Essential Wilderness Navigation: A Real-World Guide to Finding Your Way Safely in the Woods With or Without A Map, Compass or GPS

Essential Wilderness Navigation: A Real-World Guide to Finding Your Way Safely in the Woods With or Without A Map, Compass or GPS

by Craig Caudill, Tracy Trimble


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All the Skills You Need to Navigate Unfamiliar Terrain

*FULL-SIZE fold-out USGS map included for hands-on practice and training!*

Top wilderness trainer and author Craig Caudill partners with fellow wilderness instructor Tracy Trimble to help you find your way in nature—no matter the tools you have on hand—in this must-have guide at a portable size and with thick, sturdy paper ideal for field-use.

Using real-life stories of wilderness navigation successes—and cautionary tales of wilderness exploration gone awry—Craig and Tracy start with the basics of rudimentary compass and map use before teaching the finer points of these indispensable resources, making Essential Wilderness Navigation the ultimate go-to guide for explorers of all skill levels. You’ll also learn how technological aids like GPS and natural elements like flora, fauna and celestial bodies can help you identify your position. Armed with your new knowledge and skills, you will be well equipped to troubleshoot any problems, explore nature and become a master wilderness navigator.

Further your wilderness knowledge with Craig Caudill's other wilderness skills books: Extreme Wilderness Survival and Ultimate Wilderness Gear.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781624147197
Publisher: Page Street Publishing
Publication date: 04/09/2019
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 267,107
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 7.60(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Craig Caudill is the author of Extreme Wilderness Survival and Ultimate Wilderness Gear, and he’s the founder and director of Nature Reliance School. He lives in Winchester, Kentucky.

Tracy Trimble is a former US Army reservist who teaches land navigation and other backcountry skills to federal and state first responders and to civilians with Nature Reliance School. He lives in central Kentucky

Read an Excerpt



It is only the scholar who appreciates that all history consists of successive excursions from a single starting-point, to which man returns again and again to organize yet another search for a durable scale of values. It is only the scholar who understands why the raw wilderness gives definition and meaning to the human enterprise. — Aldo Leopold

As an educator of nearly all things outdoors, I don't think there is anything more tragic than someone dying in a wilderness setting. Especially when the person had gone to the wilderness to take pleasure in a relatively safe adventure. Unfortunately, that is exactly what happened to sixty-six-year-old Geraldine Largay in the summer of 2013. Largay had already hiked more than 1,000 miles (1,600 km) of the famed Appalachian Trail. By all accounts from family and those who hiked and camped with her, she was having a great time and doing very well. Largay was mindful and appreciative enough of the wilderness she loved, that she departed the trail at one point to use the bathroom. (Typical trail etiquette suggests that hikers should move approximately 200 feet (60 m) off the trail when using the bathroom for privacy and to not offend other hikers.)

Largay had been keeping a journal, and it is evident from her entries that she got lost trying to find her way back to the trail after using the bathroom. Upon getting lost, Largay sent several text messages to her husband, asking him to contact authorities for help. Even though she hiked to higher ground for better reception, her texts were never sent due to poor cell connection. Previously, she had normal check-ins and the family knew something was not right when she missed the window of time for those. A massive search-and-rescue (SAR) operation that lasted several weeks did not turn up any conclusive evidence of her whereabouts and was eventually concluded. This fact did not stop wilderness enthusiasts from continuing to search for her when they were in the area. Her journal entries suggest that she actually lived for approximately twenty-six days after she left the trail. She eventually succumbed to a combination of exposure, dehydration and starvation. Her body was found two years later inside of her sleeping bag.

There is much to learn from this incredibly sad story. The first lesson is to enjoy life to the fullest much like Geraldine Largay did. She had earned the trail name "Inchworm" because she was a tad slower than some that passed her while hiking the trail. However, she was out there, hiking more than 1,000 miles (1,600 km) and immensely enjoying herself along the way. Much like other educators, I have read many accounts of her story and feel confident in saying that her tragic experience is not one to keep others from similar adventuring. She would not have wanted that. If anything, she would have wanted — and I want — to ensure that you spend more time outside. By utilizing wilderness navigation skills and tools, I can help you go out and come back home safely. I am not unlike Geraldine Largay in that I love the outdoors, and when I was a young teenager, I, too, got lost in a wilderness setting (though for only a day). It was at that point that I started studying backcountry skills in earnest to ensure that it never happened to me again. My Nature Reliance School was started and my books (including this one) were written to share these skills with others.

In this chapter, I want to lay a good foundation for you to utilize a map effectively. At the end of this and other chapters, you will find two things that will help you develop your own skill set. One is a set of important questions that pull out essential points you need to know about each chapter's topic. You will also find at the end of this chapter (and several others) a section called "Get Out and Practice." Within this section are step-by-step suggestions on how you can develop wilderness navigation methods on your own. This particular chapter has some recommendations to help you avoid falling victim to the situation faced by Geraldine Largay.

In my opinion, maps are the foundation for navigation. Twenty years ago, if you wanted to go hiking or camping and you needed a map, you went to the local forestry service office and purchased a topographic (topo) map of the area. These maps were standard, and you had no real choices in the type, style or options. Today, with the availability of computer software, online services and phone apps, the average hiker has many options to choose from and it can be confusing. So it is critical that the hiker familiarize themselves with these options and gain an understanding of which option is best for them.

Within my favorite map phone app, there are seven different layers to choose from. Each map layer provides different data with its own value depending on my needs. This is one of many indicators in today's world that an outdoor adventurer simply cannot pick up a map and expect it to provide everything that is needed. Most of the time when I go hiking, I will have this same map in at least two different forms. I will always carry a quality paper topography version of the map I need. My second map could be a simple Google Maps overlay, a forestry service trail map or even a local hand-drawn map.

And yes, GPS and phone apps provide maps for the hiker in today's world. Some online mapping services and phone apps only give you a couple options with more options available through paid subscriptions. But these devices often provide a limited view of the area due to small screen sizes. A large printed map will provide you with a much broader overview of the area, offering opportunities for preplanning, setting a supply schedule and a slew of other options.

Selecting the proper map is critical. Please don't think that you can grab your phone or GPS and have all the data — or the best data — you need.


In my second book, Ultimate Wilderness Gear, I stated that if I had to choose between taking a map or a compass to the wilderness, I would take a map. A map can give insight into an area before you get to it and while you are in it, and it can help you do a good after-action review once you return home. Maps are indispensable pieces of equipment. The three-dimensional natural world is a beautiful and diverse place. It takes a heaping amount of symbology, coloration and keys to represent it on a two-dimensional surface that we can put in our pocket. There is so much information that it can easily boggle the mind. So, in this section, we want to unboggle the mind on all those map details.

Our first consideration must be maps in general. In this section, I am only going to cover paper or similar map options. Software, apps and other similar tools will be covered in chapter 3. There are several categories to consider:

United States Geological Survey (USGS) quadrangle maps (see image 2): These are the "gold standard" of maps. All other map options available are either based on these maps, or they utilize the standards of symbology that were formulated for them. Often referred to as "quads," each of these maps have a 1:24000 scale (more on scale later) and will cover approximately 50 square miles (129 sq. km) of land (how much land exactly is determined by its latitude). These maps are standardized in what content they offer. This means that no matter where you are, if you pick up a USGS quad map, you will instantly recognize the symbols, colors and other information contained therein.

Large-scale recreational trail maps: These are instantly recognizable. If you go into any local outdoor store, national park or state park, they will have some sort of recreational trail map. Depending on the area in which you are adventuring, the map may have lots of detail on it or very little detail on it as it relates to topography. For sights to see and points of local interest, this type of map is very useful. Most consider these "starter" maps. They are intended to help a user stay on approved trails and not deviate from them. Most of these maps do not have any way of plotting or determining coordinates. A recreational map should not be your primary map and should be used only for a general overview of the area.

Trail guides: These would most often be classified as small books. They come in two forms. One is a guide for long trails that are either section-hiked or through-hiked. An example is the trail guide for the Sheltowee Trace (seeimage 3). The Sheltowee Trace is designated as a National Recreation Trail by the US Forest Service, and it travels almost 300 miles (480 km) through beautiful mixed hardwood forests in my home state of Kentucky. The trail guide covers several important features, such as trail profiles, mile markers and good sources of water. Hikers will find this sort of guide a must-have document for multiday hikes on well-known trails, such as the Appalachian or Pacific Crest trails. The second type of trail guide is one that contains multiple shorttrail hikes of an area. You can use this type of guide much like a menu. You may ask yourself, "What sort of hike do I feel like doing today?" This type of guide will break down hikes based on distance, points of interest, elevation and difficulty. It allows you to pick the perfect trail to saunter on no matter what level of difficulty you or the group you are with are capable of.

Orienteering maps: For many years, there have been competitions in the practice and use of map and compass skills. These competitions are referred to as orienteering. They are fantastic ways for you to get outside and test your navigation skills. Organizers develop maps, like recreation trail maps, that are used in orienteering competitions and practice. These maps are designed specifically for these competitions, so some of them will purposely leave information off for the sake of training and problem solving. Although they are the perfect maps for this sort of training, they are not good choices for wilderness adventuring. You will want to have as much information as possible on your map when going out.

Now that we have a basic understanding of the types of maps out there, an important question arises: What do we do with it? You will note that chapters 9, 10 and 11 are dedicated to various areas of wilderness interest. In those chapters, I will dig into the details for each specific use. In the following chapters, though, we are going to take you through the important items to observe on a map.


DeLorme Atlas and Gazetteer provides topographic maps of each of the United States in a large, handy book form. This type of reference tool is an excellent item to keep in your vehicle. You can use it to relate the information from your vehicle GPS device (such as a TomTom, Google Maps or Apple Maps) directly to a paper map. This reference tool also provides you with a backup tool when you experience a problem with your GPS receiver. If you are in an unfamiliar area and your GPS takes you to a closed road and reroutes you, you can then verify the area you are going into with the Gazetteer.


In wilderness navigation, if you are communicating with others or deciphering your position, you can easily be off by hundreds of meters if you don't understand how to use datum sets. Datum are essentially a set of rules that help us apply grid systems to the earth. This facilitates communication between us and others about positions, places and more. The following are those of importance in the United States:

North American Datum Set of 1927 (NAD 27): This is the system you will find on older topo maps. It was designed using transit surveying methods.

North American Datum Set of 1983 (NAD 83): This is a system similar to NAD27 that was updated utilizing global positioning satellites and allowed datum to be inherently more accurate.

World Geodetic System of 1984 (WGS 84): This is the same datum put together for NAD83 but applied on a worldwide scale, not just in the United States.

North American Terrestrial Reference Frame of 2022 (NATRF 2022): This is the future of land navigation map datum. This new system is being put in place so that all of North America (Canada, United States and Mexico) are on the same datum reference.

One of the first things you should do when looking at any map for the first time is take note what datum set it references. This is vitally important if any of the following are true:

• You are using a GPS. If your GPS is set on one datum and the map you are referencing is another, you could be several hundred meters off.

• You are communicating with another person or party for a current trip or one in the future. You and the other party will most likely reference various coordinates. If you are using different datum sets, these locations will be different (see image 5).

• You are a first responder and work with other agencies. For example, if a police agency gets a 911 call of coordinates for a location, a search-and-rescue team would benefit greatly by knowing what datum was used so they can narrow their search.


The scale of the map is the amount the map has been reduced from the actual portion of the earth it represents. Typically, this is found in one of the lower corners of a map. On USGS quad maps, it is always found in the bottom center. In image 6, you will note the scale of this USGS quad map is labeled as 1:24000. This means that 1 unit on the map is equal to 24,000 of those same units on the earth. For example, if you measure between two points of interest on a map and that distance is 1 inch (2.5 cm), the distance on the actual ground, if you were to walk between them, would be 24,000 inches (60,000 cm). This equates to 2,000 feet (610 m) or slightly over ? mile (530 m). This is one of the most vital pieces of information you can get from a map, and it has pros and cons. Positively, a map allows us to carry around a representation of the earth in our pocket without much trouble. Negatively, if we do not pay close attention to our map's scale, then it is more difficult to translate what we are seeing on our map to what we are seeing on the ground in front of us. Looking at the scale of the map is therefore critical to wilderness navigation.


You will find that this text will share both Imperial and metric measurements throughout. It is our observation that beginners understand metric measurement much easier than standard measurement. The following two equations and a bit of history can illustrate this point:

1 kilometer = 1,000 meters; 1 meter = 100 centimeters

1 mile = 5,280 feet; 1 foot = 12 inches

Why is the Imperial (aka customary) form of measurement so confusing? The word "mile" is derived from the Latin term mille passus, which translates as "1,000 paces." That was considered the original Roman mile. Despite the often larger-than-life persona that is attributed to Roman soldiers, history has shown that during that time, their mile was approximately 4,840 feet (1.5 km). This means the average stride length (a measurement of left foot to left foot) was 5 feet (1.5 m). This is slightly less than our average stride length today. In more modern times, our larger stride length means that 1,000 paces will take us 5,280 feet (1.77 km).


The colors on a map are very beneficial. They give us a quick reference to what is on the earth. Please reference image 7; this graphic shows us the colors primarily used on USGS maps. Please note that although USGS maps are the "gold standard," recreation, private and other similar maps are not required to utilize this same color scheme. Most of them do, but it is important to look at the legend and verify this before you make decisions based on that information. This is another reason that we are proponents of using maps in which standards are the same as the USGS. This allows us to quickly and efficiently use maps of that caliber. There are a few colors that seem to work well across all maps, no matter what their origin:

Green: Forested or wilderness landscape.

White: Sparse or no vegetation (including but not limited to urban areas).

Blue: Waterways or bodies of water.

Brown: Topography lines (see the section titled "Contour Lines" here).


Excerpted from "Essential Wilderness Navigation"
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Copyright © 2019 Craig Caudill and Tracy Trimble.
Excerpted by permission of Page Street Publishing Co..
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Table of Contents

Introduction 8

Section 1 The Essentials Of Wilderness Navigation 11

Chapter 1 Choosing the Right Maps and Learning to Read Them 13

Chapter 2 Choosing the Right Compass and Learning How It Works 47

Chapter 3 Understanding Global Positioning Systems and Other Useful Technological Equipment 73

Chapter 4 Other Items You Need to Do Land Navigation Right or to Look Cool (or Both) 103

Chapter 5 What to Do If It All Goes Wrong 143

Section 2 Next-Level Skills To Round Out Your Knowledge 165

Chapter 6 Using the Day and Night Sky to Point You in the Right Direction 167

Chapter 7 Utilizing Flora and Fauna for General Navigation Needs 183

Chapter 8 Using Eighth-Grade Math Skills to Navigate Like a Boss 197

Section 3 Specializes Practical Applications Of Wilderness Navigation Methods 209

Chapter 9 Wilderness Navigation for Search and Rescue 211

Chapter 10 Navigating While Armed for Hunting or Law Enforcement 225

Chapter 11 Tips and Tricks to Help Scouts and Families Learn Wilderness Navigation 241

Conclusion The Ten Commandments of Wilderness Navigation 256

Appendixes 261

Topographic Map Symbols 261

Suggested Resources 264

Acknowledgments 266

About the Authors 267

Index 268

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