How to Navigate Properly Using Maps


How to Properly Use Maps


There are Only Three Kinds of Hunters…

© copyright 2003, by Gary Benton



While many of us spend time in the woods hunting, few of us really know where we are. We often meander around in circles, or go where we wish, and then return. I suggest there are only three kinds of hunters in the world today, those who have been lost, those who will be lost, and those that lie about it. And, I guess I fit all three categories. Honestly, how many of us really know how to read a map or use a compass? How many of us can actually survive if we do become lost? Or, is it really important to know how to do those things? I am not saying these skills are actually needed for our short runs into the backward bush, but they should be learned by all of us who spend much time in the field. In an emergency, these skills can save your life. But, let's look at navigation first.


First, look at your map of the area you plan to go to (you can usually get a map at the local US Geological Survey, order them online, or from an appropriate state office). Look at the contour lines and determine the type of terrain you will be walking over. Depending on the type of map you have, size wise (scale), the lines will indicate the amount of climbing you will have to do. Keep in mind that it may be wiser to go around certain parts, rather than over it. Why climb a hill when it may be faster to go around it? But, you must also have an idea of the distance involved.


A good way to keep track of how far you have gone is by counting your steps. For X number of steps tie a knot or slip a bead. There are commercial beads on a string for you to use, or do like I do and use a cord, I tie a knot every 100 paces. One hundred paces are about three hundred feet. Now, keep in mind that your length of step will affect the number of feet you indicate when you knot or slip down.


Another thing to keep in mind is the pace of the slowest walker. Not all of us move at the same speed, especially if we are carrying a large backpack. So, pace your walk to the slowest person in the group. This allows the group to stay together and makes a much better (and safer) trip overall. I have been on hikes where the group was poorly organized and people were scattered all over the place. Stay together and your trip will be much more enjoyable for all concerned. Plus, if there is an emergency, you can work better if you know where all of your hikers are.


A compass is useful, but only if you understand its usage. Remember, there is a difference in magnetic north and true north. Your local Geological Survey has the true north for you, which depends on your location, so give them a call. Depending on where you are in the world, you can be off as much as 12 degrees if you take a magnetic north heading when you travel. Pay attention and know where the real north is when you plan a trip. Look at your map and plot your trip. You can make compass headings and notes right on the map, if you wish. I find that method keeping notes the best for me.


One last thought here on travel. Do not, unless it is an emergency, travel at night. Once, in the Philippines during survival training, I almost walked over the edge of a cliff moving at night. I had to be moving, due to the escape and evasion part of the survival course, but it sure woke me up quickly. It is dangerous to be moving around when you cannot see. Use some common sense here and travel only during the day.


If you cannot tell a map from a ballgame handout, take a course in map reading. Many colleges, state conservation agencies, or other organizations offer the training. There is nothing more dangerous than a person with a map, thinking they know how to use it, and they know nothing. It is not a shame if you don't know how to read a map, but it is down right dumb not admit your ignorance and then pretend you know how to.


Nature is there for us who hunt to enjoy. But, before you go out, make sure you have at least a basic understanding of the dangers you may be facing. While most of us encounter few problems, all it takes is a wrong turn or misunderstanding and you could have a serious problem on your hands. Knowing where you are and how far safety is could mean the difference between life and death. But, there are other considerations to keep in mind if you become lost too.


Your first step is to stop. Find temporary shelter if you can, sit on a log, or just stand there. Stop. Look around you. Do you honestly know where you are? Do you know beyond any doubt? You must be totally honest with yourself at this point; believe it or not, your life could depend on it. If the weather is wet and cool, notice I did not say cold, you might even have the beginning symptoms of hypothermia and not be aware of it. (If you are not aware of what hypothermia is, you should not be in the woods. It is the lowering of the body's core temperature and can kill). If the weather is cold, your safety may depend on your next step. I suggest you take a look around and decide then what needs to be done. If you are honestly lost, relax. All is not hopeless nor may you even be in serious danger. But, plan as if your life depends on it, because it may. As long as you keep your wits about you and have planned in advance you should be all right.


Take a look around and find a place for a shelter. An ideal shelter would be a cave, but those can be few and far between. If a cave is not available you may have to construct a shelter. Now, in a survival situation, a shelter is not hot and cold running water, a heat lamp, or a set of bunk beds. Many nights I have slept under a shelter made with a tarp or rain poncho. These types of shelters are easy to construct, are somewhat water resistant, and keep you safe.


The key in constructing your shelter is its location. Avoid making it under dead tree limbs, in dry streambeds, on low spots, or too close to running water. High winds, rain, or other weather conditions could make them very dangerous. Two trees, eight feet of cord or line, a poncho and you are set for the night. Merely tie the cord to the trees, drape the poncho over the line, and secure the bottom of the poncho so it does not blow around. I usually tie the end of a piece of line to the poncho grommets and the other end to sharpened wooden stakes I hammer into the ground. A kind of poor mans tent. But, it does work.


In cold snowy weather, you should insulate your shelter. Place pine boughs on top of the tarp or poncho (as constructed above) and then add about six to twelve inches of snow on top. This snow will act as insulation and actually keep you warm. Have the opening to the shelter facing your fire. Do not have a fire inside the shelter (carbon monoxide poisoning). Keep the shelter well ventilated to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning. (I have used a shelter of this type in Alaska when the temperature was minus twenty degree Fahrenheit for three days.) Of primary concern is to conserve your energy and to keep out of the wind. Wind chill can be a real killer.


Next step, usually for purely psychological reasons is a fire. Keep it small and keep your firewood dry. Wet or green wood is difficult to keep burning and a waste of energy to gather. Also, I usually keep a small bit of kindling in my shelter as well so it stays dry. Dry kindling will make it easier and faster to start a fire in the mornings. Also, keep your fire small. You will use less wood and a small fire is much easier to cook on. Well, it is easier to cook on If you have food. A good fire will also assist rescuers in finding you, especially at night. A small fire in front of your shelter and you out of the wind will really make you feel much better. You can even construct a heat reflector is you wish.


Once you have a shelter and fire the battle is half won. Stop once more and relax a minute and take inventory of the equipment you have on hand. Look at what you have, how it is to be use, where it is to be used, and who is to use it. I mean, fishing equipment will not do you much good as fishing equipment if you are land locked. However, the line and the tackle are priceless. You can make snares with the line or use the fishing pole to catch snakes for dinner if need be. Look at abnormal uses for all of your gear as well. Let your imagination take over. I once saw an Alaskan Native start a fire by using his bootlaces and a piece of wood (he made a fire bow). I have even seen women's sanitary napkins used as dressings when a person sustained a serious cut. Keep the mind active. Your will to survive and your mind are your best tools. Keep them both finely tuned.


Once inventory is completed, start on the most serious task you have. Procuring drinking water. Not all water found in the woods if good for drinking. When you camp, hunt, fish, or hike, always have some fresh water on you. I carry a small baby bottle filled with water and it fits into my cargo pocket of my pants. But, for long term drinking, carry water purifications tablets or boil your water. It is funny, when you think of survival most people think of the lack of food, not lack of water. Most of us, especially me, can do without food for a long time with few ill affects. No, I am not suggesting it is healthy, just that water is more of an immediate need. If you have adequate shelter, fire, and water, you can survive for a surprisingly long time. Food, for most of us anyway, is a habit. We eat too much. Besides, the odds are you will be found within forty-eight hours if others know where you went. So, get comfortable and relax.


When you are surviving you will get dirty. This cannot be completely prevented. Nonetheless, attempt to stay as clean as you can. Dirty clothing loses its insulating properties and will not keep you as warm as clean clothing. Beside, good sanitary conditions will assist your body in fighting infections from small cuts and scratches you will receive. Keep your clothing and yourself as clean as you can under the conditions. Keeping your clothing dry is important as well. Try to wear wool, gortex ®, thinsolite ®, or other commercial products that are known to keep you warm even when wet. There are lots on the market so get the best you can afford. Wool is one of my choices.


Once you have a shelter up, fire going, and perhaps dinner on the grill, stay there. It is much easier for folks to find you than you to find them. Additionally, I NEVER go out into the woods without someone knowing where I am, when I left, and when I expect to return. You can tell a family member, girlfriend, or a buddy. It is safer to do this and will assist the authorities if they have to launch a search and rescue effort for you. Consider this, have you ever wandered all over a mall looking for someone? It was difficult to find them, huh? But, if you take a seat on a bench they will walk by you sooner or later. Two trains of thought here, 1) let them come to you, 2) you use less energy. This energy thingy is very important when you don't know when your next meal is coming from. Conserve your energy and let them find you. Besides, you have already established all the comforts of home, right? Why leave it then?


One aspect of all of this I have saved toward the last is being prepared. Once you are forced to spend the night in the woods is not when you want discover you don't have matches. Or, that you don't know basic first aid or how to use some of your survival gear. Prepare. Be a scout and remember the scout motto, always be prepared. I never go out without my survival kit with me. No, it is not very big and it does not weigh much, but it could prove to be a lifesaver. I actually carry most of it in a small plastic box about three inches wide and about five inches long. I have it in my right pants cargo pocket at all times. What do I have in it?

1. A quality penknife or jack knife.

2. Two Condoms for water storage, unlubricated.

3. Water proof matches in a waterproof container

4. Flint and steel or a metal match

5. Water purification tables (50 tablets)

6. A long strip of heavy-duty aluminum foil folded up to cook with

7. Fishing kit, i.e., hooks, sinkers, and some line. Nothing fancy.

8. Commercial back packing first aid kit (with instructions), I carry a very small one.

9. One small pack of gum and one of hard candy (energy)


Also, I always carry three other things on my person. I carry a good quality casualty blanket, dry socks, and about twenty feet of cotton cord. I have found I can survive with the above items. And, all of this stuff weighs almost nothing. I could carry it all in one cargo pocket and still have lots of room left. It is my insurance policy.


One other area I need to discuss is how you dress when you are in the woods. I usually wear military cargo pocket styled pants and shirts (battle dress uniforms). These can be picked up in almost any surplus store at a very good price. I also have good quality boots, warm socks, and always have a belt. I wear a wide brimmed hat to shade my eyes from the elements. Of course you know I also have a poncho but not much else in the way of clothing is really needed. If you want to get a fanny pack and wear jeans, all of the equipment I have listed will easily fit into the container. Once you are in a survival situation is not the time to decide you need the gear. You have it with you, or you do without.


With today's electronics and gadget's it is very difficult to really become lost. GPS (Global Positioning Satellite) systems, cellular phones, and other devices make it safer. But, many people, me included, prefer not to carry those things out of doors. I go out to avoid noise and technology, not to carry it. Keep in mind, all it takes is a touch of bad weather, a serious mishap, or a wrong turn, and you may find yourself in a survival situation.


As you hunt, you are isolated and may often be in some very remote country. Learn to read a map and how to use a compass. And, if you become lost, stop, and then act. Frequently, what you have with you will be all you have to use for survival. Remember, your mind is your best tool. Your determination to survive is your best motivation. With a survival kit, your mind, and determination, you too can survive until rescued.



Using Maps

Gary Benton has over 45 years of outdoor experience in camping, hiking, fishing, and other activities. He's no armchair survival man, he's walked the walk from the arctic to the desert and all the area in between. Gary has an associates degree in Search and Rescue, Survival Operations, a B.S. in Industrial Occupational safety, and all but his thesis completed for a M.S. in Counseling Psychology.
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