American Outdoor Guide|January 2022
Mike Travis
Over the course of the years in which I've engaged in survival training, one of my most daunting subjects has always been land navigation.

Reading maps, using a compass and applying those skills in the field always felt like equal parts advanced mathematics and witchcraft. I read many books and articles and typically came away just as confused as when I started.

Latitude, declination, degrees, bearings; it always made my head spin. Hands-on teaching helped to demystify some of this, but never to the point at which I was comfortable with the subject.

Much to my shame, land navigation remained a weakness in my skill set for a very long time. But, having spoken with many students of survival over the years, I've found that I'm not alone in this deficiency.

All this changed with my discovery of a book called Essential Wilderness Navigation by Craig Caudill and Tracy Trimbal. I was familiar with Caudill from his other books, Extreme Wilderness Survival and Ultimate Wilderness Gear, as well as his YouTube channel, Nature Reliance.

Caudill writes in a way that's logical and easy for me to understand, so I decided to have another go at learning land navigation. This time, however, I decided it was time to go back to school-Caudill's Nature Reliance School (, to be exact.


I joined Caudill's recent, one-day “Introduction to Land Navigation class at the Red Rock Lodge. It's located on 4,000 acres near Sugarloaf, Pennsylvania, and draws students from Ohio, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

The class started with the Pledge of Allegiance and a round of introductions. Caudill then laid out what the students could expect from the class, along with a general outline of how the day would proceed. He then discussed his book, Essential Wilderness Navigation, and how the day's instruction would complement the information in the book.

The first order of business was to discuss the three components of navigation:

1. Map. Maps are the key to successful land navigation. A quality map and the ability to read it comprise the most important tools/skill set combination you can possess. Using a map with basic terrain association skills might not be as precise as using a map with a compass, but it can definitely keep you from getting lost.

2. Compass. Second to a quality map is a quality compass. Caudill first discussed what to look for in a compass. He only recommends compasses from Cammenga, Suunto and Brunton because of the consistent quality controls in their manufacturing processes (his recommendation for other brands was to immediately throw them in the trash). Caudill then discussed the strengths and weaknesses of baseplate and lensatic compasses and informed us that we would learn to use basic baseplate compasses for the duration of the course.

3. GPS. Caudill briefly discussed stand-alone GPS units from companies such as Garmin but pointed out that he hasn't used them for the past few years. He specifically recommended the Gaia and Cal Topo cell phone apps, coupled with a quality cell phone, as his preferred replacement for a dedicated GPS unit. While both apps were recommended for their stand-alone features, CalTopo was singled out as the preferred platform due to its fullfeatured desktop computer interface and the ability to print your own custom maps.

Students were then led through a discussion of different types of maps, with an emphasis on the strengths and weaknesses of each type. Caudill spent the bulk of his time reviewing USGS (U.S. Geological Survey) topographical maps, which he considers to be the gold standard of mapping systems. Students each received several USGS maps and were given a detailed breakdown of how to read them.

A good portion of class time was spent on map-reading. Students learned how to read the map legend, map scale and what datum sets were being used, as well as why that was important. Contour lines, distance estimation, and how to read and use the UTM (Universal Transverse Mercator) grid system received the bulk of the class's focus.

In the beginning, students had a lot of questions and confusion-regarding the use of the UTM system, which is a metricbased grid system that can plot precise locations on a map.

Nevertheless, by the end of this interactive presentation, we were all finding precise locations on our maps, plotting courses and relaying coordinates with ease.


Finally, it was time to put all this new information into practice. Caudill made sure each student had a functional, approved compass, a map of the area and the supplies needed to spend the rest of the day in the field. .

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine