Why Should I Learn Map Reading?

map1This probably should have been the first post on the orienteering series, but it fits well here too.  The next post or two deals with some concepts that are a bit tricky and you’ll actually have to put your thinking caps on and maybe do a few examples of your own.

Map reading is hard.  You have to remember stuff.  You have to practice.  Hell, you even have to do some math.

Why should I learn it when I’ve got a GPS in my pocket that will tell me exactly where I am and give me directions on where I need to go?

Let’s go to a pretend world for a bit…


The grid is down.  The global economy went to hell three months ago and despite all the promises by the government and news media things aren’t getting better.  After the first month food deliveries were sporadic at best and despite a police presence outside most of the supermarkets in town there are very few supplies left.  Rioting has been reported in some of the larger cities.

After the first month of not getting paid a growing number of people stopped showing up for their jobs and without skilled engineers and workers the power plants supplying electricity slowly went off line.  It’s not out completely, but with rolling brown outs and black outs electricity just can’t be depended on.

It wasn’t like everything crashed at once.   It was more like the frog in the pot where the water is slowly brought up to boiling.  Things deteriorated slow enough that it prevented you from triggering your bug-out plan and now you’re stuck in your apartment with your wife and two sons.  Luckily they’re old enough to walk long distances and you feel like you’ve raised them right and can rely on them in case of an emergency.

Well, now it’s an emergency.

You’ve decided to head for the doomstead you have set up with two other families and you kick yourself for not going right away.  There’s no more gas for vehicles, so that means you’re going to bug out on foot cross country.  Your GPS tells you your destination is 88 miles northwest as the crow flies.  You figure you can do it in four days with your family if you push them hard enough.

Three days later you realize you’re still at least four days away.  Nothing has gone right.  You had to ditch some gear from the packs because they were too heavy for walking.  There have been roadblocks not mentioned by the media and you’ve had to take the family off the road and circle around them praying you don’t get spotted.

And this afternoon  the batteries in your GPS died and you discover the spares you packed in your BOB two years ago are dead too.  Didn’t the manufacturer claim these batteries would last ten years in storage?  You make a mental note to write a strongly worded letter to the company.

Now what?  You’re a little more than halfway to the doomstead, food is running low, and now you’ve lost the only means of navigation you had.

You break the bad news to the family, but your 16 year old son – the boy scout – does something strange.  Instead of panicking he grabs his pack and pulls out a map and compass.   You show him where you are on the map and he plots a direction to your bug-out location.  Then he picks up the compass and declares he’s going to take point and leads the way.

Four days later you arrive.  Hungry, tired, and foot sore, but you made it.

You tell your son how proud you are of him and thank him for saving the day.


Oh, maybe the story is just a little dramatic, but you get the point.  GPS batteries only last for so long and if you’re trusting your life to a piece of electronic wizardry you’re gambling with your life and the lives of whoever is with you.  If you think you won’t run out of batteries in an extended emergency you are dead wrong.  Just don’t get dead because of it.

And what happens if the satellites fail?  Oops.

GPS is Cool!

I was on a mountain with my smart phone recently using it as a GPS and it was fantastic.  When you can look at a device and know exactly where you are and what’s over the next rise it doesn’t get better than that.  But I was using it heavily and after just a few hours the battery was very low.

Of course I had a map and compass and went back to doing it the old fashioned way.

I’ve read many stories where someone has followed GPS directions blindly down back roads only to wind up stuck for days and sometimes even got themselves dead because of it.  Always have a manual backup and the knowledge of how to use it.

Like I said earlier, map reading is hard and it will take some work to get proficient at it.  You don’t have to get to the point where you’re looking for a ten meter square clearing in a huge forest, but if you can point a compass and follow an azimuth there’s a good chance that you’ll eventually get to where your going.  And you don’t have to worry about the batteries dying.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying don’t use a GPS.  They’re awesome devices.  What I am saying is learn the skills necessary to stay alive in case something happens to your device, whether you drop it in water, break it or the batteries die it’s always good to have a back up.

Just in case.

Next week we’ll talk about direction and how to shoot an azimuth on your compass.

How about it, Prepper?

Questions?  Comments?

Sound off below!

-Jarhead Survivor

19 comments… add one
  • Preppers Canyon February 27, 2013, 8:19 am

    It never amazes me the number of people who cannot use an old fashioned compass. I am pretty sure we didn’t have a gps when I joined the army 26 years ago.

    While I agree GPS has made things easier and most likely saved lives, how many more could be saved by learning a disappearing art form. Yes it is an art form to read a compass and compare it to your map to find your way (especially at night), but it is something that we should all learn.

    • Jarhead Survivor February 27, 2013, 3:01 pm

      I agree. This skill is very important to anybody who has to go somewhere. Even on a road trip reading a map is a critical skill.

  • riverrider February 27, 2013, 8:58 am

    not to mention the .gov can shut it off to civilian use by the flip of a switch. see, its not encrypted now, but during emergency they will turn encryption on to deny the enemy use of it. then you have china with anti-satelite capability. i’m sure thats the first thing they’ll do, use our tech against us….spend the bucks and get the tritium type compass, move at night.

    • Jarhead Survivor February 27, 2013, 3:02 pm

      I’ll be covering shooting a night azimuth with a military compass in one of my upcoming posts.

  • Jason February 27, 2013, 9:18 am

    You hit the nail on the head with a problem with technology – it makes people lazy thinkers & dependent. When my oldest child was 5, we shut off the TV for 7 years. My reasoning was pretty simple – I noticed his creativity was being shaped artificially as the input was directing everything & he had to do nearly nothing to be “entertained”. Sure it created more work for us but to this day he does not ever say “I am bored” because that is a comparative statement for kids today.

    Growing up my dad taught me how to read road maps, establish landmarks that pointed south, judge short distances & more. I was a surfer & learned how to read weather maps, tide books to establish the direction & power of a swell (waves). As time went on I could look at the weather (wind, cloud formation & time of year) & could establish where & when to go – or not at all. I can still put a stick in the sand & tell time with reasonable accuracy like a sundial – something I learned when I was 10.

    As stated, I LOVE technology but one thing people seem to overlook is as it becomes more user friendly & simplified, it is extremely complicated to get it to that point because it takes a substantial amount of work, math & thought to make it easy for you & I. Then, as you pointed out, what happens if the grid goes down – even a microcosmic grid like the batteries dying on a GPS or smart phone?

    As Prepper Canyon said above – it is art to read a map. You can extrapolate & include weather, water running patterns, types of foliage – where & how they grow & survive and so much more. This is how the American indians, the Australian aborigines & a great deal more lived for many centuries.

    Thanks for taking the time time to go through this. The application of orienteering goes much farther than map reading in my opinion. It causes you to think, which is truly becoming the lost art.

    • Jarhead Survivor February 27, 2013, 3:03 pm

      With the lack of comments I wonder if I put one of these land nav posts out there and people just roll their eyes and say, “Crazy old Jarhead is at it again!” and click on over to the next site.

      Glad to see you’re getting something out of it, Jason.

      • Jason February 27, 2013, 9:14 pm

        Well, you could tell people what they want to hear – the world is ending tomorrow. Then post it will end the next day & so on. Many people on these survival sites complain about how America has become a nation of sheeple yet, those same people buy into America crashing & burning a week from Tuesday. So who are the real sheeple?

        Creekmore swore up & down we were going to sink about 4-5 years ago & we are no closer but his followers were running scared & hunkering down to survive the illusion. What is funny is he ran out of ideas & now has primarily all guest posts from wanna be doomsday bent writers to now his bidding.

        You’ve got guys like Michael Ruppert who was POSITIVE & provided “proof” the world was collapsing a few years back. Now he is out of the Collapse Network he started. Remember the great trend setter Gerald Celente? Anarchy was going to hit in 2009 then 2010 then 2011 then 2012 & now 2013? All sensationalized horse shit but still selling his trend report by the tens of thousands.

        People are strange – they want to hear about death, destruction, doom & gloom & how we are going to be starving in the streets because of some Mayan stupidity or a Nostradamus ancient midnight acid trip or Obama is Satan incarnate. Then they have the gall to cry out – “why is everything we hear about these days so negative?”

        What you provide here is a pleasant relief, it’s useful & a personal passion – something lacking in the world by in large. Most everybody reading this may not ever use a compass & a map but that’s not the point. The point is to create & think past the our marginalized world of the path of least resistance, to do something – anything – out of our comfort zone which creates actual growth.

        To those who don’t appreciate it or want to wait for the sky to fall, might as well get into the pine box & wait.

        Last thought on this rant – I help coach & teach people how to build business (it isn’t any multi level marketing crap) & the one thing I say all of the time is making money is so easy because 90% of the people sit on the sidelines & complain or are armchair quarterbacks. Just walk onto the field, work diligently & pick up the money that’s laying there – it’s everywhere & nobody wants to extend the effort to go get it.

        That’s enough for now :-)

  • Leon February 27, 2013, 9:39 am

    I carry a GPS outdoors most of the time. I don’t trust it. It is, as you mentioned as reliable as the batteries in it. I would never take a GPS without a map and compass.
    There is no substitute for knowing how to orient and use a map. It is a critical survival skill, be it in the wilderness or in an urban setting.

  • Beans February 27, 2013, 10:23 am

    If you want a great way to learn, check to see if there is an orienteering club in your area. My sister and I went to a clinic that the local club put on. They had experienced people to help us and a great short learning course. It was a good hands-on way of learning without the risk of getting lost. In addition, most of their competitions are open to the public, and they are fine if you tackle the course at your own pace just for fun. It’s also a great way to practice your skills and meet other outdoor enthusiasts.

  • GoneWithTheWind February 27, 2013, 11:11 am

    Discuss “dead reconing”. It has it’s strengths and weaknesses. Also the practice of intentionally arriving at a landmark or river or road etc. Well above or below the traget so that you would then know which way to turn to hit the target. As opposed to aiming directly for a location then arriving at the river or other landmark but not at the target and not knowing if you need to turn left or right to arrive at the target location.
    Another point not directly related to orienteering is to have a plan that allows you to stop before dark so that you can make camp. A lot of lives are lost because the person is sure if they just walk a few more miles they are going to get to the road/cabin/help etc. and they fail to leave some daylight to prepare to spend the night. It is a built in bias humans have to hope for the best or take a chance that if they keep going some safe haven is just over there a little further. People put off the decision to prepare to spend the night for a lot of reasons including fear. Anyone who is lost or not lost but simply too far from camp needs to have his mind already set to accept that fact and stop to prepare a overnight camp.

    • smokechecktim February 27, 2013, 11:35 am

      you are dead on with your comments. Unless you have trained, you will not walk a straight course. Time and time again it has been proven that people will walk in shallow arcs. That why you hear of people walking in a circle when lost. If you dont know where you are going….stop going there! Find a spot then hunker down before sunset so you have time to set up a place to stay warm overnight. So just reading jarheads blogs won’t help usless you take some time to apply them in the field.

    • Jarhead Survivor February 27, 2013, 3:08 pm

      @GWTW – I took a 100 ton captain’s course once and one of the big areas was navigation. It was there that they told it was actually spelled, “De’d Reckoning.” Which stands for deduced reckoning, meaning you keep track of your speed, bearing, tide and wind to give yourself an idea of where you are on a map.

      I’ll be covering a lot of what you talk about in your comment. And I agree with your ideasabout people thinking they’ll find “something” over the next rise or around the next corner.

    • irishdutchuncle March 1, 2013, 1:23 pm

      yeh, what GWTW said, what smokechecktim said.

  • smokechecktim February 27, 2013, 11:26 am

    in my business people die every year by following their GPS into an area that is not passable by car or following a GPS generated trail thats been abandoned. We call it death by GPS. My wife walks every morning on a dirt road near our home. At least twice a week cars stop asking if they are on the road to ====. my wife tells them that their GPS is wrong and that the road was closed by the county in the 70’s. Most people on this blog already know….ALWAYS carry a map when you hike and in your car, ALWAYS be aware of where you are, and ALWAYS carry a compass and practice using it.

    • Jarhead Survivor February 27, 2013, 3:10 pm

      I actually wrote a post with the title, “Death by GPS” on another blog a couple of years ago. You’re absolutely right, man. Practice, practice, practice!!

  • emb145 February 27, 2013, 10:41 pm

    Another point to consider is that in a real SHTF scenario, locals may destroy or deface all street and highway signage as a matter of security. It’s been done before. You’ve probably heard the U2 song, “Where the Streets Have No Name”.

  • Spud February 28, 2013, 9:48 am

    Having gone thru Basic etc. in 71, and Special Forces training later on etc. Then becoming an avid back packer in the Idaho wilderness areas for a number of years. Don’t really feel a need to comment much about this topic, though feel it is a very valuable subject for those with no experience. Having paper Topo maps of ones AO is very much a required provision along with multiple compasses. Would also recommend an inexpensive Sextant along with a reliable mechanical timepiece for any long distance travel. Dead reckoning is reliable only for short distances without a means to get a positive fix. Much depends on the local of course.
    Keep up the good work Jar Head.
    USASASF the sneaky snakes forever lol


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