Orienteering in the wild

How to use a compass and map in conjunction to find direction. An excerpt from The Wild Journey to Survive by John Dowd, altered for Survival Homes and Gardens)

By John Dowd 

Photo by Richellgen

Maps give a display of the land, with representations of direction, altitude, landscape, and landmarks. The only problem with maps is that they are very little help in travel when one does not know where he or she is on it. Using some deduction and a vantage point, one can surmise their position on a map in the wild. The use of landmarks, combined with pictorials displayed on maps, can give an idea of position, and then direction.

Common sense can play a huge role. For example, if one knows they are lost somewhere near a river, then if the map shows a river to the west, one can conclude (knowing where the river is from one’s own location and on what general side of it one is on based on direction of flow, location of other land marks, etc.) that if they face the direction of the river from their position, then north is to their right. If on the other side of that river is civilization, then that is the direction to travel.

There are several types of maps one could encounter in a survival situation, depending on the location. The most useful of these include sea navigation charts and topographic maps. All maps and chats have a few simple components. The legend, which is a box at one of the corners of a map that will display symbols and their meanings, is a big part of understanding a map. This will tell the user of things like buildings, streams, railroad tracks, landmarks, and more. There is also the face, where the title and often the map’s scale can be found.

On many maps, including navigational charts, there are vertical and horizontal lines that run north/south and east/west. These lines help determine exact position on a map, chart, or GPS. The horizontal lines (left to right, east/west) are the latitude lines. The vertical lines (up to down, north/south) are the longitude lines. Lines of latitude describe how far north or south one is from the equator (the middle line of the earth, where the earth rotates around the sun). Longitudinal lines describe how far east and west one is from the prime meridian (an invisible line drawn around the globe cutting it vertically between the poles; the opposite cut from the equator, both of which together cut the earth into four parts). These two measurements will appear on a map with the latitude written out first, and work like a grid on the surface of the earth. For example, and object is sitting at 50°N, 69°W. This means that the object being located is 50 degrees north of the equator, and almost 70 degrees to the west of the prime meridian. It begins to get more complicated, as not all things fall in those spaces. These degrees are then further boiled down into minutes and seconds (easy to remember, as there 60 minutes in a degree and 60 seconds in a minute). This means that most GPS coordinates will look something more like: 10°24’12.5”N, 70°14’15.2”W. What this basically translates into is 10 degrees, 24 minutes, and 12.5 seconds north of the equator and 70 degrees, 14 minutes, and 15.5 seconds west of the prime meridian. For the curious, this is a random location in a northern Venezuelan mountain range.

Navigation charts will display land masses, sea depths, and even tides. There are a lot of other bits of information that can be displayed, however, for the quick and dirty reading of a navigation chart, those three things are the most important. There can be contour lines that determine depth, but there will also be a series of numeral values all over the chart. These numbers explain the depth measurements, or soundings, of the water in various places. The chart user must read the map face to learn the scale and the measurement for the number’s meanings. This will often be in large print and will read something like: SOUNDINGS IN FATHOMS AND FEET. Most charts today in the U.S. today are measured with soundings in meters, but charts made before the early 1990s were mostly in fathoms and feet. Generally, they are a two-digit code, with the first number in fathoms and the second in feet. For example, one may see a sounding of 64. This would be six fathoms and four feet (fathoms are equivalent to about six feet). If the chart is in meters, then a meter can be divided by 0.3 to find the depth in feet. On navigation charts, tides and their directions can often be displayed by arrows.

Finding position on a navigational chart can be far more difficult than on a topographic map. On the later, one must only triangulate their position with two or three landmarks on the map, such as a mountain and a lake. This may not bring an exact set of coordinates, but it will allow a survivor to generally use a map and find his or her way around an area. On the ocean, with no reference for position but the stars at night, navigation becomes extremely challenging. The simplest way, without tools, is to find one’s latitude. This is done by determining how far the north celestial pole (the north star) is above the horizon. Traditionally, this was done by looking through a tool known as a sextant. Since it is unlikely that a survivor is carrying one of these around, the human arm will work in a pinch. To find latitude, one must outstretch his or her fists and place them one after the other, stacking between the north celestial pole (north star) and the horizon. Each fist length measures about ten degrees of latitude from the equator. This same trick can be done on the southern hemisphere by finding the southern celestial pole (finding both celestial poles is described later in the section Using the stars). Longitude is far harder to determine accurately using only the stars.

The topographic map is like a navigation chart, but on land. These maps will display things like water sources, topography (hence the name), and prominent landmarks. The most obvious features on this type of map are the contour lines that snake about the surface. These will run mostly parallel with other lines and will display altitude. The basic idea is, the further the lines are apart from each other, the more gradual the rise in elevation, and vice versa. This means, that if there is a collection of lines very close together, one can rightly assume a steeper pitch. Displayed along these lines will be numbers that can mean measurements of either feet or meters (most U.S. topo maps are in measurements of feet above sea level). Again, like the navigational charts, the map face or legend will explain. Towns or high points can usually be found displayed on these maps as well.

Finding direction is generally, the easiest piece of information one can acquire. Usually, direction is defined by the four cardinal directions, north, south, east, and west. North points towards the north pole (top of the globe/ earth) and south to the south pole (bottom of the globe/earth), relatively. East and west refer to the directions around the planet. If one is looking directly north from their position, then east is the direction immediately to the right of that person and west is immediately to his or her left. There are different types of north, such as true north and magnetic north, however, in survival these details do not matter. Finding any north will work with a map well enough for a survivor’s purposes.

The compass is one of the most universal tools for orientation. A compass will determine magnetic north, as the red arrow on the compass will be drawn northward, and its opposite pole towards the south. If one does not possess a compass, there are ways to make one expediently. The best way is to collect a metal needle, a magnet, a small piece of buoyant material, and a small container for water. First, one should take the magnet and run it up the needle rapidly. This should be done in one direction, preferably towards the point, and as many as a dozen times. This will temporarily, and mildly, magnetically charge the needle. Next, the person should take the needle and poke it through a cork, piece of wood, or anything small that will float in water. The needle should be pierced all the way through the material, with the eye side and point side both sticking evenly out of the object, balancing on the center of the floating material. Next, a bottle cap, bowl, or shell must be filled with liquid. The floating needle can then be placed into the water and let to rest. After a few minutes, the needle should come to rest pointing north. It may help to spin the needle to loosen it up and get it to rest properly. If this is done, it must be done several times in order to confirm a correct reading. Taking the magnet near the new compass and spinning it around should draw the north end of the needle towards the magnet. This will check which end points where.

To use the compass and a map in conjunction, the basic simplified technique is as follows: The first task to using both is to “set the map.” This involves getting the map to orient north and match the environment. The map should be laid as flat as possible, and the compass set anywhere on it. An orienteering compass works the best. Next, the map and compass must be rotated until the needle pointing north lines up with the north-south lines on the map, lining everything up with north. This should be done in an environment with easily seen natural features which can help establish location on the map. If the survivor takes the map to a high point, he or she can triangulate, as mentioned before, his or her location. Once a single feature is identified on both a map and in reality, they can begin to work out their position that way. This process would start with the survivor making their way to that point, as they would then know at least they are somewhere relative to that feature.

If a person has that orienteering compass, this next step is easier. In many environments, a good easy to see starting point can make a big difference. This can be a river, a mesa, a ridgeline, etc. This following technique can also allow a person to move from one point of interest to another, without getting further lost. It is called following a bearing. To set a bearing, or a direction, the orienteer should take the compass and map, once set, and look towards the target location. Taking the compass, keeping its north orientation, the orienteer must then look out, towards that object or location again. A mark should be made on the compass (or, in the case of the orienteering compass, the directional arrow that moves independently of the north arrow turned) to indicate that direction. Both should indicate or point to the object or location. Now, if the user walks in a relatively straight route, and considering that the location or object is a big target, the orienteer can always pull that compass out, point it north, and see which relative direction they should move to find that place or object as its location will be indicated by that mark or independent arrow. This is true, even if the object cannot be seen, which is often the case if the object was only found by moving to a higher plain in order to see said object. A survivor can then mark a line on their map, indicating their rough rout of travel, and find how far they have come if there are corresponding features on the map the person can find in reality. New more accurate readings should be taken often the closer one gets to said target location. Using this last technique in conjunction with a map, a person can find their relative or, with practice, exact location on the map. To get that relative location, using the compass to find the directions to three or more different points and measuring the space between them, can get the user in the ballpark.

Another technique for finding a bearing without a compass employs the ability to find north by any other means, and some creativity; drawing on paper, carving on wood, or fashioning a circular device out of stone or grass. The basic principle is the same as with the compass, however, north must be manually marked on or in the compassing object, and then the direction towards the landmark should be marked, and the two types of marks must be discernable. This technique will require the user to find north again upon every use of the expedient compass. When the north line is lined up with the northerly direction, it will again display the direction towards the landmark, regardless of if the landmark is visible. A common way to use this without-a-compass-technique is to check orientation at night, with the stars, and to draw a line in the dirt or sand to show the way for the traveler the next morning.

To find cardinal direction without possession of a compass is simpler than many people realize. Following are two ways to do so, one during the day and one during the night.

One way of using the sun requires the use of a watch (or the understanding of how a watch face works) and a visual of the sun. First, one must find the sun. Then, the user must point the hour hand towards the sun. The last step is to determine the halfway point on the watch face between the hour hand and the number 12. That line points south, away from the user. Now, knowing that, one can infer the other three cardinal directions. This method works to find south in the northern hemisphere. When used in the southern hemisphere it will determine north.

Using the stars to find direction is one of the most ancient tools of orientation. There are numerous ways to use the stars in navigation, some require tools and others can be done with a little imagination and the human eye.

Star position tracking is a method that can be used anywhere in the world, and by using any star. Start by picking a star in the night sky. It helps to pick the brightest one, that can be recognized later. Then drive two stakes, or sticks, into the ground about a yard apart, with the tops lined up with the position of the star. Now wait. As time passes, and the stars move through the night. The relative direction they move will determine the direction one is facing. The stars move collectively in the sky from east to west. This is because the earth rotates on its axis counterclockwise when viewed from above the north pole. This means that if the chosen star rose, the user is facing east. If the star dropped, the person is facing west. If the star traveled to the left, the user is facing north. Finally, if the star traveled to the right, the user is facing south when looking out at the direction of that star where the sticks are pointing. In other words, whichever way they start, stars always appear to move west across the sky.