If you plan to spend any significant time in the wild for any reason you really should think about learning land navigation. Whether it's hunting, fishing, hiking, camping, or foraging for wild edibles the odds are at some point you will get turned around or lost. Granted if you're only going out on a small portion of private land that you're very familiar with that may not be true, but if you're going on public land especially large tracts of state or national forest it's extremely easy to get lost. Depending on whom you ask between 1,600 and 2,000 people go missing while in the U.S. wilderness each year.
The reasons for that are numerous and more than 80% of them are eventually found safe or recovered after death. It falls on each of us who plan to enjoy the many wonderful natural places we have to do everything we can to avoid adding to these numbers from this point on. That starts with land navigation, if you don't know or understand how to find your way out safely and quickly the ideal decision for you to make is to stay put. Search and rescue teams will find you much faster if you stay in one place and let them do their jobs. If you're not familiar with land nav and the area you're in just randomly trying to hike out will make it much harder to find you and it will take longer. So do your homework now or be prepared to sit and wait for the experts to save you from your own mistake.
Offline Maps and Navigation
You might say there isn't a need to learn land navigation with modern GPS and even cell phones. You can even download offline maps and navigation directions that will work even without a signal. I agree that's a huge help, but technology does fail from time to time. Your battery might die; you might drop it in a creek, river, or lake. Having the ability to find your way out if you must is far more important than most people think. Studying the maps available to you on the GPS, Google maps, Avenza, or OnX is a great place to start. Try to find some key features or landmarks that you can use to roughly determine where you are in an emergency. If you can get the geological map and understand how to read it there's also a wealth of information there as well. But even that is not the most important part.
Basic Land Navigation
Basic land navigation does involve a compass and a map at least. If you want to dig into land nav you will also need a protractor. With those and the proper training you can easily shoot an azimuth, a back azimuth, plot a course, or calculate your exact GPS grid coordinate to within a meter. But let's not get bogged down at the bottom of the rabbit hole before we even look at the entrance. Full disclosure I haven't used my land nav skills in over 20 years so I have to refresh my memory on almost everything more advanced than what we'll talk about today. For this discussion, we'll limit ourselves to the most basic information you need to know to figure out where you're going or how to get to where you need to be. It isn't as complicated as most people think. If you would like to learn more about land nav and you enjoy it go right ahead there are many sources on YouTube or books in the library as well. It won't hurt to know, but it's not essential for small tracts of land.
Land Navigation for Beginners
To me, land navigation for beginners comes down to understanding how to use a compass. I don't mean being able to find north or south either. If you understand how to use a compass you can usually find your way back to civilization with a little time and effort. As you develop more skills you should definitely add an understanding of map reading, knowing your pace count, and calculating an azimuth as well. But for our purposes today we'll keep it simple. Before you go on your trip study the maps of the area well enough to understand roughly which directions will have the shortest distance to get help. For example here in North Carolina one of the public game lands I'm trying to hunt is called Shocco Creek. The section of it I usually go to isn't all that big and it shouldn't take you more than 30 minutes to an hour, maybe less if you're in better shape than I am, to find a road that you can easily follow to safety.
Use of a Compass
So by way of an example on the use of a compass to find your way to safety I'll share part of my scouting trip this morning. The first thing you need to know is that there is a difference between magnetic north and true north. If you're using a good map it should tell you the difference between the two, but that's more advanced than what we'll be discussing. In figure 1 below you will see roughly the area I was in.
This map is available on the North Carolina Wildlife website, if you download the PDF you can also download the Avenza map app and the GPS will continue to track you even if you don't have any bars for any other service. That is a useful tool. You may be able to use it with HuntStand or OnX as well, but I don't know for sure. But for the sake of our discussion, I'll also show you the same location on Google Maps below on figure 2.
O.K. so the little blue dot on both maps shows my location at the time it also shows the direction I was looking. The yellow arrow in the Google map shows the swamp I was headed toward. I wanted to see if there were any good bedding areas or food sources around it. I didn't think there would be based on my map scouting and looking at the topography in the area and I will be writing more about scouting later, but frankly, success in hunting is based more on scouting than most other things especially on public land. On private land, there is a little more flexibility for many reasons that again we will discuss later. And yes, I am well aware it's super late in the season for scouting. O.K. so what does any of this have to do with land nav or a compass you ask? Well, stay tuned. Below on figure 3 I'll show you my compass and pull it all together.
O.K. so now you can see that from where I was standing the direction I wanted to travel was 40° from magnetic north. We know it's 40° because I kept the red direction arrow on the flat clear plastic facing the direction I wanted to travel. Once the magnetic arrow was pointed towards the north on this compass the plastic nob surrounded by the black ring turns and this adjusted the degrees. So I turned it to line up the N for north with the magnetic arrow. Once they lined up you can see that the number 40 lined up with the red directional arrow on the flat clear plastic part of the compass.
Now some people will try to just hold the compass and keep walking in the correct direction. Most of the time that doesn't work well and in the woods it doesn't work at all. You will at some point run into a creek, stream, ditch, bog, swamp, fallen tree, sinkhole, tree, rock, or some other terrain that requires you to pay attention to where you walk instead of the compass. If you happen to be carrying a rifle at the same time you need at least one hand to hold the sling. Let alone if you're keeping watch for any game animal as well. The simplest way is to mark your direction then look for some kind of landmark that you can always find and go back to. In my case, I picked a particular tree with some burn marks around the base pictured below.
So now I have my bearing and a landmark so from time to time I look back to where the landmark is and adjust my course from there. Once I reached the tree I pulled my compass back out of my pocket adjusted it so that I was facing 40° again and found a new landmark until I reached my destination. There was no need to pull out a map or protractor, no need to continuously hold my compass, and no need for some fancy expensive compass or GPS. I can navigate to anywhere I need to go. This is the most basic form of land nav and it's not hard for most people to do. But and this is a huge but, this only works if you know the terrain. If you are in unfamiliar terrain and have no idea which direction help might be found you will need more advanced skills and or tools. In this situation, if I needed to find a road instead of that swamp I knew that directly east or west was a road. As long as I was traveling directly east or west I would find a road. So this method will work on small private land or game lands, but if you plan to traverse larger sections that can be several miles in any direction it is essential to study the map and know the best directions for help. I also recommend a map, compass, GPS, and land nav training before going into such an uncertain area.