Wilderness Survival Skills - Navigation 


Vegetation can be so thick in some remote wilderness areas that people can become lost within a very short time of leaving a track. In very rugged and relatively unexplored areas people have gone missing never to be found again. The obvious answer is not to leave designated tracks however, in remote areas there may not be a track or tracks may be overgrown. This can lead to disorientation and confusion over which track is the correct one to follow. Suddenly being lost in the wilderness is disorienting and extremely disconcerting. The first thing to do is NOT to panic but to use the STOP principle -

  • Stop
  • Think
  • Observe
  • Plan

Navigation skills

Navigation skills are essential in wilderness and bushcraft activities and include -

  • map reading
  • knowing how to use a compass
  • understanding other methods of direction finding 

Equipment such as a GPS Navigator, a compass and a map will greatly aid your efforts to find your way, and may save your life.

If lost:

  • Look for signs of water, food, other people and man-made structures.
  • Avoid dangerous obstacles such as cliffs and jagged rocks.
  • If going up a steep incline, move in a zig-zag pattern.
  • Blow you whistle periodically or yell.


To determine direction without a compass, use the shadow-tip method:

  • First, find a straight stick about 3 feet long.
  • Find a level, vegetation-free spot where the stick will cast a definite shadow.
  • Push the stick into the ground so it stands upright. It need not be perfectly vertical to the ground.
  • Mark the tip of the shadow cast by the stick.
  • Wait until the shadow moves 4-6cm (1 1/2 to 2 inches) this will take approximately 10 to 15 minutes).
  • Mark the tip of the second shadow.
  • Draw a line from the first mark through and about a 30cm (1ft) beyond the second mark.
  • Stand with your left foot on the first mark and your right foot on the end of the line you drew.
  • If you are in the northern temperate zone, you will be facing north.
  • If you are in the southern temperate zone, you will be facing south.

Map reading

Maps are drawn based on latitude and longitude lines. Latitude lines run east and west and measure the distance in degrees north or south from the equator (0° latitude). Longitude lines run north and south intersecting at the geographic poles. Longitude lines measure the distance in degrees east and west from the prime meridian that runs through Greenwich, England. The grid created by latitude and longitude lines allows us to calculate an exact point using these lines as X axis and Y axis coordinates.

Both latitude and longitude are measured in degrees (°).

1° = 60 minutes
1 minute = 60 seconds


7 ½ minutes = 1/8 of 60 minutes = 1/8 of a degree
15 minutes = ¼ of 60 minutes = ¼ of a degree


Contour lines are used in a map to give a picture of depth and height. These lines join areas of equal height above sea level and can give an accurate picture of the real terrain. The contour interval is the space between two contour lines (it usually represents 20 metres in height). The contour shape is an indication of the real feature illustrated. Ridges and spurs are depicted by U-shaped turns of contour lines, sparse lines indicate flatter country, and lines close together indicate steepness.

Learn more about survival

Bushcraft and Wilderness Activities Course

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