Land Navigation 101:  Pinpoint Your Location, Orient the Map

Yesterday we looked at getting back to the very basics of Land Navigation and some of the terms and skills that candidates in the Special Operations Selection courses will have to know. Today, we’ll take an in-depth look at a few of those skills which will help you get started in your prep for Selection.

This is geared for the new navigator, someone with little to no experience doing any kind of navigation with a map and compass. I was asked a question in an email why land navigation is so important in the era of GPS where your location is pinpointed for you.

It is a good question, a legitimate one and the answer to that is two-part. First, what happens if, on a mission, you lose your GPS signal or worse the satellites’ signals are blocked? That’s the wrong time to learn that your map and compass skills are severely lacking. So, although the availability of GPS systems is part of our military gear now, SOF (Special Operations Forces) troops all have to know how to operate the old-fashioned way…just in case.

The second reason is that it remains a critical evaluation tool for the prospective Special Operations candidate. The two biggest obstacles that face candidates in Selection are the physical fitness and land navigation obstacles that cause the vast majority of failures in the courses.

Both, while considered only physical in their challenge are still more of a mental block than anything. And in the vast majority of cases, the real cause of failure was simply a failure to prepare.

Our PT program should help candidates prepare for the rigors of the course and with land navigation, if you aren’t comfortable with a map and compass, then you must get out and practice. The land navigation course at SFAS, also known as the Star Course or the Hoffman Triangle is no joke. It is tough, in fact, it is the toughest individual land navigation course you’ll find in the US military.

Back when I was a youngster, much like most of you now, and going thru the course, a Land Nav instructor told our class that if you can navigate in Camp Mackall, you should be able to navigate anywhere. While I haven’t been everywhere in the world, I’ve been to many many countries and it is an extreme challenge. Every area of the world in which you’ll someday operate has its challenges but they can all be met …and have been.

Like anything else, Land Navigation is one of those skills that while it isn’t hard to learn the basics, mastering them in a field environment takes practice. The more a candidate practices, the better he’ll get at any task he takes on.

So, with that in mind, let’s begin by orienting the map and then plotting your start point on a specific course. From there, we’ll branch out into different skills with practical exercises in subsequent articles.

Orient the Map – Why do we orient the map and what is the purpose of it? Orienting the map makes it much easier for the navigator to read the map and to identify the different terrain features in front of you when navigating.

What does it mean to have the map oriented? The Army schoolbook answer is: A map is oriented when it is in a horizontal position with its north and south corresponding to the north and south on the ground.

Perhaps that doesn’t make any sense…like most Army definitions. However, in layman’s terms, it means when you’re holding your map in front of you, the terrain matches up exactly as it is shown on the map.

It makes it much harder to try to read your terrain features upside down or sideways. So, now we get to the actual orienting the map.  If you are using an Army lensatic compass, remember that a compass measures magnetic North. So, don’t forget to check your declination diagram which is located on your marginal information at the bottom of your map. Most military issue maps take the guesswork right out of it and tell you how to convert the declination of azimuths from grid to magnetic and from magnetic to grid next to the declination diagram.

With the map in a horizontal position, take the straightedge on the left side of the compass and place it alongside the north-south grid line with the cover of the compass pointing toward the top of the map. This procedure places the fixed black index line of the compass parallel to north-south grid lines of the map.

Keeping the compass aligned as we said in the last paragraph, rotate the map and compass together until the magnetic arrow is below the fixed black index line on the compass. You’re almost there…. But not finished yet!

Now rotate the map and compass in the direction of the declination diagram.

If the magnetic north arrow on the map is to the left of the grid north, check the compass reading to see if it equals the G-M angle (if memory serves me well it is 8 degrees for the Hoffman area) given in the declination diagram. Voilà! The map is now oriented.

While this sounds ridiculously simple, too many people mess this up and start off on the wrong foot. Don’t be Ned the Navigator. When I was a cadre member at SFAS we’d always speak to the student about land nav using “Ned the Navigator” as an example.

Just like “Little Johnny Jones”, Ned was a smartass and knew everything about everything and we were wasting his precious time with these refresher classes. He was an expert and knew it all. Think I’m exaggerating? Think again. Oh and guess who was the first guy that got lost? So, take your time and do it right the first time.

One beautiful Sunday day navigation course had one Ned walk on his azimuth for about 13 miles and he ended up calling from a pay phone at Rockingham Raceway which is about as far from Camp Mackall as the dark side of the moon. Don’t be like Ned.

So with your map oriented, now take your time and try to pick out the terrain features as they lay out in front of you. Just be advised, in the Hoffman area, the terrain features aren’t as distinct and are a bit harder to distinguish. That’s why you’ll always hear from the cadre and it is true, that if you can navigate with ease in Hoffman on the “Star” course, you will be able to navigate just about anywhere.

In certain areas, you’ll be able to orient your map just by using terrain features. What we call terrain association.  And when the terrain allows, it is quicker and easier to navigate using the available terrain. If you’ve ever navigated in the mountains, you’ll find this is much easier and you’ll find that this way is much preferable than dead reckoning. And it definitely comes in handy when having to call for fire in a jiffy… (which is a class for another time)

Creating a Start Point – Now the map is oriented in the direction that you’re moving, the next thing is you must create a starting location. The starting point is where you are standing at. Now pull out your protractor.

Don’t lose your protractor, in case you didn’t get that, let me repeat and add a foot stomp. Can you hear it?  DON’T. LOSE. YOUR. PROTRACTOR. Always keep it secured inside your map case until you need it and ensure it is in there before walking off and hitting your points, especially at night. Nothing worse than losing a protractor during land navigation. While you can get by without one and we’ll add a future piece on going without one, it makes things unnecessarily much harder. So, take the few seconds to check.

Now read the grid lines to the right and up and make sure that you’re using the 1/50,000 scale for the map, which is in the upper right corner of the protractor. That will automatically ensure that the protractor is facing the right way and isn’t flipped over.

Remember a four-digit grid, gets you to within the grid square or 1000 meters. A six-digit grid to within 100 meters and an eight-digit grid gets you within 10 meters. A good rule of thumb to remember is to forget about where the plastic is cut out of the protractor. Always align the 0’s and check it twice. Ensure you plot it twice to get the exact spot.

Now we have a starting point, that is right where you are standing. To double check, shake a tree branch and watch for it to move on the map… Don’t laugh, someone always falls for that old one.

So, we have our map oriented and our starting point plotted. This is where it gets interesting and where we get our navigation from point to point started. This is the easy part but regardless, practice doing this until it becomes second nature and is there is never a doubt on how to do it. Are we all set? Are you sure??? Do it again.

Next up in one of our future posts we’ll look at plotting and plan a route.

Photo courtesy DOD