navigation survival skills

Navigation Survival Skills: A Novice’s Guide to Navigating the Great Outdoors

Welcome to the wild world of wilderness navigation and survival skills! Whether you’re new to prepping, an aspiring adventurer, or just someone who loves the great outdoors, you’ve come to the right place. In this article, we’ll cover the essentials of outdoor navigation techniques, from compass navigation and map reading basics to navigating an unfamiliar environment without GPS. Let’s dive right in, shall we?

Basic Navigation Survival Skills

Picture yourself standing amidst the vast wilderness, armed with nothing but your trusty stick, compass and map. To survive the wilderness, you’ll need to master the art of navigation. Don’t worry – here’s a step-by-step guide that will transform you into a bona fide pathfinder.

Step 1: Orient the map using the compass

  1. Lay your map flat on a surface or the ground.
  2. Place your compass on the map so that the baseplate edge aligns with the map’s north-south grid lines.
  3. Rotate the map and compass together until the compass needle points to the magnetic north on the map. Your map is now oriented!

Step 2: Locate and mark your position on the map

  1. Identify nearby landmarks, such as hills, rivers, or other recognizable features.
  2. Locate these landmarks on the map and determine where they intersect.
  3. Mark your position on the map using a pencil or another erasable tool.

Step 3: Determine the magnetic azimuth to the unknown position using the compass

  1. Point the compass in the direction of the unknown position.
  2. Read the magnetic azimuth on the compass dial (the angle between magnetic north and the direction of the unknown position).

Step 4: Convert the magnetic azimuth to grid azimuth

  1. Check your map for the magnetic declination, which is the angle between magnetic north and grid north(1). This information is typically found near the map’s scale and legend.
  2. If the magnetic declination is west, add the declination value to the magnetic azimuth. If it’s east, subtract the declination value from the magnetic azimuth.
  3. The result is the grid azimuth, which you can now use for navigation purposes.

By following these steps, you’ll be well on your way to mastering navigation using a compass and map. Happy adventuring!

The Art of Map Reading: Back to Basics

Topography is the study of the Earth’s surface features, and understanding it is essential for navigating the great outdoors. Here’s what you need to know:

  • Contour lines: These are the lines on a map that connect points of equal elevation, giving you an accurate sense of the terrain’s shape and elevation. The closer the lines, the steeper the slope.
    Type of Line Description
    Index lines Thicker lines at regular intervals, usually labeled with their elevation
    Intermediate lines Thinner lines between index lines that represent elevation changes
    Supplementary lines Dotted lines that indicate subtle changes in elevation
  • North-south line: A north-south line is an imaginary line that runs between the North and South Poles, and it’s essential for understanding how to read a map and navigate without a compass.

navigation survival skills

Recognizing Landmarks: The Key to Finding Your Way

Landmarks are natural or human-made features that serve as reference points for navigation. Here are some common landmarks to look for on a map:

  • Rivers
  • Mountains
  • Roads
  • Bridges
  • Buildings
  • Forests
  • Coastlines

When navigating, use these landmarks to establish your position and track your progress.

Using a Compass: Your Trusty Guide to Direction

In a world where GPS devices often steal the spotlight, it’s crucial to remember the value of traditional compass navigation. Understanding the magnetic field and mastering compass navigation will enable you to navigate effectively and achieve accurate results, even when technology fails. Here are some essential tips for compass navigation:

Understanding the Earth’s Magnetic Field

The Earth’s magnetic field(2) plays a crucial role in compass navigation. The magnetic field is what causes the compass needle to point towards the magnetic north, serving as a reliable reference point for determining direction. Familiarize yourself with the concept of magnetic declination, which is the angle between magnetic north and true north, as this will help you adjust your compass readings for more accurate navigation.

Orienting the Compass

To orient your compass, follow these steps:

  1. Hold the compass flat in your hand, ensuring it is level with the ground.
  2. Rotate your body until the compass needle aligns with the north-south markings on the

Taking a Bearing

A bearing is the angle between your current position and your intended destination. To take a bearing, follow these steps:

  1. Place the compass on the map so that the edge of the baseplate connects your current location and your destination.
  2. Rotate the compass housing until the north-south lines on the housing align with the north-south grid lines on the map.
  3. Read the bearing in degrees at the index line on the compass housing.

Following a Bearing

Once you have taken a bearing, follow these steps to navigate towards your destination:

  1. Hold the compass flat in your hand and ensure it is level with the ground.
  2. Rotate your body until the compass needle aligns with the north-south markings on the compass housing.
  3. Follow the direction-of-travel arrow on the baseplate, making adjustments as needed to keep the compass needle aligned with the north-south markings.

By mastering these compass navigation techniques, you’ll be well-equipped to tackle any adventure with confidence, even when a GPS device is not an option.

navigation survival skills

Navigating Without GPS: Embracing Your Instincts

Sometimes, your GPS device might fail. In those moments, it’s essential to know how to navigate using natural elements, landmarks, and celestial bodies. Here are some tips to navigate without a compass:

  • Sun navigation: The sun rises in the east and sets in the west, which can help you determine direction – with or without a compass.
  • Star navigation: Locate the North Star (Polaris) to find north, or the Southern Cross for southern hemisphere navigation. All you need to use them to navigate is a clear night, decent eyesight, and the ability to identify groups of stars.
  • Using landmarks: Observe your surroundings and identify landmarks like mountains, rivers, or unique vegetation to keep your bearings.

Night Navigation Techniques: Nocturnal Know-How

Navigating at night can be challenging, but it’s not impossible. Here are some night hiking techniques to help you find your way in the dark without a compass:

  • Moon navigation: When visible, the moon can help you determine direction based on its phase. To put it simply, when the moon rises before sunset, its illuminated side faces the West. Conversely, if the moon rises after midnight, the lit side points towards the East.
  • Flashlight navigation: Use a flashlight to illuminate trail markers or landmarks, but be cautious not to disturb wildlife.
  • Using reflective markers: Attach reflective markers to your gear or clothing to stay visible and avoid getting separated from your group.

Navigating in Extreme Conditions

Marine Navigation Skills: Sail Away with Confidence

Boating navigation skills are crucial for anyone venturing out on the water. Here are some marine navigation essentials:

  • Chart reading: Learn how to read nautical charts, which display water depths, shoreline details, and navigational aids.
  • Buoy systems: Familiarize yourself with different buoy systems that indicate safe channels, hazards, and more.
  • GPS navigation: While not foolproof, a GPS device can provide valuable information on your location, speed, and direction(3).

Desert Navigation Methods: Finding Your Way in a Sea of Sand

Desert navigation can be tricky, but with the right techniques, you can conquer even the most challenging terrain. Here are some desert navigation methods:

  • Shadow navigation: Use the length and direction of shadows to estimate time and direction.
  • Wind patterns: Observe wind patterns and sand dune formations to help determine your bearings.
  • Using vegetation: Seek out desert plants that tend to grow near water sources or along specific routes, which can help guide your path.

Low Visibility Navigation: Making the Most of Foggy, Rainy, or Snowy Conditions

Low-visibility conditions can make navigation extra challenging. Here are some tips to help you navigate through fog, rain, or snow:

  • Slow and steady: When visibility is low, it’s essential to move slowly and cautiously.
  • Using landmarks: Identify and use larger, more visible landmarks to help maintain your bearings.
  • Sound navigation: Listen for distant sounds like waterfalls, rivers, or even human-made noises to help guide your way.

Navigation Tools and Equipment: The Essentials for Every Explorer

Aside from a good compass and map, there are other essential navigation tools you should always have with you. Here is an expanded list of must-have navigation tools for every adventurer:

  1. Whistle: In case of emergency, a whistle can help alert others to your location. The piercing sound of a whistle carries further than your voice, making it an invaluable tool for attracting attention when you need help.
  2. Signal mirror: A signal mirror can be used to communicate with others or signal for help in bright conditions. This versatile tool can reflect sunlight over great distances, making it an effective way to signal rescuers or communicate with fellow adventurers.
  3. Backup GPS device: Though not always reliable, having a backup GPS device can provide valuable information and assistance. In addition to a compass and map, a GPS device can help you track your progress, pinpoint your location, and plan routes more effectively.
  4. Personal Locator Beacon (PLB): A PLB is a compact device that, when activated in an emergency, sends a distress signal to a network of satellites. This signal contains your location information, which is then forwarded to the appropriate rescue authorities.
  5. Headlamp or flashlight: A reliable light source is essential for navigation during low-visibility conditions or at night. A headlamp frees up your hands for other tasks, while a flashlight can provide focused illumination when needed.
  6. Extra batteries: Make sure to pack extra batteries for your electronic devices, such as your GPS device or headlamp. Running out of power in the wilderness can be both inconvenient and dangerous.
  7. Protractor: A protractor can be used to measure angles and bearings on a map, improving the accuracy of your navigation.
  8. Waterproof notepad and pen: Taking notes on your route, landmarks, and other navigation-related information can be invaluable for staying on track and recalling important details. A waterproof notepad and pen ensure that your notes will be legible, even in wet conditions.
  9. Trekking poles: While not strictly a navigation tool, trekking poles can provide stability and support during challenging terrain, making it easier to maintain your bearings and stay on course.


Now that you’ve learned the basics of wilderness navigation and survival skills, it’s time to put it all together. Practice and refine your skills, and soon you’ll be navigating the great outdoors like a seasoned pro. Remember to always respect nature, be prepared for the unexpected, and, most importantly, have fun exploring this incredible world we live in!


Why is navigation important for survival?

Navigation is important for survival because it enables you to find your way through unfamiliar environments, locate essential resources like water and shelter, and avoid getting lost, which can lead to dangerous situations and potentially life-threatening consequences.

How can I improve my navigation skills?

To improve your navigation skills, you can practice using maps and compasses, study topography and landmarks, participate in orienteering events, and challenge yourself by navigating in various environments and conditions to gain hands-on experience with natural navigation alone.

What are some common land navigation mistakes to avoid?

Some common land navigation mistakes to avoid include relying solely on GPS devices, failing to properly orient your map, neglecting to account for magnetic declination, not regularly checking your position, and underestimating the impact of terrain on travel time and distance.


  1. USGS. “What Is Declination? | U.S. Geological Survey.”, 2022,
  2. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “Earth’s Magnetosphere | NOAA / NWS Space Weather Prediction Center.”, 2022,
  3. AEROSPACE. “Brief History of GPS | the Aerospace Corporation.” Aerospace Corporation, 2 Feb. 2021,