How To Use An Emergency Azimuth – Orienteering 101

An “emergency azimuth” is a term I’ve coined for when you get lost on your map, meaning you know generally where you are, but you’ve gone off course enough that you’re not going to find the specific destination you were looking for.  The emergency azimuth is a straight magnetic direction that will get you back to a familiar landmark like a mountain, or better yet a road or river that will take you home.

Let’s say for a moment that you’re hiking in the wilderness and you wind up getting lost.  I know – it would never happen to you, but let’s just pretend.  Let’s also say that your phone or GPS unit has run out of batteries, or you dropped it off a cliff, or whatever.

As an aside not long ago a reader sent me a story about how he went hiking in the mountains here in Maine and his cell phone died on him.  Apparently when there’s no signal your phone spends time and energy looking for a signal, which causes it to die faster.  Lesson learned.  Turn your phone off when you head out in the back woods.  Luckily he’s a smart guy and wasn’t relying on it to get him home.

Even if you’re not a big compass person let’s assume that you have one on you.  If you’ve read my compass series you’ll know there’s a little work learning how to use one, but it’s well worth the time and effort.  Look at the map below and let’s say that you’re hiking in the area where the word North is printed.


Maps are generally oriented so that north is at the top of the map.  Therefore, east is to the right of the map, south is down, and west is left.

Before I head out on my hike I get my map out and know at least the general area where I’ll be operating.  If I’m in the sector of the map above where the word North is printed what can I see?

The first obvious thing I see is that there’s a road to the east of where I am.  If I get lost in the middle of the woods I’m not really lost because I know where north is and I know that if I go east I’ll eventually find a road.



In the picture above I have my compass pointed east.  Because the road is east and runs more or less north to south I know that if I follow my compass I’ll find the road.  I don’t really have to worry about drifting because the road is a big target instead of a dot on a map.

With this type of direction you don’t have to worry about adjusting your magnetic or grid azimuths or any of that.  Even if you miss that road (impossible) you’ll eventually come across another.

Where this gets tricky is when you’re way out in the wilderness and it might take you four days to find your way back to a road.  But with a compass at least you’ll be walking in a constant direction instead of running around in circles.  This is very easy to do without a compass, so don’t laugh.

So there you have my detailed explanation of an emergency azimuth.  The next time you go out hiking or camping take a few minutes to look at a map and figure out where you’ll be operating and what the closest road, river, or what have you is using a simple magnetic direction.

That way you’ll be able to find your way home instead of having search teams out looking for you all night long.;

Questions?  Comments?

Sound off below!

-Jarhead Survivor

6 comments… add one
  • irishdutchuncle May 13, 2013, 7:24 am

    yeh, having search teams out looking for me would be very embarrassing. (worse once I get the bill)

  • Mike the Gardener May 13, 2013, 9:59 am

    While I have the basic concepts of orientation using a map and compass, it would be nice if there was something local around where I live, such as a class given by an expert.

    • Jarhead Survivor May 14, 2013, 10:37 am

      Mike – I’d like to create a complete video series on Land Nav. Personally, I learn better if I read it first and then see it being used. Maybe that would be a little easier for everybody to pick up on. What do you think?

      • irishdutchuncle May 15, 2013, 10:44 am

        I’d like to see a “boy scout handbook” for non-scouts, or a “jarhead handbook”, for non-jarheads…
        as a reference to keep in my BOB/GHB. (sold along with the complete jarhead video series on DVD, to watch at home)

  • Grandmamom May 13, 2013, 12:03 pm

    I agree Mike, but for now Jarheads course is the best I have found. If you are in Texas there are great courses at Human Path. We may make it a vacation (LOL) destination in order to take a few.

  • No More Mr. Nice Guy May 13, 2013, 3:16 pm

    Great advice. Sometimes the basics get overlooked.


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