Land Navigation for Survival

I often hear survival experts say that remaining stationary in an emergency is the best way to go. I understand the logic. It is easier for rescue personnel to find you if you stay in one spot, but what if you know that nobody is looking for you?

garmin GPS device over a map and a hunting knife

Maybe you live alone and nobody knew you were headed into the wilderness. Perhaps a natural disaster has struck, and you have elderly parents that live in another city and need protection.

What if an EMP blast takes out the power grid and your kids are stuck at daycare 20 miles away.  How do you find your way?

The pioneers of this country were able to accomplish as much as they did because of their navigational skills.  They were travelling in a completely foreign land and were still able to find their way all across this great nation.

There are several techniques for land navigation, many of which have been around for thousands of years. There are also some more modern strategies that are worth mentioning.  In this article I will cover every option you have to accurately point yourself in the right direction.

Let us start with the most primitive methods of orienteering. The motto ‘follow the water’ has been an effective navigation method for as long as man has wanted to travel. In most cases, small water sources lead to large water sources.

Large water sources are where people and animals congregate. If you find a stream or river, there is a good chance that rescue is around the next bend if you follow the water.

Humans have always stared up at the sky and utilized the positioning of the sun to determine direction. You can also use the sun for the stick method of determining a more precise true North.

Shove a stick straight in the ground and mark the point of the shadow created.  Wait 15 minutes and mark the next point. Connect the dots and you have created an East/West line. Then draw a line perpendicular to that, and you have your North/South line.

Shadow stick navigation

So what happens if you are lost at night?  You probably already know that the North Star is a good indicator of which direction to follow.

To find the North Star, follow the two stars that form the outside barrier of the cup.  Extend that line pointing away from the mouth of the cup, and you will find the North Star.

Members of the Underground Railroad relied almost exclusively on celestial navigation, specifically on the North Star. You can also use Orion’s Belt to find true North.

When you find the constellation in the sky, look for the three stars that form a straight line.  This is the belt and runs East/West.  If you walk directly towards it, you will be heading to the North.

A helpful skill when navigating is using landmarks.  This could be a large tree, a body of water, or a mountain peak.  As long as you can see this object consistently, it will allow you to keep your bearings.

Sometimes, the canopy of the trees is so dense that you have to climb to the top of one to see a landmark.  Many times it is worth the climb, but be careful.  One slip and you are no longer mobile.

Paper maps are a huge part of navigation, and unfortunately are becoming increasingly rare. Often I will draw my own map when I enter an area to show me locations of food, water, and dangerous animals.

If you are in an urban setting and need to get out of town quickly, a street map could help you find the back alleys that get you to safety.  If you are in the bush and there are no roads, a topographical map could tell you which way to go.

Properly reading maps is a skill that could be vital to your survival. One of the most important aspects of working with a map is having a good compass to align it.  It is also important that you add to your map as you go.  As you learn of new areas, make sure the map covers them in detail. Always carry a sharpie and paper for this and other purposes.

Horses and dogs are a somewhat surprising but effective way to navigate.  These animals get used to a route and can sometimes find their way over long distances. Oftentimes, you may be lost but your horse or dog may know the way home.  Don’t take them for granted.

A second way animals can help you navigate is the game trails they create.  Animals typically will travel to water at least once a day.  They take the same path over and over, and eventually this wears a path into the ground.  If you follow one of these trails, there is a good chance you will find water and possibly rescue.

During certain seasons, plants are a way you can orient yourself in the wild.  If you can find a large tree that is out in the open, you will notice that the branches tend to grow differently on one side than on the other. 

Typically, branches on the North side will grow straight up, but branches on the South side will grow more laterally.  Be sure to walk around the tree several times to make sure you assess the situation properly.

If you are in mountainous terrain, climb to the peak and look down both sides. Normally, you will have more deciduous trees on the South side versus the North side. Also. In cold climates, snow will tend to melt faster on a southern slope.

Many people say that moss only grows on the North side of trees.  This is simply not true.  There are too many other variables that determine where moss will grow, so this is not a reliable method.

Storm fronts and wind direction are less common methods to determine cardinal directions.  In most parts of the world storms consistently blow in from the same direction.

For example, here in Mid-Missouri the storms move from West to East and slightly north. If dark clouds are rolling in, that’s a great clue as to which way to travel. Also, I know that wind on my property blows from North to South in most cases.  You can get your bearings by plucking a few blades of grass and dropping them to see how the wind catches them.

If you want to be more accurate than looking at the sun and stars, you still have options. You can make a homemade compass. You will need a large leaf or container, some water, a float, a thin piece of metal such as a needle or paperclip, and a magnetizing agent such as another piece of metal or a magnet.

magnetized needle on leaf on puddle of water showing North
magnetized needle on leaf on puddle of water showing North

Fill the leaf with water and then magnetize the needle.  You simply rub or beat your magnet on the needle and it will become polarized. Set it on your float and once it settles in the water, it will give you a magnetic North/South line to work with.

how to make a sewing needle into a compass - the easy way

You can use your old analog wristwatch to direct you as well.  Hold your wrist flat so that the face of your watch is parallel to the ground.  Then point the hour hand directly at the sun.

Mark the half way point between your hour hand and 12 o’clock and you have determined true North.  This does not work with a digital watch of course.

If you don’t have an analog watch, you can accomplish the same thing by drawing a circle in the dirt.  Use the four finger method to determine what time it is, and then draw in the numbers and hour hand.

If you want to go modern, there are GPS units that can tell you exactly where you are.  Some of these units will allow you to save specific locations which is perfect for hunting and fishing.

They are often as good as a topographical map, but that is only as long as the grid is still functional. Some of them even have the ability to call or text family, friends, and emergency personnel. I must warn that relying solely on technology is risky.

I used to work a job where navigation was essential.  I relied on paper maps and my coworkers relied on GPS.  You should see the panic in their eyes when the battery died or they lost signal.

There are also a few important points to make about leaving your camp in general.  Blazing your trail is always a good idea. This is the process of marking trees so that rescuers can find you.

Many people use spray paint to mark trails these days, but you can also use a blade. Just cut the bark away from the trunk in a small section, and the white interior will stand out like a sore thumb.

You should also mark your direction of travel before you head out.  Construct a large arrow marker to show rescue personnel that you were there and are not far away.

One essential point that must be discussed is compensating for your dominant foot.  If you are right footed, you will tend to veer slightly left over long distances.

This is why there are so many accounts of people walking circles in the bush. To compensate for this, move to your right every time you face an obstacle in your path. This little adjustment will keep you pointed in the right direction.

Your decision to travel in a survival situation must be carefully contemplated. If you know people are looking for you, staying in one location may make more sense. Staying still while waiting for rescue is a truly helpless feeling.

By moving towards potential rescue, you get the sense that you are taking control of your survival.  However, you may be accidentally evading rescue personnel.  Choose carefully.

If you decide to head out into the unknown, take your time and make wise decisions. You have plenty of different techniques to help you navigate, but you can’t rush them.

It can be easy to make a costly mistake, especially when you are tired, hungry, and dehydrated.  It is best to keep a slow but steady pace, leave clues for your potential rescuers, and double check your work.

If the sun indicates you are heading East, you may want to use landmarks as well.  If your horse is headed South and it feels like he is heading home, you may want to check your direction using the wristwatch method.

As you become more familiar with these strategies, you will develop a better sense of general direction. After years of orienteering, I almost always know which way is North without any effort.

The way the shadows fall, the warmth on my face, and the general appearance of the forest all give me a good feeling about the cardinal directions. It has become second nature.

However, you can bet that I would use every tool I have to properly navigate in a survival situation. Travelling in the wrong direction is simply not something on which I am willing to gamble. Happy trails!

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