Getting Back to Land  Nav Basics – Plotting and Planning Your Routes

So, last week we touched on a subject that is in the news about how junior NCOs (E-4 – E-6) aren’t doing well overall with navigation with a map, protractor, and compass. As we mentioned prior, Land Navigation is a critical skill that every Special Operator must possess and if you are an aspiring member of the Special Forces Regiment

If you are an 18X enlistee, new to the Army or are a junior NCO who isn’t a natural at Land Navigation then you should really pay attention because the course for SFAS and SFQC students located in Hoffman, NC is no joke.

You’ll hear horror stories about many of the Special Operations courses and the specific gates or events that are legendary…and hard. Some are not-so-bad while others are legitimately very difficult to pass. The “Star Course” is one of the latter.

However, it is far from impossible, thousands of SF troops have passed it before you and thousands more will pass in the future. It just requires a mastery of the basics, a cool head at planning and conducting your routes and attention to detail.

Ready? Let’s jump back in this with both feet.

Plotting Your First Point:

In our last post, we went over and we’ve checked and then double-checked our location so that you know exactly where you are starting from. Now you plot your first point (which is where you are going) in the exact same way.

Read to the right and up and using the 1/50,000 map scale, carefully plot your eight-digit grid coordinate to where you are going. Remember, four-digit grids will get you to within 1000 meters, six-digit grids to within 100 meters and an eight-digit grid will get you to within 10 meters. Double check your plot and ensure you’ve got it right.

Now measure the distance between the two points. Remember this is straight line distance and not walking distance. Your actual traveling distance will vary widely from point to point depending upon your route selection and the terrain that you’ll encounter.

Planning the Route:

There are two basic ways you can get to where you’re going. Either will get you to where you’re going but for your purposes in SFAS, one may prove to be a better option. A word to the wise here, use some common sense here.  Don’t go with what everyone else is doing, always do what is right for you and what you feel most comfortable with.

Dead Reckoning – Is arguably the easiest system to use, if the terrain and distance allow it. Dead reckoning is done in two steps. The first step is getting an azimuth from your starting point using your map and protractor and determine the distance to where your point is located at.

The next step is to convert your grid azimuth to a magnetic and use your compass and your pace count and apply what you’ve already learned.  You then walk to your point by staying as close as you can to your azimuth.

Your position can be checked from time to time using both resection or intersection when the terrain features are available. Dead Reckoning has some advantages; it is easy to teach the neophyte navigator and in open terrain, especially in grassy areas or desert type regions, it is easier to stay on the azimuth. It works well also when the distances to be covered are short.

In open terrain and if you can pick out a spot on your azimuth, far in the distance, it makes for an easier walk as the navigator can then put his compass away and move quickly to that point.

A distinct disadvantage of this method is when you’re facing the terrain you’ll be subjected to in the Hoffman area. Thick vegetation, intermittent streams, draws and swampy areas make Dead Reckoning a rather difficult method. Some of the thickets and thick vegetation of Hoffman can really slow you down.

However, it can and does work. I know several SF guys who plowed thru the Land Nav course using this exact method. I wouldn’t recommend this but it can be done, albeit like a bull in a china shop. But perhaps the second method is the better way to go.

Terrain Association – Is a more difficult way to plan but is much less forgiving of mistakes and as a rule a helluva lot less time consuming than Dead Reckoning. It requires a more detailed map study of where you’re going and how you plan to get there but the time spent planning your movement is better served than trying to plow your way thru the draws and thickets.

The advantages of terrain association are obvious. If you veer off course in Dead Reckoning, you can be in trouble. But by using terrain association, your position is easily checked and adjustments made on the fly and most importantly while moving..

Selection and identification of terrain features are the keys here to successful planning. Plan your route using handrails as a guide and ensure to plot checkpoints along the way. Ensure your map is oriented and use the available terrain as a guide. You won’t be following a specific azimuth per se, but more of a cardinal direction to your checkpoints using your map to guide you.

You can use the roads both the improved and the unimproved as a guide but the best advice is to remember the rules. If the cadre members tell you not to use them…don’t. Parallel the roads but not too closely.  Make sure that plot a backstop on your route that you can identify as having gone too far.

A word of caution about the roads in Hoffman. There a lot of them out there, and many are not on the map. And as you become more familiar with it during your practice navigation exercises, many will become easier to spot. You’ll become familiar with “Five Points” and some others but for the most part, those are at times difficult to judge. Just be careful.

Always remember and the instructors will drill it into your head, that if you come upon a hardball road. Stop. You won’t be crossing any of those in the course but a few of the points may be near them so you can use those as a handrail at times.

But just as surely as the national deficit is going to rise, someone in your class is going to cross a hardball road. It used to happen in every class and don’t be surprised to hear about it from the other students. Just don’t be that guy, Ned the Navigator.

Ensure that you plot checkpoints along the way to ensure that you are on track and on target. Choose an attack point that will put you no farther than 200-300 meters from your point. When you arrive there, double check your location and then that is the time to use dead reckoning and plot an azimuth to your point.

We’re almost ready to head out and practice some hands-on training. Remember everything you have learned and the best advice is to practice, practice and practice some more. The more comfortable you are using your map, compass, and skills at terrain association now, the easier the course will be for you.

I’ve said this before but it bears mentioning again. Before you head to SFAS, if you’re not entirely comfortable with navigating 5-6 clicks and finding a green engineer stake on the ground, then check out a local orienteering club. They can be a great learning resource and provide outstanding practice and practical application.

In our next piece, we’ll explore some of the tools to help you double check your way.

Photo courtesy of DOD