Getting home with a map and compass

by Maud’Dib

This is an entry in our non-fiction writing contest.

red-compassDriving distances to and from jobs have increased as companies moved to suburbs or further into rural areas. Daily commutes of 25, 30, or 40 miles each way are becoming typical. This presents a very serious problem if you should be at work and an event occurs that would necessitate you having to leave your vehicle behind and face a long walk home. It becomes more problematic if for some reason you have to avoid masses of rioters, martial law, or medical quarantine. An EMP, pandemic, or even an intense weather disaster like Katrina or a tornado could force you having to look at the possibility of walking for days over land that you are unfamiliar with.

The average person walks at about 2-3 miles per hour depending on their physical condition. Consequently, if you were facing a 40 mile hike, you are probably looking at a minimum of 3 days assuming you can cover 12 miles a day or so. In that same time, you will need water and nutrition. The nutrition part can be covered simply enough by having a stock of protein bars in your Get Home Bag. Water becomes more of an issue because it is heavy to carry. Researchers claim a person needs about a gallon of water a day if they are active. So given a 3-day hike, you would need at least 3 gallons of water, which at over 8 pounds per gallon becomes near impossible to carry without creating a heavy burden.

That leaves you with having to find water along the way or risk asking for help. Depending on the situation you may have to forgo dealing with people and find your own. Finding water can be made easier if you utilize satellite maps such as those found on Google Maps. These maps are also very beneficial in plotting a course to get you home safely by taking advantage of natural barriers such as trees, which would allow you maintain a stealth presence as you find your way home.

The first step in this process is to access Google Maps and after typing in your location, placing your location at the edge of the map in the direction from your home you would travel….if you are plotting the map from your job and you work to the West, put that location to the West and your home area to the East. Next re-size the map until your home is at the other edge of the map. If the distance is too great that the map is unreadable, make two or more maps as needed.

In doing this, you will have a map of the entire area of travel. Hopefully you will see various lakes, farm ponds or rivers somewhere near your intended path. Google Maps are not very informative beyond showing roads and waterways but if you click on that little square at the bottom left that says “Earth” it will give you a satellite view of exactly the same area, complete with waterways, roads, buildings and wooded areas. This can be re-sized to zoom in or out, which is very beneficial for finding landmarks and water.

Google Maps also has a neat feature that allows you to plot distances on the map. You simply place the cursor on top of the map and right click the mouse. A list will appear, and at the bottom will say “measure distance”. Move the mouse cursor to your starting location, click the left button and a small circle will appear with a short line. Hold the mouse button down and drag the line anywhere you want. You can change direction by clicking on the line which will create another small circle. Like before, hold the mouse button down and move the line wherever you want.

As you create your lines on the map have it lead to various water sources shown on the map so you can refill your water supply. (I use a Sawyer Mini filter…others use a Berkey Sports Bottle, the choice is yours) You may also have to find safe cover to spend the night, which is easily accomplished by zooming in on the map and picking a nice hiding place such as a stand of trees. You should also find landmarks such as buildings, waterways, water towers etc…along your line of travel that you can use to show when and where you should change course. When your course is plotted all the way to your home, print out your map on as large paper as you can. Most libraries can print 11×15 which should work well. You now have a plotted course that takes you to water sources as well as reasonably safe route all the way home.

Useful links and info on how-to Using a Map and Compass

Orienting a map so it matches Magnetic North is a fairly simple process. Since we are dealing with shorter line of sight distances, declination is not a major factor, so let’s begin by orienting the map so it coincides with the compass.

Follow this link to a very easy to understand set of directions using the lensatic compass.

Once the map is oriented do not move it again.

Now its just a matter of figuring the angles of the lines you have created and their relationship to North. These are your “bearings” and they determine the direction of travel.

If you made note of landmarks on your line of travel its just a matter of sighting through the compass as shown in the video while reading the bearing you created pointing toward the landmark. For example…if the first leg of your trip calls for a bearing of 45 deg.

Hold the compass level up to your eye as shown in the video.. and turn your body until a reading of 45 degrees appears in the sight glass. Without moving the compass, look through the sighting lens and line up the sighting wire while glancing down at the bearing. It sounds complicated but just watch the short video a few times and it will become easy.

Keep doing this sighting, traveling and reaching your landmarks until you are close to home…then it becomes unnecessary.

Prizes For This Round (Ends April 12, 2016) In Our Non-Fiction Writing Contest Include…

  1. First place winner will receive –   A gift certificate for $150 off of  rifle ammo at Lucky Gunner, an Urban Survival Kit a $109 value courtesy of  TEOTWAWKI supplies, a WonderMix Deluxe Kitchen Mixer a $299 value courtesy of Kodiak Health and a LifeStraw Mission Filter a $109 value courtesy of EarthEasy, for a total prize value of $667
  2. Second Place Winner will receive – 30 Day Food Storage All-in-One Pail a $119 value courtesy of Augason and Berkey Light with 2 (9″) Berkey Earth Elements a $157 value courtesy of LPC Survival, for a total prize value of $276.
  3. Third place winner will receive –  International MRE Meals Supply a $72.00 value, a LifeStraw Portable Water Filter a $19 value, Yoder’s Fully Cooked Canned Bacon a $15 value all courtesy of CampingSurvival and one copy of each of my books “The Prepper’s Primer” and a copy of “The Prepared Prepper’s Cookbook“ for a total prize value of $137.


  1. In addition to water filters, I’ll have water purification tablets. Also, drive the route u’d walk, & add RR tracks, creeks, & other landmarks to the map, to make your map more useful.

  2. Though certainly useful, I never did make the switch to using a GPS. Old school orienteerer here. A map, a compass, and an altimeter (barometric) left over from my mountaineering days has proven reliable and unfailing for decades (even in Mt Rainier whiteouts). I am also basicly able to navigate by the stars. An average of 62 paces will yield around 100 meter’s travelled, the pace count will vary among folks, could be more paces or less ,but 62 is the rough average. Use ‘pace count beads’ or ‘ranger beads’ to keep track. Lots of web info out there on their construction and use.

    Known direction,distance, and altitude will keep you fairly well pinpointed on any map. Because your pace count will vary even with terrain, you should only use it for a rough estimate of travelled distance and should be adjusted/verefied with known and identifiable features/locations on your map. No batteries needed.

  3. I have been blessed with a very good sense of direction. Once, on a military exercise in Germany we failed to take a turn (not marked or directed) and spend the night circling around to get back. I took us 6 hours, a lot of it due to other military units that would not let us pass, but we got there.

    For that reason, I started to review where we were going before we left. I could look at where we were and where we wanted to be, and get there without the map.

    Policy changed to where we at least had a set of maps at the platoon level.

    • Hey JP! We would have to leave Italy for Germany as we didn’t have to room to conduct live fire training. We’d spend a month at a time in the tent cities, been to Graffenwoehr, Hohenfels, Kaiserslautern, and Wildflicken. Never got over how cold Graff could get, snowing in march and OMG BRRRR!

      • PatrickM:

        Based upon an earlier comment, you were at Ft. Ord 3 years before I was. They were closing down basic training barracks as the classes graduated.

  4. I as well have always been blessed with a good sense of direction. I learned to use a compass with a camping group. We did a lot of orienteering and bushwalking. Another hobby (skill) is Geocaching. Absolutely love to go on a walkabout with this high tech ‘hide and seek game’. My advise to folks is to NOT depend solely on a GPS device because they can be affected by certain things like clouds, tree cover, buildings and such. I’ head it happen to me many times,but. A good ole compass does the job every time, and doesn’t need a recharge, or extra batteries.

    • swabbie Robbie says:

      I also have a good sense of direction. When with my wife all I have to do is let her out the door of a restaurant or mall ahead of me and which ever way she turns, I lead her to go the other way. Infallible. I think she also has a good sense of direction but her internal magnetic poles have reversed. This is just joking, but it is not uncommon with people. Many do not develop the habit of taking in their surroundings as the go so they have trouble orienting themselves when the need to.

      I love using a compass and as a sailor when I can use charts and take headings on coastal landmarks it is easy to know where I am, how fast I am going and plot when I will arrive at a destination or next waypoint. One can also plot current for drift off the heading.

  5. I am going to add another gallon of water in my truck, it is pretty dry here. I am retirex but could be off shopping or visiting. I would want a dog with me, they have better ears and noses. I keep hiking boots in my truck and other items. My route is too obvious because I would have to get through a mountain pass.

  6. Great article. I do think this is a lost skill these days as everything has moved to digital GPS. This would be a great skill for everyone to either learn or freshen up on.

  7. Great article, and links, well done.

  8. Thanks for the kudos guys.
    I was trying to come up with a way to obtain water that makes sense when having to travel long distances…hopefully I have accomplished that.

  9. I’ve actually been thinking about this a lot lately. Now that my step daughter and kids are here I worry less. She was living in LA and just gave away her GPS as she no longer needs it. She has a “smart phone”. I can’t help but wonder how many of the people in the big cities would be able to even read a road map nowadays.
    As for me the boy scouts familiarized me with it I and got the merit badge, Army taught me even better with a contour map and compass and the coast guard auxiliary taught me how to plot on a marine chart. I’m going to try and pass it on to the grandkids.

    • believer:

      I would ask your step daughter to check her GPS feature somewhere she does not get signal. I would be interested to know if it still works.

    • I found a lovely framed 3D map of my state in a thrift shop. I am new to the area and I like looking at it. Amazing, but just having this on my wall has increased my familiarity with NM and how it is laid out. My road atlas in the truck isn’t nearly as good.

  10. The nearest grocery to my house is a 14 mile hike. I always have my US military lensmatic compass with me. A note for those who carry filters. Most ground water in my part of America (Kentucky) is badly contaminated with non filterable toxins. Such as but not limited to : Heavy metals, sewage, and radioactive(radium) waste near strip mines, and down stream from coal power plants. The only “safe” water is from deep standing water that MUST be boiled , filtered and treated. Even then care MUST be taken in coal country as many ponds in the abandoned / “reclaimed” stripmines can be so toxic as to cause death or cancer. Even fifty years after they were “reclaimed”. Almost all of the “national parks” and National Forrest in Ky. are “reclaimed” stripmines and clear cuts. . Your Lifestraw won’t do anything to lower that risk. REACERCH YOUR AO BEFORE YOU GO.

  11. Babycatcher says:

    When we travel, I am the navigator. My father taught me to read maps at an early age, and I’ve taught my three. They can find their way most places they go, and all have spent time overseas. For a woman, I rarely get lost, but will brush up on compass skills, cuz it’s easy to get lost in the forest.

  12. Maud’Dib,

    Very well written for the novice that is still depending on technology. The video was a nice tutorial on the lensatic compass. The only thing I would add to that is spend the extra money and get a good one. Stay away from the China manufactured crap that gets passed off. Just as good a compass but considerably less expensive is a Silva compass. The Boy Scouts taught me to use a Silva, and the military taught me to use the lensatic. Honestly, I preferred the Silva. Maybe it was because I was used to it, or it was more like getting back to basics. Bottom line, I still felt more comfortable with it.

    I’m very impressed that you put this article together in less than a week. Very well done.

    The only constructive criticism I can come up with is that Google maps, whether or not they are printed or satellite are not always currently updated. If you live in a drought area like I do, finding water will be more problematic. Collecting water and purifying it for drinking is definitely another skill that needs to be learned. After all, we don’t have still suites (as much as I would love one) and as much as my ex-girlfriend had the hots for Bear Grylls, I’m not drinking my own pee. Knowing how to find water (potable water) is a necessity for even a one day trek if you are exerting yourself.

    Those are completely different articles though, and I’m digressing.

    I think the most important thing that was brought up either in your article or in one of the comments was to test your route home. This is assuming that you are going from one known point to another.

    All in all, a very good primer. Good on ‘ya brother.

  13. OhioPrepper says:

    This was a simple but well written article, with good links to resources. It is a skill that needs to be practiced; but, is easy to learn, and inexpensive to practice to hone the skill. I’ve been doing land navigation and orienteering off and on for more than 50 years, starting in the scouts in the early 1960’s in the hills of western Pennsylvania. In my hunter education classes, I discuss essentially what you had in the article, and in general, the 2 best things you can do to trek across an area on foot are:
    Knowing the area – Even without a map, knowing the area allows you to find your way to your endpoint using dead reckoning and your compass.
    Having a compass. The article uses a Lensatic, which is a fine compass, although I’ve generally used an orienteering compass, like a Silva; but, even a simple button compass will, with some practice, work in a pinch. The main thing a compass is used for is to point you in the right direction, and the use of visually sighted waypoints will keep you going in a straight line. One of the main reasons for using sighted waypoints is handedness. Most of us are singly handed (either right or left) and in general, you’ll have equal leggedness on the same side. What this means, is that in general, unless you have practiced, you will tend to take a little larger length step on that side. and over long distances, that will tend to make you move in a large circle. Using visually sighted waypoints, corrects this problem, and also corrects the problem where you may have to detour getting to the waypoint, due to an obstruction.

    No matter which compass you carry with you, the important thing is that it correctly points north. That may sound obvious; but, I have lined up a bunch of inexpensive compasses at a sporting goods or other large retail store, and have seen them pointing in several directions, some of which were not north.

    For water, I prefer a water filtration bottle, like the seychelle (shown here: This bottle removes nearly all contaminants and the activated carbon filter, contains a silver compound that is effective on bacteria and viruses. The other positive thing about a bottle, is that once you’ve located water, you can drink your fill and then carry some with you on the rest of your journey.

    One thing not mentioned in the article; but, possibly assumed as part of ones EDC, is a good flashlight and spare battery; since, you may be forced to travel in the dark. I also carry a Frog Toggs rain suit or poncho, which can help if you encounter inclement weather, either wet or cold.

  14. I like what I am seeing in the view of others who have only a compass to navigate with. I found when I was drafted in 61 and sent to FT. Ord. that my time at sea on my Dad’s commercial fishing boat payed off. We only had charts and good compass.
    One thing was mentioned about going in circles is that if your Left handed you will go to the left and Right handed to the right. When I was a commercial diver I always circled to the left and my partner to the right.I would advise people to get a good compass and locale maps of the area they live in. ATV maps and state rec. maps are great as they show lot of off road trail and details. Good luck to all and learn to use your compass. Gman

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