Land Navigation in Selection is a very big obstacle to overcome. To help prepare the candidates for our Special Operations Forces we’ve gotten back to the basics and gone over the various skills that start at square one and gone from there. Now that we’re all on the same sheet of music, so to speak, it is time to take on everything you’ve learned and put it to the test. And the best, most difficult test will be navigating during the hours of darkness.
Some of the questions and/or comments we’ve gotten have to do with night land navigation. And navigating at night is by far the most difficult aspect of navigation. Be prepared to be tested to the max during the night as everything intensifies. Your range of vision will be extremely limited so you’ll have to rely on everything you’ve learned up to this point.
So, we’ll touch on a few highlighted skills that we’ve gone over previously that each candidate will have to know to get over the hump in night navigation. Much of what I’ll mention here has to do with the course in Hoffman, NC at SFAS but the location is secondary. These tips are geared for any Land Navigation course that you’ll attend.
As we’ve said here many, many times, this isn’t something that is impossible to pass. Thousands of Special Operations troops before you have done so and many more thousands will pass after you. Speaking from experience, I passed the Star Course as a candidate and had to do it again before working as a cadre member at SFAS and went thru a class with the candidates as a fully qualified Special Forces soldier. And occasionally between classes, our cadre would reevaluate some of the different lanes that students would run and during the course and conduct the courses again.
So, with that in mind, here are some night navigation tips, many of which are just as apt for the day navigation course.
Route Planning: We wrote a piece about doing proper route planning while navigating. Route planning during selection is probably more important at night as opposed to during the daylight as many of the terrain features are much more difficult to identify. Trying to use dead reckoning for 5-6 clicks in the dark is not a preferred method.
So plan a series of shorter legs and movements and set checkpoints along the way. It is a much easier way to tackle the course and your movement between points. This way, you can check your progress, pace count as well as constantly confirming your location along the way.
Set your checkpoints and handrails on large or linear terrain features such as ridgelines or streams that you can terrain associate with and move out quickly while using your pace count. Use dead reckoning once you get to your attack point. That way if you get turned around, you have a known point you can go back to try it again.
Plot your points using the smallest possible mark on your map sheet and then write down any and all pertinent information on either a small index card or tear a sheet off your notebook and place this inside the map case for quick reference.
Pace Count: We covered our pace counts in an earlier piece as well. Knowing your pace is very important, and even more so in the dark, since terrain association is generally much harder in the dark. How different is your pace count with all of your kit, to include your rucksack on? As we said earlier, your pace count will vary between day and night and it will increase as you tire. And depending on the type of terrain that you are operating in.
In time, you’ll become a seasoned pro at this and will know just by the conditions that you are dealing with what your pace count will be. And it will change over time. My pace with just web gear on flat terrain was 62 back in the days of Phase 1 at Camp Mackall.
But with a rucksack and a heavy load, it went up to 73. But I noticed after I had been in Special Forces for a few years, where rucking becomes like second nature, my pace counted lessened to between 68-69 depending on conditions. You’ll find that you will have similar results.
Keep a good pace count and using those checkpoints along your route, you’ll have immediate feedback on how accurate your pace is. Occasionally, you will lose track of your pace count. It happens. We’ve all done it. Don’t sweat it. If it happens to you, take a good guess at how far you’ve gone and try to keep an accurate pace from there forward.
Secure Your Gear: I know, this sounds ridiculous, but better a red face than a dead face right? Lose your map, protractor, compass or heaven forbid, your weapon and you’ll quickly find yourself on the truck ride from hell.
But remove all chance of this unfortunate (and very common) occurrence from happening to you. Every class that I was a cadre member of in SFAS had at least one candidate losing either a map, protractor or a compass. We had a saying that the draws in Hoffman feed off of land navigation students gear. And I doubt seriously that much has changed there.
Get a good smaller map case, preferably one with a lanyard and tie it or snap link it to your gear and then stuff it into your shirt, where it is easily accessible. You don’t need one of those huge map cases that the mech guys used to be so fond of inside of their vehicles. Fold up your map so that the terrain you’re walking in is the only part showing. It makes it much easier to find where you are.
So, this would seem like an apt place for a FOG anecdote, you know what FOG stands for …right? One morning, we were revalidating some of the land nav lanes in SFAS between classes. Down in the Bones Fork Creek area (you’ll get intimately familiar with), I came to the edge of a perfectly oval depression about 20-25 meters across. And it was only 100-200 meters from the point we were looking for. The bottom of the depression had very little vegetation and the sides were only 2-3 feet high so crossing it seemed like a snap.
Once inside, I stopped for a second and thought to double check my map sheet to see if it was marked on the map (it wasn’t) and to make a note of it for future reference. I pulled out my map case to take a look. At that moment, at my feet, I noticed 5-6 snakes (the poisonous variety) were almost underfoot.
“Jesus H. F***ing Christ!” I leaped over the assorted no shouldered reptilians that would have made an Olympic broad jumper proud. At that point, I cleared the depression faster than Lance Armstrong on all of his PEDs ever dreamed of going,…downhill on a 30-degree slope on his bicycle at the Tour de France.
I didn’t slow down for a good 50 meters and had my map case, compass and whatever else hadn’t been tied down, they’d have been gone. I got to the point in short order and my bud Doug P. was already there. “I heard you yell, you fall down”, he asked? When I relayed the story, he laughed. “I love my f***ing job! Best one I’ve ever had,” he said.
Tie your shit down…you’ll thank me later.
Move Quickly: One of the things that you’ll have to get good at and quickly is being able to move out in the darkness and cover some ground. Special Operations Forces own the night and the only way to get really good at it is to practice. And you’ll get plenty of it during practice night land navigation.
And the most useful feature of your compass at night is the bezel ring. If you’re following a basic azimuth, rotate your bezel ring so that your North seeking arrow aligns with the luminous bubble. So, say if you are traveling on an azimuth of 65 degrees, your North seeking arrow will be in the approximate 10 o’clock position, rotate the bezel ring so the bubble aligns with the North seeking arrow and it is a quick way to keep on your azimuth, especially in the dark.
Also, remember that each click in the bezel ring is three degrees. Keeping your compass at waist level now will allow you to move out quicker. Once the luminous dot and the North seeking arrow are aligned you are moving in the right direction.
If the terrain and conditions allow it, then shoot a point in the distance and move to it. But as we said above, you don’t want to be doing dead reckoning for long distances in the dark. Once you get better at it, terrain association is faster, easier and will allow you to find your way without getting lost. Your pace count then becomes just another way to check your progress and reference where you are on your map checks.
Just a few reminders, your visual range estimation is likely to be well off during the darkness. And your pace count, depending on the terrain is likely to vary a bit. And finally, your natural drift will likely be intensified in the dark, you’ll quickly find this out as you find yourself on the course. Natural drift is the way people walk. While you may believe you’re walking a straight line, most people, over time will drift either left or right. One way to combat this and I’ve heard this works for many navigators is to change hands holding your compass frequently.
Working and operating in the dark is a Special Operations specialty. It will come in time. And of course you’ll have NVGs then but not in Selection. Don’t let anything get in the way of your preparation and planning. Give it your all and you’ll pass.