Basic Land Navigation

Basic Land Navigation
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Thanks to GPS now in our cars and on our phones, along with software applications like MapQuest and Google Navigator, people tend to get around easier now than they did 30 years ago. Those wonderful apps like Wayz can not only give you directions, but also warn you of traffic, road hazards and even police presence, thereby increasing the accuracy of planning for road trips. On the other hand, the convenience of these technologies has reduced other skills which used to be common among the people.
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For one thing, people used to carry maps and map-books in their cars; there were street maps for the cities they visited, and the bigger map-books helped them to better travel from one city/ state to another. Despite the fact that there are still big areas in any country lacking cell-tower coverage, or that cellphones are often useless in heavily overcast or precipitous weather conditions, one would be hard-pressed to find map-books in most cars today.
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Likewise, where children used to be introduced to compasses in elementary school, many will finish primary education today without ever learning to use one. While it might seem simple, many Americans have difficulty identifying the four main cardinal directions correctly, typically getting “East” and “West” confused. Further, most people don’t know that a good compass has 360 degree-marks around the rim of a compass, much less how those tiny lines can be important to finding one’s way in wilder rural areas.
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During my first military tour, we had GPS systems, but they were over-complicated devices that required the use of wave points and geographical coordinates. It simply took less time to use map and compass, even in the middle of a Mid-eastern desert. So, we used basic land nav to plot travel directions and cover large distances, then used that bulky GPS occasionally to verify that we were on the correct angle.
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Together, map and compass can be an invaluable tool. Unfortunately, outside of the military, very few appreciate this today.
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Maps
There are a variety of map types. Street maps used for driving are generally planimetric, meaning “flat ground measurement.” On the other hand, hikers and orienteers tend to use topographical maps that show elevation and various major land features.
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Maps are scaled to desired measurements, with the three most common scales being 1:250,000 (wherein one map inch representing 250000 inches on the land itself), 1:62,000 and 1:24,000 in the United States. Canada, on the other hand, prefers 1:50,000. The larger the ratio, the less actual land can be depicted on a map, while smaller ratio maps provide more area detail. It is for this reason that people used to carry multiple maps, of different ratio proportions, for big rural areas they drove through.
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A topographical map provides terrain features, such as hills and valleys and cliffs. Using such, a map-reader can quickly determine if he is heading in the right direction with minimal dependence on his compass.
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Now, one important note to make here is that maps are not perfect. Unfortunately, even the most accurate map will be slightly “off true,” meaning that map north will not match compass north due to geomagnetic variables. The difference between the compass north and “true north” is called the “declination angle,” and it varies from 20 degrees west in Maine to 30 east in parts of Alaska. Traveling relatively short distances in daylight, this won’t affect a walking traveler much; but trying to cover 12 to 20 miles at night through strange terrain, that deviation angle can be costly. (Speaking from experience.)
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So, one of the most important first steps in dealing with a map before long foot treks is to simply establish the declination angle for the area you’re to travel (usually annotated on a map directly). Do this before leaving your home, unit or vehicle. In fact, it’s a good best practice to simply put a protractor on the map, mark your key vertical lines on it and draw your declination lines well enough to see them at night. This will remind you of the declination whenever you look at the map, and will reduce the need for trying to add or subtract degrees while keeping time on your intended route.
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Compass
A compass is meant to complement your map, not replace it. Nonetheless, it’s wise to choose a decent compass if you’re actually planning to orient or hike in unfamiliar terrain. Military compasses are large enough to see 360 angle marks on the outer edge, and a rotating declination “wheel,” allowing you to turn the compass the required number of degrees for the declination angle from true north. This is a very useful feature.
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Additionally, a good compass has an “open cover sight.” This means that there is a thick wire that folds out perpendicularly to the compass face. After turning the compass to correctly match declination angle — called “setting the compass” — one can raise the compass to eye level to identify a specific terrain feature in the distance to move toward. (A more accurate method is to put the compass on the ground, turn it to declination, and then get down on the ground with it to better sight your permanent terrain marker.)
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Again, a good practice is to mark the compass for the declination angle. Some will put a small mark on the outer edge of the face. Another method is to use luminescent marker to draw a line at the declination point, and straight down to the compass base (in case your rotating declination wheel is mistakenly turned by another member of your party, allowing you to quickly return it to the desired angle without going through the process of adding or subtracting again).
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Preparation
Now, obviously, it’s a good practice to mark compass and map before hand. Nonetheless, I’ve been on a number of military missions and training events wherein soldiers failed to do so.
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Another good pre-mission practice is to mark your anticipated route and two alternates in advance. This allows you to familiarize yourself with major terrain features. In fact, it’s good practice to write those expected tertiary guidance points and turning areas down (as a list) for each possible route. This will reduce anxiety while on your long trek, and prevent you from second guessing yourself.
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Additionally, take enough supplies for your journey, but don’t be over-encumbered or wear ill-suited gear for long walks. There’s nothing quite like having your rucksack or backpack rub a blister in your back because it’s loose and bouncing as you walk.
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That’s a topic for another day.
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Practice
One of the biggest mistakes I saw in the military was this “talk to run” mindset. They’d TELL you how to do something or what was expected, and then throw you at it without any other prior training. It was often injurious for physical activities like on obstacle courses. In fact, the practice of break-falling forward with a rifle ”butt-stroking” the ground first typically results in lacerations to numerous soldiers, sailors and Marines in each training group, as these personnel often end up with part of their face/ head hitting either the front or rear sight.
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So, it’s much better to simply practice map-reading, compass use and land navigation several times before actually going out on a real trek. Start small, such as with a short square (four points) of only a quarter-mile in each direction, and then increase the distance slightly. You’ll find that by simply increasing one leg of a journey, such as doing a quarter-mile one way and a half-mile another (a rectangular plotted practice course), it becomes significantly more difficult to find your way back to your starting point. As your skill increases, add shapes to your plotted journey — meaning square, rectangle, triangle and pentagon — before significantly increasing distance. In this way, your first few practice runs are always close enough to your starting point for you to get back safely even after minor navigation errors.
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A Modern Navigation Game
There are two modern navigation practices that have gained popularity in recent times, orienteering and geocaching. Orienteering has become a competitive game, while geocaching allows you to find items left by others (or vice versa). By engaging in such leisure activities, one can become proficient in land nav while supported — with someone else waiting for your arrival or declaration of start, goal completion and route closure — without undue risk in the field. So, by all means, find safe ways of practicing this skill before you really need it or before trying to use it alone far from home.
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