This isn’t going to be another write up on how to do land navigation with a compass and map. There are already so many great resources out there to explain that to you, that I won’t waste my time trying to outdo them.
What I will do though, is give you a practical guide, on how to actually get yourself set up with some maps, and get out and start training. Because actually going out, and doing something is how you really learn how to do something. I can read all day about how to shoot a rifle, but until I actually go do it, I’m not going to be a very good shot.
So, if you are at the point where you know what the term land nav refers to, but that’s about all you know, let me point you in the direction of some good references. Once you are feeling educated, then come back here and I’ll help you get set up.
Now, when it comes down to land nav, you basically have three tools that you need; A compass, a map, and a protractor. A fourth tool that I would say is almost a necessity are some good map pens as well. For training purposes, I would throw in a GPS too.
As far as a compass is concerned, I am extremely biased towards the military issue Cammenga 3H Tritium Compass. Why? Because it is built like a small tank, and as far as I know it is the only compass that actually uses Tritium, not just some phosphorescent material. The Tritium is nice, because it always glows, whether it has had any light shown on it or not. That means, you don’t have to “charge” it with white light before it will glow.
Now, the next piece of gear is a protractor. A protractor is a device, that when used with a map of a matching scale, can be used to determine azimuth’s and grid positions on the map. Now this is where the end user has a little more flexibility in which one he chooses. I personally use this one, which is a slightly improved version of the standard military one here. I would highly recommend getting the first one because it includes a 1:24,000 scale, which is what a lot of USGS maps are done with. This is very important as I am about to show you.
For map pens, I really like these:
These are great little pens, and they come in a nice hard case. They are “permanent” as far as they don’t come off until you get alcohol near them. They have an alcohol correction pen available to go with them as well, but I just use alcohol wipes. They also have a really fine point, so they are good for making accurate markings on your maps.
So now on to the next component, our actual map. So, how are you going to get actual real, paper maps, to scale, that cover your area of interest? Well, you could buy them. A place like mytopo.com will allow you to make custom maps centered where you want them. A 1:24000 scale 24″ x 36″ topo map using data from 1987 will cost you about $15. That’s for one map. That’s going to add up rather quickly, and the information is nearly 30 years old. So that idea is really not that great if you ask me.
But there is another way. You can do it the way I did (which was a lot cheaper). I went to the USGS website here. When you open that page, it may take a minute or so to load, but what you will end up with is a map of the US in the middle.
Once that comes up, you simply scroll and zoom to an area of your interest. Once you zoom in far enough, each individual map has a name. In this example you can see “Concord”, “Lexington” and “Boston North” among a few others.
So let’s assume that we are in Lexington, and we want maps of the adjacent areas to our east and to our west. Look in the top right, and you will see two “radio” buttons. One is “Navigate”, the other is “Mark Points”. Up until now, we have been using the “Navigate” function, so we can drag and zoom on the map. Now we need to click on “Mark Points”. After you do that, you want to click on the red markers for the map(s) that you want to download.
So since my area of interest is Boston North to Concord, I put a dot on those, and one on Lexington in the middle. Now, once I have marked my points, I click on the first point I want to download.
Now you have a couple of options here when this window pops up. You’ve got a few map sizes, along with some ages. Here for instance, you can see two topo maps that would interest us, one from 2012, and one from 2015. Now you would assume that the newer is the better, but that isn’t always the case. I have seen in my own experience that the 2011-2012 maps have more rural trails and roads than the new maps do. So be sure to explore this a little when you are getting yours. So once you decide on what map to get, you can either add it to your download cart, on the far right, or just directly download the map by clicking on the size under the “Download” heading (the big blue ball).
So once you get your file(s) downloaded, they are going to be ‘zipped’. You are going to want to find the file, and right click on it and hit “Extract all”. Once that completes, you will have your map file in a PDF file format. What I have done is made a file called “Maps” and put all of these unzipped files into that folder. Sometimes they have really long names, but I just rename it to match the title of the map.
So go ahead and open your new map PDF file. This is where things get interesting, and where you are about to realize just how handy these little USGS files are. When it first opens this is what it will look like. In it’s current form, this is a topographic map. It shows roads, terrain features, structures, waterways, etc. That’s pretty handy, but sometimes it’s nice to have a satellite image to compare to. Let’s fix that. Notice in the top left, you can see some menus called “Map Collar”, “Map Frame”, “Images” and “Barcode”. Click on “Images”.
Now we are cooking with gas. We have a full blown hybird topographic map. It shows satellite imagery and topographic information. Now, in some places this may or may not be of benefit to you. In rural terrain, you may be fine with just the topographic info, and in a dense urban area, you might be fine with the satellite only, but in a suburban area like in my example, I would want both. You could go from patrolling woods, to a city, and back again in the stretch of a mile or so.
So now we are making some head way, and it hasn’t cost us anything except some time and hard drive space. I’m going to change that now. We need to print some maps. Now, you can use any paper size you want, but I recommend going as big as you can. For most people at home, it’s probably going to be an 8.5″ x 11″ paper, which works fine, it just takes more to get it put together. So you want to go up to file, then print. This screen will come up, and you want to make sure you have the right paper size selected. Then make sure you click poster, and tile scale is 100%. I would recommend changing your orientation to landscape, but play around and see what works best for you. You can also choose to put cut marks on the paper to help out, which I recommend. Once that is ready, fire up the printer. One thing I like to do is take my protractor and make sure the map is actually being printed to scale. If for some reason yours is not, just increase or decrease the Tile Scale % until you get it right. To be perfectly honest, the scale does not have to be super accurate in order for these maps to work, so don’t despair if yours isn’t exact. The only time it will effect you is when you need to get more accurate than a 6 digit grid, which I can’t imagine too many reasons why that would be needed.
So once you have the map printed off, you want to start cutting off the excess paper. I don’t have any pictures of this right now, but this video series is a perfect step by step.
Now the gentleman in the videos above uses “acetate” to laminate his maps, which is thick and expensive. Plus, “acetate” is not a specific brand of material, so there are numerous products to choose from. One product that I found at the local Wally World was a lot cheaper than anything else I could find, and seems to be working very good. So far I haven’t had any issues with it leaking or peeling off.
When I am laminating my maps I get a little more creative than the fellow in the video. I still like to overlap the edges of my maps about a quarter inch with the lamination, but then I cut a half inch wide strip of 100 MPH tape, center it and run it down the length of my edges, and then fold it over. It helps to reinforce the edges of the maps and keep water out.
After I am done laminating and taping the edges, I just fold it like he does in the video so it will fit into a cargo pocket and away I go. If you do a good job folding it, it will fit into a quart zip lock bag and you can store it there along with your pens, alcohol wipes and protractor.
Now all that is left, is to get out there and do some hiking.