close to a fire.  It becomes brittle and stiff.  Stuff wet shoes with moss or grassy to keep shape and wick moisture.  Recondition with foot oil.  Use melted animal fat to waterproof boots.  Best tallow comes from hoofs of moose, antelope and mountain goats.  Don’t waterproof garments with fat because the grease fills holes and prevents air pocket insulation.

Natural insulating materials – Bird feathers (especially waterfowl breast) can be stuffed inside clothes for warmth.

Making moccasins – Use soft tanned leather or durable animal skins, and stiff rawhide for outer soles.  Don’t tan or mess with the rawhide, except to scrape off rough inner parts that might hurt the feet.  Leather straps should be a quarter inch wide.

Sewing thread – Dogbane on sandy shores makes good thread.  So does stringy inside of agave leaves in the North American desert.  You can spot the long needle on the tip of the long, narrow leaves. Bite over the needle and crunch open the skin as if you're wire stripping, then pull out the needle and several long strands. Interweave the strands or just use one for threading a garment or suturing a wound. You can also grind down the needle to make it thinner, as long as you leave it attached to the thread. Tie a knot at the end of the strand so it stays once you've finished your seam.

You can extract thread from spruce roots by simmering them. This thread is used to stitch together birch shoes (after poking holes in the wood with a makeshift awl).  Use spruce gum to seal bark seams.

Buttons - You can use a short bone, wood fragment or sliver of leather from a belt, so long as you can poke 2-4 holes in the center of it. 

See the Native Arts section for information on sewing, tanning of rawhide, leather work and backwoods carpentry.

Misc. Tips

Traveling on foot – Zig-zag along grades rather than up and over. Avoid stepping on wet logs or rocks, or rotted wood, else you might fall or twist an ankle.  Keep your feet straight while walking and come up on your toes with each step to extend your stamina  Change socks at mid-day and bandage any blisters immediately.  If your feet become wet, dry them as soon as possible to avoid getting Trench foot.

Quicksand/Quagmires – This danger lurks in tidal flats, swamps, marshes, water holes covered with dry mud or sand, or muskegs. If you're caught, immediately turn horizontal and keep as much of your body on the surface as possible.  Flatten your stomach and extend your limbs widely. A combination of gravity and your own downward pressure pushes you down. For instance, don’t try pulling out one foot at the expense of pushing the other down further.  Waddle both legs to the surface, then swim out.  Most of these holes are only the size of a couch.  Rest occasionally, but persevere until you're out.

Signaling for help – Make yourself conspicuous against high-contrast background.  Use green foliage or jet fuel to create smoke.  Angle a mirror at sun and rescue plane or sweep the horizon with it to get attention.  Three flashes, shots or dots/dashes translates as an S.O.S.   Send a radio signal at exactly 15 minutes before or after the hour, because this time is officially set aside for potential distress calls.

Making a raft – Use three long fat logs or several skinnier ones to build a narrow vessel.  Balsa wood is the most buoyant, if you can find it. Plastic bottles, if you can seal on their tops, can be attached to the bottom or used as floatation devices. If possible, cut a groove on either end of the logs to insert a crosspiece to fasten them more securely. Cut a dovetail that’s wider at the bottom for a snug fit.  Otherwise just lash the poles together with slip knots that will tighten down when you're finished. Use vines, roots, rope or bark to wrap the logs together and attach a lead so you can walk the raft along shore.  Secure waterproofed provisions so that they’re easy to detach in emergency.  Wear your backpack on the front in case you're thrown in the water.

Scout out the course of river before starting off in order to detect danger spots. Stay in deeper, calmer water to avoid rapids. Listen for a waterfall or other rush of water up ahead.

On a large lake, toss some crumbs on the water and watch where the current takes them. Follow that route to find the water's outlet. 

Cold weather – Ears are vulnerable to frostbite so keep them covered.  Avoid travel in extreme cold. Instead, hole up and wait it out, even if you can't build a fire.  It's OK to sleep, since the cold will wake you up – that is, unless you’re completely exhausted.  In that case, work harder to insure a warm shelter before going to sleep (e.g. build a fire).  Don’t drink alcohol for warmth, since that only gives you a false sense of well-being. 

Whenever soaked to the bone, take off your clothes and squeeze them dry. Then redress and walk vigorously to dry them with body heat.  You can use snow to blot up and absorb moisture from the inside of your jacket.  Moss will sponge up moisture from inside wet shoes. 

If necesssary, build a fire quickly and use your drying garments as a windbreak. (Keep your jacket on, though.)  Garments and leather shoes MUST be dried a safe distance from high heat, or they'll be damaged and lose any insulating properties.

Ice travel – Carry a knife ready to stick in ice for anchor if you fall through.  Stay 20 feet apart from other hikers and connect with rope.  Stick to shallows by noting landscape.  Use pole to test ahead of you.    In a snow avalanche, ride the wave by doing a backstroke.

On slippery ice, put your socks on over snow boots for more traction.

Makeshift snowshoes – Make round bear claw type unless the trail is narrow.  Thaw green saplings, then bend into shape for frame.  Use rawhide strips, leather or rope for webbing. Try to turn up front end for stepping up.

Animal confrontations – Stand still and talk in friendly voice.  If no luck, back away gently, still talking.  Never run away.  Make loud noises to respond to threat.

Avoid exposure to high heat - In a desert or other hot place, it may be better to hunker down and wait during the high heat of the day. If there's no available shade, dig a trench east to west, 2-3 feet down. The temperature decreases considerably the farther below the earth you get.


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