More Resources

Recommended Books

The Essential Wilderness Navigator by David Seidman and Paul Cleveland.

Wilderness Navigation: Finding Your Way Using Map, Compass, Altimeter & GPS by Bob and Mike Burns.

Outdoor Navigation with GPS by Stephen W. Hinch.

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


School of Sailing

Airplane Navigation

Navigation skills for boating

Lost and Found

Survival | Gear | Compass | GPS | Topo Maps | Evacuation | MegaDisaster | 2012

Use landmarks, baselines and other clues when drawing your map.

Memorizing the position of major cardinal points on a circle will help you navigate even when no compass is available.

Use a wristwatch to determine South. It's halfway between the 12 and the hour hand, when the hour hand is pointed in the direction of the Sun. North can now be deduced, since it's always 180 degrees, or in the exact opposite direction of South.

The Sun rises due East only on the Equinoxes, so you can't rely on this method to pinpoint North.

The North Star (Polaris) never moves in the sky, while the constellations rotate around it.

In the southern hemisphere, the pole star is not a star but the intersection of a constellation known as the Southern Cross. Two bright stars, Alpha and Beta Centauri, point to the head of the cross from the left. Like Polaris, the Southern Cross should hold its position regardless of the time of night or season.

A floating needle will line up along a north-south line. This won't work with aluminum, copper or any other non-ferrous metal.

Navigation Tutorial

Continued from Page 1

Lost and Found

Besides keeping you on course, navigation techniques will help you when you're lost.  Many hikers who stumble into unfamiliar territory inevitably compound their anguish by aimlessly wandering further offcourse. In the process, they expend precious energy and become vulnerable to hypothermia, dehydration and joint injuries. Even worse, they often end up outside the initial perimeter set up by search and rescue teams.

Note: You can download a printable PDF doc of this section.

Experienced travelers, on the other hand, stop at the first sign of trouble. If it’s late in the day, they scout out a good spot to bivouac overnight, then make a fresh start in the morning.  While a speedy rescue may seem like the most important priority, personal safety and protection should always come first.  That may mean building a shelter and a fire, a makeshift spear or other weapon. 

A sleepover may not work under some scenarios. In cold conditions, a quick descent in altitude may be necessary. Bad weather, a wounded companion or dangerous wildlife may also necessitate a speedy exit. Before leaving the high country, however, take advantage of the elevation to work out your escape route.  Keep in mind that old-growth forests contain less foilage than areas with younger trees, enabling you to move more quickly through them. The snow levels should also be lighter, and you'll have better protection in the case of an avalanche. (If you’re lost in low-lying terrain, climb a tree if it’s safe to do so and scout out the area.)

If you’re trying to pick up a trail you think is nearby, search the area in semi-circles, as if you were walking around the seats of an amphitheatre. The stage is your command post.  On the first circuit, count out 100 paces to the left of the stage then start the semi-circle around your imaginary amphitheatre.  If that parameter doesn’t turn up anything, double the number of paces and try again.

Check out the diagrams on the bottom right side of this page for more navigation tips.

If you're trying to move in a specific direction and don't have a compass, one trick for staying on course is to to look 50 feet (or 50 yards) straight ahead and line up two trees, one behind the other, that lie on your imaginary line.  When you reach the second tree, repeat the procedure, lining up two more trees. 

A technique for tracking your overall progress is to build little rock piles, known as cairns, as if they were a trail of bread crumbs. Some trekkers prefer to cut blazes into trees. Place an arrow on the side of the blaze that represents your forward direction of travel. You can also cut up a piece of cloth into ribbons and hang these on branches. Whatever signal you use, make sure it can be seen as you approach the spot from different directions.

In some cases, staying put long term and waiting for a rescue may be the best course of action.  Have a signal fire ready to light, a mirror you can shine into the sky, or create noticeable markings on the terrain that can be seen for a long distance.  But if you suspect that no one will notice you’re gone, self-rescue must be undertaken so long as weather conditions allow it.  Even with no map or compass, you can still plot a course and follow it using baselines, bracketing and the other techniques you learn in this tutorial. 

Drawing a Map

It won't hurt to document your progress, either. In the absence of a map, you can use landmarks and angles to draw one or two of your own.  Perhaps your current fix is a place you’d like to return to camp or fish or recover buried treasure. In a survival situation, you may have to leave an injured companion behind in a makeshift shelter while you go fetch a rescue team. Taking time to draw your surroundings in relation to visible landmarks will make re-locating the spot easier, especially if you end up injured yourself and can’t lead the expedition.

Also try to estimate distances on your map.  A quarter mile, for instance, is 437 yards, or about four and a half football fields.  If you jog, you know that one lap on a running track equals a quarter mile. Four laps equal one mile, and one mile is 5,280 feet. If one human pace equals five feet, it will take 264 paces to cover that quarter mile. 

Since you won’t be toting a calculator along, it’s also not bad idea to learn the metric system, since conversions from meters and kilometers is a snap. 1,000 meters equals a kilometer.  It’s pretty simple.  Besides that, all maps published outside the United States use the metric system.    One kilometer is equal to five-eighths of a mile.  One meter equals about two and half feet.  So two meters would equal one pace.

If you’re a bad judge of distance and didn’t count your paces, just draw the landmarks and your fix on your map  so they’re roughly proportional. If that’s not possible, write notes in the margin indicating, for example, that one landmark is twice is far away as another. You can use your fist and fingers to eyeball proportional distances. Also write down an estimated travel time between any two points on the map, if you know it.  In fact, any clue that helps organize the terrain is worth writing down. 

If your makeshift shelter is hidden in a forest, your fix might be the point when you first enter the trees, since it’s at this spot that you can line up landmarks and triangulate a fix.  From there, identify the direction of travel into the woods, noting any laterals, anomalies or other features to watch for.

Where is North?

Don’t forget to identify North on your map. When rescuers reach the general theatre of travel covered by your drawing, the first thing they’ll want to do is orient the map to the terrain. So place a big N on it somewhere with an arrow pointing northward.

If you don’t have a compass, you may not be able to discern your cardinal points.   But as we’ve seen, is important to figure out which direction is which.  Like building a fire, you should learn a few different ways of determining due North.

One is to use the current time on your watch and the Sun to establish due South, or exact South.  If you have an analog watch, point the hour hand at the Sun.  Halfway between this point and the number twelve is due South.   Now make an about face and you’ll be facing due North.  If you only have a digital watch or cell phone, you can still use this method.  Just draw a clock face on a piece of paper, adding the second hand where it would be on an analog watch.  Your circle should be proportionally accurate, with the relevant numbers spaced evenly around number twelve.

You might assume that the sun invariably rises due East and sets due West, making it a snap to identify due North.  Yet it’s only on the Autumn and Spring Equinoxes, when daylight and darkness are exactly the same, that this holds true.  During the winter months, the sun pokes up more towards the southeast and sets in the southwest.  That’s because the North Pole is tipped away from the sun. In the summer months, when the North Pole is tilted toward the sun, it rises in the northeast and sets in the northwest.

On a cloudy day, look to the terrain for signs of north and south. Moss tends to grow on the northern side of rocks.  Wildflowers don’t grow as well on the northern side, except in late summer in the high country. Snowdrifts pile up more thickly and take a much longer time to melt on the northern side of rocks and other shaded terrain.

If it’s nighttime, you can identify true North by locating the star Polaris.  Since the North Pole points to it, Polaris always sits in the same place in the sky above due North.  To pinpoint it, look for the Big Dipper.  The two stars at the front of the ladle line up so that they point towards a relatively empty portion of the sky.  At the center of this area is Polaris.

If the Big Dipper is not visible, just look to the right of where the sun set that day. That’s the northern horizon.  Extend one arm towards the horizon and the other skyward, at an angle between 30 and 45 degrees, if you’re in the United States.  Now canvass the sky with your upward pointing arm until you spot the brightest star in this area.  Polaris is not that bright, but brighter than other stars in the vicinity. It also marks the first star on the handle of the Little Dipper.  Once you’ve located it, you can mark a north-south line of trajectory on the ground .  Use two rocks and a stick, or draw a line through the soil.

If you forget to label which end is North, in the morning, if the sun rises to the right side of the stick, then North is at the top.  If it rises to the left, then label North at the bottom of the stick.

If you’re not carrying a compass and want to improvise one on the fly, find a steel pin or needle and rub it several times with a silk or synthetic cloth to create a static charge.  Rub the needle from the bottom up only, not back and forth. You can dangle your needle in the air by a thread, or float it in still water, using something other than a steel-based container.  An aluminum can is fine, since aluminum has no iron in it.  Copper is also OK. Most sewing needles and pins are made of stainless steel. Keep it level, or parallel to the ground. Test your improvised magnet a couple times to make sure it lines up in the same place.  Then mark the direction on the ground as your north-south line. 


Part 2 - Using a Compass


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