Build a BOB: Navigation

Posted on: January 26, 2017

The goal of bugging out is to reach a safe location, such as your predetermined bug out location (BOL) as quickly, safely, and efficiently as possible. That could be considerably hampered should you end up lost along the way.

Part of bug out planning involves selecting primary and alternate routes to reach your destination. Those routes should be practiced, too, on a regular basis. Travel them during the day and at night, in all four seasons, so you can recognize landmarks and such easily. For many people, they already know the BOL area intimately as it is the neighborhood where they grew up or perhaps it is a favorite family vacation spot. Assuming the normal roads are available, they’ll have no problem finding their way there.

Ah, but therein lies the rub, as they say. That’s a mighty big assumption. Could be the roads are impassible due to damage resulting from the event itself. Could be vehicles aren’t working because of EMP (Electromagnetic Pulse) or CME (Coronal Mass Eruption). Could be no one is moving any time soon due to traffic. Granted, the hope is that you’ll get out ahead of the crowd, owing to your increased awareness of world events and such. But, even the best laid plans of mice and men and all that, y’know?

However it happens, it is not out of the realm of possibility that you’ll find yourself in an unfamiliar area and unsure where to go from there. When you get right down to it, there are essentially only three different navigation tools to consider: maps, compass, and GPS.


Honestly, there is no excuse to not have maps of the applicable areas in your BOB. They are fairly cheap, some are even free. Heck, you could print some off on your computer, too. There are two different kinds of maps, at least as far as we’re concerned. Street maps are the ones pretty much everyone has used at one point or another. As the name would suggest, the street map details the highways and byways of a given area. Depending upon the map’s scale, it may include landmarks and such as well.

The other type is topographic. Instead of streets and roads, this type of map will detail rivers, hills, and other terrain. Topo maps will indicate elevation of the land features. In general, topo maps are more detailed than street maps but both are useful when bugging out. In my experience, topo maps tend to give people more difficulty than street maps, if only because of a lack of familiarity.

Map reading has become something of a lost art in today’s world of GPS and other computer aids. Heck, back in my day, map reading was still taught in school (cue the old man shaking his cane and hollering at the kids to get off his lawn). Nowadays, folks just haul out their cell phones, plug in an address, and listen to the turn by turn directions they’re given.

The hardest part of map reading can be figuring out where you are on said map. Once you determine that and your end point, everything else sort of falls into place. Quite literally, it is just a matter of connecting the dots. Of course, everything looks easier on paper. Translating that route to the road in front of you can be troublesome until you’ve gained some experience in doing so.

There are many who would suggest that drawing or highlighting the different routes to your BOL is a bad idea, just in case the map were to be lost or taken from you. There is some logic in that thought process. You want to keep your BOL as secure as possible and that would include not broadcasting its location in this manner. I guess the way I look at it, you should be familiar and comfortable enough with your maps that you can easily find your BOL on them without needing a highlighter, push pin, or marker.

Once you know your start and end points, figure out the best route to connect the two. Today, depending upon the distance, that route will likely involve highways and possibly interstates. Post-collapse, you’ll want to avoid those as much as possible. Your bug out routes should take you around the larger concentrations of people, which will include those major arteries of our traffic system.

This is why topo maps are important. At least some of your journey may be overland, cutting through fields, parks, forests, and such. A topo maps will help you stay on track. Worth mentioning, of course, is the risk you take setting foot on someone else’s property. Depending on the circumstances, this could be extremely dangerous. If you must then you must, but travel as quickly and quietly as possible.

Obtain maps of your local area as well as the areas through which you will likely travel on your way to your BOL. The more detailed the maps, the better. Don’t just rely on an old road atlas. Either buy them laminated or laminate them yourself. They’ll hold up a lot longer that way.

Maps will always have a compass rose on it. This is the symbol that shows you which direction the map is north. Of course, that’s really only useful information if you can determine which way is north in the real world as you’re standing there with the map in your hand.


There are two ways to use a compass – alone or in conjunction with a map. I know that sounds kind of obvious but I bring it up because the way in which the compass is going to be used will determine the type of compass you should have in your bug out bag.

The basic purpose of a compass is to tell you which way is north. If you know one compass direction, you can easily find the others, right? If you are facing directly north and stretch out your arms, your right hand is pointing east, your left hand is pointing west, and south is staring at your butt.

Now, before we go any further, we need to talk a little bit about magnetic north versus map north. Almost all maps are laid out such that the top of the map is north. That’s all well and good for consistency but your compass isn’t going to point directly north as indicated on those maps. This can cause an issue if you’re trying to closely follow a map to your destination and counting on your compass to keep you on track. The difference between map north and true magnetic north is called declination. Determining your declination allows you to adjust your compass reading so you stay on track.

Adjusting your compass for declination and related topics are well beyond the scope of our discussion here. What I suggest is you grab a snack and sit down to watch several of the great videos done by John McCann from Survival Resources. He’s very well-versed in orienteering and you’ll learn a ton in a short time with his videos. You can find them here:

Survival Resources Navigation Articles and Videos

There are several types of compasses but there are only two styles that I would recommend for your bug out bag. The first is the button compass. This is the cheapest, smallest, most no frills type of compass you’ll find. It consists of a small, liquid filled disk with the needle and indicators inside. Button compasses are measured in millimeters, with 14mm and 20mm among the most common sizes. This is the measurement from side to side. A button compass is rather thin, too.

You can find button compasses as standalone products but they are also often incorporated into things like zipper pulls for jackets or watchbands.

A button compass is really only useful for giving you a general idea of direction. They are not precision instruments at all. Basically, the button compass is a great tool if you already pretty much know where you are and in what direction you need to move. For example, you were out hiking in a state park and got turned around. You know there is a highway that runs along the entire western boundary of the park. You can use the button compass to keep you moving in a westerly direction until you hit pavement.

There have been some reports here and there of button compasses not working at all or pointing in an entirely wrong direction. For this reason, be sure to check your button compass and make sure it is working properly before putting it into your kit.

The second type of compass I recommend is called an orienteering compass. A good one will not only have a clear base to allow for easy map reading but it will have a small magnifying glass in the base and a hinged lid with a mirror. The magnifying glass not only helps with reading the small print on a map but it can be used to focus the sun’s rays to start a fire in a pinch. The mirror is used to assist with sighting as you plot your course.

Again, you’ll need far more knowledge that I can impart in this limited space when it comes to orienteering and such. Watch John McCann’s videos linked above and seek out additional resources to learn this critical skill.


GPS stands for Global Positioning System. We tend to take GPS for granted these days. I mean, we hop in the car, fire up our Garmin or whatever, and within a few minutes we have a voice guiding us from doorstep to doorstep. Of course, we don’t need the vehicle’s GPS as Google Maps and other apps are right there on our phones. There are also moderately priced standalone GPS units designed for use out in the bush. These don’t work in quite the same way your vehicle or phone does, though. You’ll need to get out there and do some practicing to get the hang of them.

GPS is fun to play with and if you’ve never gone geocaching, you must give it a try. It combines GPS based orienteering with hiking into a scavenger hunt of sorts. It is a great way to get outdoors and practice using your GPS unit.

Depending upon the nature of the catastrophe, GPS may or may not be a viable navigation option. EMP, for example, could render your cell phone and your GPS unit(s) inoperative. On top of that, some would say there are concerns about groups or entities using your GPS against you, using the technology to track you. Of course, there is also the question of powering your unit. Do you want to lug extra batteries around?

Here’s my suggestion. GPS is a great tool and can be a wonderful convenience. However, don’t rely on GPS alone. Be sure to invest the time and energy into learning how to properly navigate with a map and compass. Pick up a decent Silva or Suunto brand compass from Survival Resources while you’re there learning what you can about orienteering. Then, get outside and spend some serious time practicing.

Being able to navigate from point A to point B is an important survival skill. There’s a lot involved with this skill set. You can’t expect to just grab a map and compass and be successful on a long trip without some practice, at least not if traveling by foot over land as opposed to following streets and highways. You’ll get there, though, if you stick with it and devote the time.

Get caught up on all installments in this series here:
First aid / Hygiene
Signaling and Communication
Choosing the Pack or Container
Common Mistakes
Useful Odds and Ends

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