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Three easy ways to practice land navigation

A map and compass on a table during a land navigation class

One weekend while camping with my entire family, the importance of land navigation became very apparent. My brother, sister-in-law, and I went for a hike. After we left, my nephew decided to run and catch up with us. But where we went left on the trail at the trailhead, he went to the right. After he realized he wasn’t going to catch up with us, he thought he’d finish out the loop of the trail. The only problem was the trail does not loop. It stretches 40 miles one way across the southern shore of Lake Ouachita.

After hiking about two miles, he came to a dirt road and thought it would take him back to the campsite – which it would have if he had gone to the left. But he went right. He eventually ran into some people who were dispersed camping, and they were able to point him in the right direction. After an unexpected six-mile hike, he made it back to camp unharmed.

Practicing land navigation is very important if you spend any time in the outdoors. You never know when you are going to get turned around, go the wrong way, or simply just get lost. But having some sense of land navigation can help you orient yourself so you can find your way back quicker.

My nephew made good decisions and bad decisions within the same choice.

Something he did correctly was to take the road where he assumed he would run into other people. At that particular intersection, the Lake Ouachita Vista Trail follows the road a little way while the Charlton Trail continues straight across the road. However, he chose the wrong direction of the road.

Another thing he did incorrectly was to assume the trail was a loop. He later told me he thought all trails looped. He’s 17 and probably hasn’t hiked many – if any – that aren’t loops, so we’ll let that mistake slide. He simply should have turned around and hiked back the way he came.

But probably the biggest mistake he made was that he didn’t have his phone, a map, or a compass, or any other supplies for a long hike. He was not prepared.

Using land navigation to prepare

One of my favorite pastimes is to read and study maps. A good topographical map can give you a great feel about where you are going before you even get there.

For example, after studying and reading the map of where my nephew hiked, you would have learned that the trail steadily climbs up and over a mountain. Then it crosses a stream and intersects the road, which leads back to the campgrounds when hikers take a left.

Just this little bit of knowledge would have given him a much better understanding of what to expect.

So how do you know it goes up and over a mountain?

Knowing how to properly read a topographical map is extremely important in land navigation. It not only shows you what to expect in elevation gain, but it also gives you clues as to how to locate yourself on the map.

A topographical map consists of contour lines that mark the changes in elevation every so many feet. You can tell how steep or gentle the slope is by how close together or far apart the contour lines are.

The number of feet between the contour lines can be found on the key of your map. By knowing the number of feet in elevation change that each contour line represents, you can get an exact reading on your elevation.

A map showing the contour lines

The elevation number is also shown on the index contour lines, which are every fifth contour line. In addition to the elevation number, the index contour lines are also thicker.

A place on the map where the contour lines are close together indicates a steeper slope, and a place on the map where the contour lines are farther apart indicates a more gentle slope. If they are all smushed together and appear to be one fat line, that is probably a cliff.

A “v” shape in the contour lines will show you where the valleys or drainages are. The “v” points to the uphill side of the valley and opens up to the downhill side. Usually, there will be water at the bottom, but in some places like the desert it dries up pretty quickly after a rain.

Knowing how to use a map and compass are cruicial. Check out my blog post on reading a map and using a compass to gain further knowledge.

Know the difference between true north and magnetic north

A compass also helps you in finding your way around in the wilderness. In fact, a compass and a map are both part of the 10 essentials. Even if you think you know the area, you should always carry a map and compass with you. But a map and compass will not do you any good if you don’t know how to use them.

One common mistake that can get a lot of people lost is not knowing the difference in true north and magnetic north.

A picture of a compass and map

True north is known as geographic north, but because of the molten core of the earth the magnetic field shifts. So your compass needle can point a few degrees off from where true north is on your map. The difference in degrees is known as declination.

Your map should indicate the declination on it somewhere near the key.

Practicing navigation every day

Are you one of those people who gets turned around just trying to find the trailhead? Having good skills with land navigation is something you have to work on daily. It’s kind of like remembering phone numbers or birth dates. Back in the day before speed dial and smartphones, I was really good at remembering phone numbers. But now, I couldn’t even tell you the first three digits of my dad’s phone number.

Land navigation is the same. If you rely on your phone and GPS to tell you where to go all the time, you can begin to lose your sense that keeps you oriented and your batteries can die.

Because I love maps and to explore, in the back of my mind I’m always orientated myself.

One way I do this is to get a mental image of the map and every so often think of where I am on the map.

I will admit most of the time it’s because I’m tired and wondering how much further I have to go to the trailhead or the top of the hill. But by continually doing this, I’m keeping my land navigation muscles exercised.

Paying attention to the sun is also a great way to practice orienteering yourself. Notice if it is on your left or on your right.

Sometime when I’m hiking, I stop and ask my hiking partner which way north is. We both make our guesses and then get out the compass and check our answers.

So say my nephew had a good sense of direction and he instinctively knew he started the trail heading south. Once he got lost, even though he didn’t have a map, he could have used his compass to head north, knowing that north would eventually lead him back to the campground.

Land navigation is an essential skill

Knowing good navigation is an essential skill for anyone who spends time in nature or goes off the grid. You never know when you will get turned around and need to orientate yourself.

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Three easy ways to help better practice land navigation because knowing it is an essential skill for anyone who spends time in nature or goes off the grid.

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