Navigating the Wild: Land Navigation Tips for Bushcraft

Navigating the Wild: Land Navigation Tips for Bushcraft


Being able to find your way in the great outdoors is incredibly important for those who have a passion for bushcraft.

Think of it like solving a big puzzle.

First, you need to figure out where you are, plan where you want to go, and then use different tools and methods to actually get there.

In today's tech-heavy world, where GPS devices are readily available, it's tempting to rely on them for navigating the wild.

But no matter how fancy and expensive your gadgets are, they can still let you down.

They might run out of batteries, get damaged by moisture, fail in extreme cold, or meet an unfortunate end by falling off a cliff.

That's why knowing how to use old-school, primitive methods for wilderness navigation is still crucial.

In our previous blog post, titled "Back to Basics: A Guide to Primitive Bushcraft Techniques," we talked about using natural methods like the sun, shadows, and stars to find your way in the wild.

So, in this article, we're going to explore another primitive but reliable way to navigate in the wild: using maps and compasses, along with a technique called dead reckoning.

By combining these two tools and embracing the method, you can effectively plan and execute their journeys through various landscapes.

Here are the key points we'll cover:

  • Plan and Prepare

  • Master the Basics of Map Reading

  • Acquire and Use a Compass

  • Practice Dead Reckoning

  • Develop Your Situational Awareness

  • Stay Calm and Patient

Whenever I share knowledge about a new subject, I usually feel pretty excited about it.

But I have to admit, this time, mastering these navigation skills isn't all fun and games.

However, once you become an expert in these skills, it can open up a whole new world of adventures for people who enjoy bushcraft, hiking, and mountain climbing.

This is especially true because many of the world's most breathtaking views don't come with clear paths or trails to follow.

Plan and Prepare

From all my adventures in bushcraft, I've learned two important things.

Firstly, it's pretty easy to lose your way, especially when you're exploring places you're not familiar with.

But here's the positive side...

Secondly, if you pick up some smart ways to find your way and get everything ready before your wild journey, it boosts your confidence to explore new areas.

So, before you step into the world of bushcraft, you need to do some careful planning.

First, plan your route. Think about the land, what the weather might be like, and what you'll need for the trip.

On your map, mark important spots like where to find water, good resting places, and where you want to set up a shelter.

Also, always check the weather forecast before you leave.

If it's going to be really bad, postpone your trip.

I made a mistake once, and I got stuck in the woods for a whole week because of a big snowstorm.

Second, make sure all your important gear is ready.

This includes things like maps, a compass, food and water gear, tools for cutting and sawing, and a first-aid kit.

I've got to give a shout-out to my trusty titanium pot with hanger. It's been a real lifesaver.

Without it, I wouldn't have had clean water to drink and hot food to eat when I was trapped in the forest.

Additionally, even when it was freezing outside, it still boiled water and cooked food quickly.

Always have a plan for emergencies, like a way to get help if something goes wrong, like using a whistle, a mirror, smoke, or ground markers.

My way is to tell someone where you're going and when you expect to be back.

I always tell my wife about my trips, even though she sometimes nags me about them.

Lastly, before you venture into unknown territory, practice these navigation skills in a place you know well.

It'll help you feel more confident and prepared.

You can also take classes to learn more about this stuff.

In a nutshell, getting ready and planning carefully are the keys to having a safe and thrilling bushcraft adventure in an unfamiliar place.

Plan and Prepare

Master the Basics of Map Reading

In the combination of a map and compass, the map's role is to provide essential details about the terrain and noteworthy landmarks.

There are three types of maps out there, each serving distinct purposes in land navigation: Topographic Maps, Road Maps, and Thematic Maps.

Road maps primarily focus on urban areas and lack sufficient detail for off-road navigation.

Thematic maps are designed to complement other map types. So, in this discussion, we'll concentrate on topographic maps.

The key to mastering a topographic map lies in transforming its two-dimensional representation into a three-dimensional mental image in your mind.

This skill takes time and practice.

Initially, the map seems like a tangle of lines and shapes, but with perseverance, you'll learn to visualize the landforms in 3D and correlate what you see on the map with the actual terrain before you.

Don't be discouraged by the process; as I spent half a year honing this skill, and I'm still improving.

Understanding Map Scale

When you're learning about topo maps, knowing what scale means is really important.

The scale tells you how things on the map relate to the real world.

For example, if you see a scale of 1:50,000 on a map, it means that every 1 unit (like an inch or a centimeter) on the map stands for a huge 50,000 units in real life.

This helps you figure out how far things are from each other, plan your trips, and guess how long it might take to get somewhere.

Common map scales you often come across include 1:24,000, 1:50,000, and 1:100,000.

Spotting Important Landmarks and Terrain

Next, you should learn to spot important landmarks and features of the land.

Maps are like colorful puzzles, using various symbols, colors, and lines to represent different aspects of the landscape.

When you spot blue lines and shapes on a map, they tell you about the presence of nearby rivers, streams, or lakes.

Green areas indicate dense vegetation, typically forests, while lighter or colorless regions suggest more open and clear terrain.

Now, those brown lines you see are what we call contour lines.

They're the real gems of topo maps, revealing essential details about the land's height and shape.

Here's the trick: if these contour lines bunch up closely, it means the land is steep. But if they spread out, it signifies flatter terrain.

This is why topo maps are your trusty companions in the wilderness.

Thanks to these contour lines, you can grasp the land's shape by connecting points at the same height.

Take a look at the picture below. It's one of my favorite topo maps, displaying Mount Saint Elias.

Those contour lines beautifully trace the mountain's form, making it easier to visualize the terrain.

Also, man-made things like buildings, roads, and other structures can be good for figuring out where you are and where you want to go.

If you want to learn more about these symbols, you can check out this map key from the United States Geological Service (USGS).

I have to admit, it's not easy to remember all of these symbols at once, but you can get better at it little by little.

Paying Attention to the Sides of the Map

Lastly, it's really important to look at the sides of the map.

They can give you some very important information about the area you're exploring.

For example, some maps will show you which way is north.

They can also tell you about something called magnetic declination.

Magnetic declination, or magnetic variation, is the angle on the horizontal plane between magnetic north and true north.

- Source Wikipedia

Perhaps this magnetic north and true north stuff sounds confusing. It sure did to me at first!

You see, topo maps are set up with the true north, which is the North Pole.

But the Earth's magnetic pole, the thing compass needles point to, doesn't exactly line up with the North Pole.

And to make it even trickier, the magnetic pole moves around over time.

So when you're using a map and compass together, you need to know the difference (in degrees) between magnetic north and true north.

That way, you can adjust your calculations correctly. We'll dive deeper into this topic in the upcoming compass section.

So, keep an eye out for helpful information on the edges of your map.

Also, don't forget to carry your topo map in a waterproof case.

It's even better if you have two copies, just in case one gets wet or blows away.

Getting really good at these basic map-reading skills is not like a walk in the park, but it's crucial for confidently and efficiently navigating in places you don't know well.

Master the Basics of Map Reading

Acquire and Use a Compass

While a topographic map gives you a detailed view of the terrain, a compass plays a vital role in providing directional bearings.

Bearings refer to specific directions measured in degrees clockwise from North, helping you stay on course toward your desired destination.

Picking the Right Compass

Now, you might own a novelty compass hanging on your keychain or integrated into your trekking pole, but for effective bushcraft navigation, a proper compass with a bezel and a baseplate is essential.

A great example is the Suunto A-10 compass.

When choosing a compass, consider various features that can elevate your navigation skills:

A sighting mirror is a valuable addition as it folds over, allowing you to take a bearing and read the compass simultaneously.

In my experience, this significantly enhances the accuracy of bearings.

If you're into winter bushcraft, a clinometer is handy.

It helps you measure slope angles, which is crucial for evaluating avalanche terrain.

Now, let's delve into magnetic declination.

If your compass offers declination adjustment, you can set it once and avoid the hassle of constant adding and subtracting.

Just remember to update it if you change your location.

For nighttime adventures, luminescent markings are a must. They make compass readings effortless even in low-light conditions.

Lastly, consider a global needle compass.

While most compasses work only in the northern or southern hemisphere, a global needle compass functions universally, ensuring reliability wherever your explorations take you.

Before you embark on your navigation journey, it's essential to familiarize yourself with the various parts of your compass.

Refer to the helpful diagram below.

Use A Compass

Once you've got a good grasp of your compass's components, it's time to learn how to use it effectively.

This includes understanding how to take bearings and adjust for declination.

Taking Bearings

A bearing is a precise way to describe a direction, represented in degrees clockwise from North.

For instance, when heading North, you'd follow a bearing of 0 degrees.

If you're moving East, the bearing would be 90 degrees.

To find the bearings between your starting and destination points, follow these simple steps:

First, place your compass on the map, lining up the baseplate with your starting point and where you want to go.

Next, make sure the direction of the travel arrow points to your destination.

Rotate the bezel until the orienting lines on the compass match the map's vertical grid lines, with 'N' (North) pointing to the map's top.

The number at the index line is the bearing in degrees between your starting point and your destination.

Remember that bearings are measured in degrees, with the four cardinal points (North, East, South, and West) corresponding to 0/360, 90, 180, and 270 degrees, respectively.

Declination Adjustment

However, to ensure that your direction is spot on, you must account for declination.

Neglecting it could lead you in the wrong direction, and even a slight degree difference on the map can translate to a significant error in the actual outdoor terrain.

As mentioned earlier, declination is the angle between magnetic north and true north, which varies by location and gradually changes due to tectonic plate shifts.

For instance, in September 2023 in Seattle, Washington, USA, the magnetic declination is 15 degrees EAST (as per the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration).

Since degrees are measured clockwise from true north, numbers to the east are positive. In this case, we call it +15 degrees.

So, when you use a compass with declination adjustment in Washington, you set it to -15 to subtract 15 degrees from your intended direction of travel.

You can easily check the magnetic declination for your specific location on the NOAA official website.

Once you master these two key tips, you can confidently navigate in the right direction.

Remember, mastering these skills requires more than just reading a single blog post.

Opting for taking a map and compass course that includes practical field exercises is the great choice.

Acquire and Use a Compass

Practice Dead Reckoning

Once you've become proficient at reading maps and using a compass, you can discover the art of reaching your destination gradually instead of attempting to reach it all at once.

This approach helps you avoid losing your way.

One common technique is known as dead reckoning.

Dead reckoning involves estimating your current position based on your prior known location, your speed, the time that has passed, and the direction in which you've been traveling.

To effectively apply dead reckoning, you need to remember this formula from your high school physics lessons: Distance = Rate * Time, where:

- Distance represents the distance covered in miles or kilometers.

- Rate stands for your speed in miles per hour (MPH) or kilometers per hour (KPH).

- Time denotes the duration of your journey in hours.

This primary formula can be rearranged to find other variables:

- Time = Distance / Rate

In dead reckoning, you essentially input two known variables to calculate the third.

Now, let's put this formula into practical use:

Imagine you've been walking for 1 hour from your last known location, Old Faithful.

On the type of terrain you're traversing, your typical walking pace is about 3 miles per hour (approximately 5 kilometers per hour).

You intend to reach your shelter at Morning Glory Pool, and your map indicates it's 5 miles (approximately 8 kilometers) from Old Faithful.

How much farther do you have to walk to get there?

Using the Distance = Speed x Time formula, you determine that you've covered approximately 3 miles (about 5 kilometers) (3 mph for 1 hour).

So, you have approximately 1 more mile (around 1.6 kilometers) to go.

However, in hilly areas where the terrain fluctuates, you need to consider that aspect too.

For instance, your map states that the distance between Electric Pass and Cathedral Lake is 2.8 miles (about 4.5 kilometers), and your typical hiking speed is 3 mph (approximately 5 kilometers per hour).

If you use the Time = Distance ÷ Speed formula, you'd estimate that it takes roughly 1 hour.

However, there's a substantial hill to climb there, and based on your past experiences on similarly steep terrain, you know that you can ascend about 20 vertical feet (approximately 6 meters) in a minute.

So, you revise your estimate: Instead of 1 hour, it's going to take approximately 100 minutes (2,000 vertical feet ÷ 20 vertical feet per minute).

I must acknowledge that when you initially begin, it does not seem particularly easy.

That's why I opted to practice this method using two nearby landmarks within a distance of less than 3 miles.

Believe me, with some practice, you'll become more adept.

In time, you'll gain confidence and become skilled at finding your way in unfamiliar places.

Practice Dead Reckoning

Develop Your Situational Awareness

Furthermore, to effectively harness the power of this dead-reckoning method with a map and compass, you should foster your situational awareness.

Think of it as building a close relationship with your surroundings and the information they offer.

To enhance your situational awareness, here are some important things you can do:

First and foremost, use all your senses, like your eyes, ears, and even your nose, to learn more about where you are.

Sometimes, you can hear a river or smell a campfire before you see them.

While you're moving, be sure to look around carefully.

Try to find things you recognize, notice any changes in the land, and spot anything special that can help you find your way.

Furthermore, it's crucial to check your map and compass regularly to make sure you're going the right way.

For example, I always checked my bearings every 20 minutes when I first started my bushcraft journey.

Think of this as giving your path a second look. If you realize you've gone the wrong way, it's easier to fix it early on.

Lastly, keep a small notebook with you to write down important information like bearings, how far you've gone, and things you see that are easy to remember.

By consistently practicing these techniques, they will gradually become your second nature, effortlessly enhancing your navigation skills.

Develop Your Situational Awareness

Stay Calm and Patient

However, even with the best preparation and navigation skills, you may still encounter challenges or become disoriented.

In these moments, it's crucial to be calm and patient.

For example, if you're feeling lost or confused about which way to go, just stop for a minute and take a good look around.

Use your map and compass to figure out where you are.

If you can't figure it out, think about going back to a place you recognize, especially if you're in an unfamiliar area.

If you're really, really lost and can't find your way at all, that's when you might need to use tools like a whistle or a mirror to let others know you need help.

In more serious situations, you could make a fire or create some smoke to signal that you're in trouble.

Stay Calm and Patient


When you venture into the wilderness for bushcraft and nature exploration, having the know-how to find your way is like possessing a magical key.

This key unlocks the door to explore off the usual paths, discover less-trodden places, and truly revel in the natural beauty of the outdoors.

To embark on this journey, you need to start with two essential things: planning and preparation.

Before setting out on your adventure, it's vital to think ahead and get ready.

Firstly, you should learn how to read maps and use a compass.

These tools act as your secret guides for navigating. They assist you in determining your location and the right direction to take.

Practice is crucial too. It's akin to learning a new skill like riding a bike or playing a musical instrument. The more you practice, the more skilled you become.

One valuable skill to practice is called "dead reckoning," which aids in estimating distances and staying on course.

Being aware of your surroundings is another vital skill.

It's like paying attention to your environment when you're strolling down the street. This helps you understand your location without much effort.

Lastly, maintaining a calm and patient attitude is key. Sometimes, things may not go as planned, and you might encounter challenges.

However, if you remain composed and patient, you can tackle any obstacles that come your way.

Additionally, having the right gear can be a lifesaver during emergencies.

By adhering to these straightforward principles, you'll be better prepared to explore new territories, navigate through the wilderness, and relish your outdoor adventures safely and with increased confidence.

Learning these skills may not happen all at once, so feel free to save this article and revisit it as you gain proficiency.

To your next adventure,


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