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Basic Land Navigation: How to Find Your Way and Not Get Lost

Practical ways to find your way across the terrain using only a map and a compass to guide you.
4.3 (52 ratings)
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226 students enrolled
Created by Reid Tillery
Last updated 7/2015
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  • 4 hours on-demand video
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What Will I Learn?
Use a topographical map for orientation and a compass for direction to find their way across the terrain.
View Curriculum
  • It is recommended that you have a USGS topographical map of your favorite area, and a base plate compass. In addition, military personnel will need a military lensatic compass, and a military protractor.

The specific purpose of this course is to provide you in easy-to-learn chunks the information you need to become a competent map-and-compass land navigator. You'll find useful information on path finding, compass use, and map reading.

Lectures include how to use any lengthy terrain feature as a "catching" feature or a "handrail." Plus, you'll see how to use a compass (including a military lensatic compass and protractor), including how to work with magnetic declination. You'll see why "aiming off" makes such good sense. And you'll see why dividing your trip into numerous legs, each ending at a "checkpoint" can help you find your may across great stretches of terrain.

We'll go over the time-honored navigation practice of dead reckoning, and how to use it under conditions of limited visibility, such as at night, or when you're fogged in or "greened in" by thick foliage.

We'll also cover USGS topographical maps, including how to read contour lines, measuring distance on the map, and interpreting depictions of terrain features.

You might be asking yourself "Why do I need to know all this stuff if I have a GPS?" And the answer is "While GPSes are great, they should supplement, and not replace good low-tech backup navigation skills based on the proper use of map and compass."

Besides the course lectures, students will receive in the form of downloadable PDF files, two books I've written on land navigation. These books supplement the Udemy lectures. Total course completion time is about 8 hours.

Those needing land navigation skills include:

·hikers, hunters, outdoor photographers

·military personnel


·search and rescue personnel

·wilderness medical personnel

·anybody else who wants to learn

Who is the target audience?
  • This course is meant for outdoor enthusiasts, military personnel, orienteers, search-and-rescue team members, wilderness medical specialists, and anyone wanting to learn effective but low-tech route-finding skills, making use of a map and a compass.
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Curriculum For This Course
Expand All 25 Lectures Collapse All 25 Lectures 04:00:06
1 Lecture 04:36

This first video is an introduction to the entire course, the concepts covered, and the desired learning objectives. Further, you'll find two PDF books I've written which you may download: Low-Tech Land Navigation and Map Reading. The course is based in large part--but not totally--on these books. They provide good background information for the lectures. Please read them either before or after "coming to class." :-) I look forward to our time together. My goal is to help you learn to find your way across all types of terrain, day or night. So, if you're ready to get going, let's saddle up, and move out to Section 1 on "Pathfinding."

There, you'll learn how to make your way successfully across the terrain to your destination. You'll learn how to use terrain features to your advantage, how to work with compass directions, how to fix your position periodically, and how and why you want to "aim off" a bit and not try to hit your next destination directly. You'll also learn to create in your own mind an imaginary "runway" as a mental model for dealing with obstacles in your path. You'll learn what collecting features and check-off features are, and what they do for you. Further, you'll learn the important and ancient navigation art of dead reckoning--a way to navigate when you can't associate the map with the terrain or the terrain with the map. You'll learn to find yourself again when you get disoriented. And last of all, you'll learn how and why to develop a good wilderness emergency exit plan.

Next we'll go over how to use an orienteering (i.e. base plate) compass to measure azimuths on a map, and shoot azimuths in the field.

Finally, we'll use all the stuff you learned in the "Pathfinding" section to use in a comprehensive example, where you put it all together.

In the next section "Understanding and Using Topographical Maps," you'll learn to, well, understand and use a topographical map to help find your way across the terrain. You'll learn about the map's color code, scales, marginal information, and symbols. You'll learn to interpret contour lines, and you'll learn the ten different types of terrain features. Further, you'll learn to measure distance on a map, to understand and correct for compass declination, and to orient a map. And you'll see how to use resection and partial resection to fix your position.

Last of all, there is a bonus section on using a military lensatic compass and a military protractor. This part will be of special interest to US Military personnel who are issued and expected to use these. But even if you're in the military, you should also know how to use an orienteering compass. And even if you're not in the military, you might want to learn to use a lensatic compass. In either case, this section is for YOU.

Finally, I'll bid you happy trails, but by then, my goal is that you won't even need trails.

Preview 04:36
14 Lectures 02:35:27

This video covers the elements of baseline navigation: baselines, directions, checkpoints, and aiming off. When you finish this lecture, including the readings, you should have a good idea of how people use features of length (roads, rivers, trails, shorelines, creeks, and so on) to help them find their away across the terrain.

For backup information, be sure to read pages 9 through 24 in your "Low-Tech Land Navigation" book that you downloaded in Lecture 1.

In addition, please go to my web-site -- -- to the page listed in "External Resources." Read the page on pathfinding. Watching the 10-minute video on that page is optional, but it may be helpful to you. It was a video I made a some years ago, and while it's not in HD, the messages conveyed will tie in to this lecture quite nicely.

One learns land navigation just like they learn most other subjects--one step at a time. This lecture is step 1 in what I hope will be an enjoyable, exciting, and rewarding learning experience for you.

Preview 19:59

In this video we look at the importance of dividing your trip into legs, with each leg ending at a checkpoint. By dividing a trip into relatively short legs, you can make your away across great stretches of terrain. If you can find your way kilometer by kilometer, you can find your way across thousands of kilometers of terrain.

Then, you'll learn how to use an imaginary "runway" to deal with obstacles in your path.

Finally, you'll see how you can use unique baseline configurations to help locate yourself along a baseline, otherwise known as a "line feature."

To supplement the video, read pages 25 through 27 in your Low-Tech book, and also pages 36 through 39

Divide Your Trip into Legs, Imaginary Runway, and Baseline Configurations

This video covers "dead reckoning," a fundamental navigation skill, as old as navigation itself. Dead reckoning--which some people say is short for "deduction reckoning" because your position is deduced--is a good way to travel when you can't relate the terrain to the map, or the map to the terrain. This might be the case when traveling in a "white out," or when "greened in" by dense foliage, or at night time when you can't see terrain features.

For supplementary readings, please read pages 27 through 36 in your Low-Tech book. The book covers formulas for dead reckoning when you're using time instead of pace count. While pace count is the most accurate way to find your way across the terrain, there may be those instances in which you want to use time traveled instead of a pace count. If so, the book gives you the formulas for how to do this.

Also, notice the use of "Ranger beads" to keep up with your pace count.

Also, please read the following pages on my web-site :


Pay particular attention to "Dead reckoning by pace count" because that's what we mostly use over land.

OPTIONAL: For more on Dead Reckoning, please read pages 27 through 39 in your "Low-Tech" book. Here, I've explained three DR formulas for Time, Speed, and Distance.

Dead Reckoning

This video puts it all together. We go over the navigation involved in an imaginary cross-country backpacking trip, to help make the concepts of baselines, directions, checkpoints, and aiming off make comprehensive sense.

For supplementary reading, read pages 57 through 65 in your Low-Tech book. Don't worry about compass declination (or variation, as sailors call it) at this point. We'll get to that later in the course.

Putting It All Together

This video covers "collecting features," "check-off features," and "attack points."

Collecting features help to guide you along your way. Check-off features serve to "tell" you where you are. And attack points are easy-to-find places on the ground from where you can "attack" a point feature.

Preview 13:14

Dead reckoning for land navigators most often involves pace counting. Of course, as we said, you can measure distance by time traveled (e.g. I go one klick every 20 minutes), but pace counting is the most accurate method. Keeping up with paces traveled can be a chore, and this lecture offers simple tricks for improving your pace-counting accuracy.

Also, this lecture discusses the benefit of starting your pace count all over whenever you come to a recognizable terrain feature. Remember, terrain association rules over dead reckoning. For example, if you come to the edge of a cliff, you have arrived at the cliff's edge, even if your pace count says you haven't. :-)

Maintaining an Accurate Pace Count

This lecture reviews two common land-navigation errors: (1) Unknowingly crossing your catching feature, and (2) the parallel error.

To prevent the first error, you'll want to pick a reliably visible catching feature, and if one is available, pick out a back-up catching feature you could use just in case you blow past your original catching feature.

A parallel error involves mistaking one terrain feature for another, similar feature, usually one that's nearby. This can be so easy to do if the terrain offers similar features in close proximity to one another. Accurate pace counting when necessary to measure distance, and constant vigilance at those times when you're in an area where parallel errors are likely, help to prevent you from dislocating yourself.

Common Land Navigation Errors

Just about everyone who navigates with a map and compass sometimes loses track of where they are, that is, they get dislocated. At these times, there's only one thing to do: relocate yourself. This lecture explains how.


Sometimes called a "bug-out" bearing, your safety bearing is your "ticket home." It's the bearing to an emergency catching feature, and will take you to a place where you can either relocate, or where someone can locate you. Any time you go into a wilderness area, you'll want to at least you at a map of the area first, and figure out the direction to a suitable emergency catching feature.

Safety Bearing

Parts of the Orienteering Compass -- How to Get a Bearing (Azimuth) From a Map -- How to Follow a Bearing -- Determining the Bearing to a Distant Object -- Determining the Direction of Baseline Configurations

Please read Chapter 9 in your Map Reading book, found on pages 22 through 27. Also, read pages 45 through 48 in your Low-Tech Land Navigation book.

Introduction to the Orienteering Compass

Running "rough compass" is sometimes called "running on the needle." It's a way of moving fast over the terrain when you're headed toward a catching feature, and you don't need a precise course. "Precision compass" demands precision compass work. It's used to go from an attack point to a point feature.

When time is an issue, such as when you're on a timed land nav exercise, or if you're participating in an orienteering meet, you'll want to understand the nature of running "rough compass."

And when you absolutely have to find an isolated point feature, you'll want to understand the nature of going "precision compass."

Rough Compass vs. Precision Compass

                Magnetic Declination is a fact of life for all navigators. It's the difference between True North and Magnetic North. For those of us who use USGS topographical maps, we'll use as our declination (i.e. difference), the difference between, not True North, but Grid North and Magnetic North. This difference is called the Grid-Magnetic (G-M) angle.

                When following a bearing taken from the map:

                • In an area of WEST declination we'll ADD our G-M angle to the map bearing to get the proper magnetic bearing to dial into our compass.


                • In an area of EAST declination, we'll SUBTRACT our G-M angle from the map bearing to get the proper magnetic bearing to dial into our compass.

                Please read pages 28 through 37 in your Map Reading book.

                And for a somewhat different explanation of declination (or variation as mariners call it), please read pages 49 through 55 in your Low-Tech Land Navigation book. This particular explanation might be helpful for those who also navigate over water.

                See also the following page on my land-navigation web site:


                Once you've finished this lecture, then watch the lecture on either West Declination or East Declination, depending on what the declination is in your area. Once you understand well how to deal with declination in your own area, you can then watch the lecture on dealing with the opposite declination.

                Bottom line: Don't be intimidated by declination. It's really pretty easy.

Introduction to Magnetic Declination

Please read pages 28 through 37 in your Map Reading book. Also, for supplementary information, watch my YouTube video on Declination:

Also, see the following pages at my web site on land navigation:

West Declination

Please read pages 28 through 37 in your Map Reading book. Also, for supplementary information, watch my YouTube video on Declination:

Also, see the following pages at my web site on land navigation:

East Declination
Understanding and Using Topographical Maps
7 Lectures 53:41

This lecture introduces the United States Geological Survey (USGS) 7.5 quad topographic map. You'll learn about the map's color code and its scales. For additional information, read pages 6 through 8 in your Map Reading book. See also the following pages from my web site:

The Topo Map: Color Code and Scales

The map offers a lot of useful information in its margins. And it's important to understand what the map's symbols mean. You can download a complete list of USGS map symbols direct from USGS at

The Topo Map: Marginal Information and Symbols

How to read and interpret your topographic map's contour lines. Read pages 11 through 13 in your Map Reading book.

Preview 11:17

The ten different types of terrain features, and how they are depicted on a topographical map. Read pages 14 through 18 in your Map Reading book.

Terrain Features

Please read pages 38 through 39 in your Map Reading book.

"Orienting your map" means turning it so north on the map is pointing to north on the terrain. With an oriented map, terrain features line up with map features, making navigation more intuitive. Usually, "rough orienting" is all you need for effective navigation. By "rough orienting," I mean turn the map so that its north end more or less points to north. You don't normally have to get it exactly oriented, as long as it is more or less oriented.

How to Orient a Map

Please read pages 19 through 21 in your Map Reading book.

This lecture includes how to measure straight-line distance on a map, and introduces the map scales, including the PRIMARY and the EXTENSION scale. After learning how to use the scales to measure a straight-line distance, you'll see how to measure distance along a crooked terrain feature, such as a road or a trail.

Measuring Distance on a Map

Please read pages 40 through 46 in your Map Reading book.

Using Military Land Navigation Tools
2 Lectures 23:18

There's a right way, a wrong way, and an Army way. The Army's way is to use a lensatic compass. This section is for all our military friends trying to pass land nav.

How to Use a Military Lensatic Compass

In this lecture, you'll learn how to use a military protractor to obtain and plot azimuths on a map. Also for our military friends who need to pass land nav.

How to Use a Military Protractor
Happy Trails
1 Lecture 03:04
Conclusion -- May you always find your way.
About the Instructor
4.3 Average rating
52 Reviews
226 Students
1 Course
Outdoors Enthusiast

All my life, beginning in early childhood, I've had a passion for the outdoors. My book--Surviving the Wilds of Florida--was my labor of love for how to take care of yourself in my home state's great outdoors. I'm a Wilderness Emergency Medical Technician, certified through S.O.L.O. To further improve my competency in the outdoors, I've studied navigation--both land and marine--extensively. Although I'm competent with a GPS, and have taught classes in GPS, my philosophy is for safety's sake one should know low-tech navigation first, then graduate to GPS. I taught at the college level for 14 years--four years as a graduate teaching assistant at the University of Georgia, and ten years at St. Johns River Community College, here in Florida. I love learning, and I love teaching. I especially love learning and teaching outdoor skills.

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