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Cross Country Movement Techniques

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You’re geared up for your latest adventure in the wilderness. You have to move several miles on foot through the wild to get to the area you want to set up camp. There is no trail. You have the right gear. You know how to land navigate. But sometimes, a straight line is not the shortest (read easiest) route between two points. What if there is a swamp, deep draw, cliff, river, or high mountain between you and where you want to go? These are tips and techniques to get you where you want to go with a minimum of effort and pain.

Must-know: How to Land Navigate

Yes, this was part of the introduction, but you have to know how to read a map, whether it’s a topographic map on paper or a digital map on the screen of a GPS. Part of reading a map is knowing terrain features such as mountains, ridges, valleys, saddles, and depression. You also have to know what the colors of the map represent. Blue represents a body or water. If there is a long strand of blue between you and where you are going or a large blue area that represents a lake or pond, you will either have to cross water or move around it.

Contour intervals represent elevation changes on a map. The key to this is what is the contour interval? This represents how much distance in elevation changes on the terrain depicted on the map. Is it 5 feet or 5 meters? If the contour interval is 10 meters and the contour lines are very close together, this represents a cliff or steep ridge you may not be able to traverse without climbing gear and experience.

Knowing your pace count is another crucial skill. In short, you have to know how many paces you take to cover a certain amount of ground. In the US military, this is commonly 100 meters.

Knowing how to read a map is crucial to our next step.

Terrain Analysis and Route Planning

Now that you have a working knowledge of land navigation and map reading, use it to look over the terrain you have to traverse and possible obstacles you may encounter as noted above. Are there mountains, ridges, rivers, or other bodies of water that you will have to traverse? Here are some techniques on how to most easily get where to want to go.

person holding outlined map
Photo by Francesco Paggiaro on

Sometimes A Straight Line is not the Easiest Way

There is a time and a place for shooting an azimuth and sticking to it. There are other times when this is folly. If you have a mountain peak that lies between you and your destination, it may be a whole lot easier to go around it. In mountainous terrain, you may not be able to totally avoid mountains, but a technique called side walling could help you greatly. Simply circumnavigate the peak or avoid gaining elevation simply by walking around the peak on the face or slope of the mountain. The use of a walking stick or sticks can be a great aid while doing this as you will likely be traversing uneven terrain. This may require you to cover more distance but may be easier than summiting the mountain, simply going down on the other side.

Navigation Aids

Global Positioning System (GPS) is a great tool of technology, but like any mechanical thing, it can fail. Batteries die and things sometimes break or can get lost. Old school navigation aids, determined by terrain analysis, can help you. If during your terrain analysis you note that there is a river past the area you intend to set up camp and you encounter one during your movement, you have gone too far. This method is called backstopping and works very well.

If you are moving north and there is an easily recognized mountain top to the east, if you are moving and keep that peak to your right side, you can be assured that you are generally moving north, in the intended direction.

Both these techniques can save you time and keep you from constantly checking your compass or GPS.

Use of Game Trails

Big game has to traverse terrain in the woods. It is where they live and they have to move to eat, drink, seek shelter and avoid predators. Travel back and forth by animals to grazing areas, watering holes, and seeking shelter can create a trail. Use these trails but be careful not to stray too far off course. This is a terrific technique, but be sure to check your position periodically to make sure you are not straying too far off course.

Avoid Obstacles By The Box Technique

If you are moving on azimuth and there is a large obstacle in your way that you do not want to cross (a deep pond, for example), what do you do? If you have a GPS, you can simply move around the obstacle in the easiest manner and adjust your route after confirming your position and the position of your destination. What if you don’t have a GPS or it doesn’t work? Then you will need to use the box method.

As an example, let’s say you are heading due east, otherwise known as a 90-degree bearing and you encounter an obstacle. To navigate around it, In this example, I would add another 90 degrees to my bearing, making it due south, and keep track of the distance, usually via pace count, until I clear the obstacle. Once I am clear of the obstacle, I would return to my original bearing and keep track of how far I have traveled until I’m clear of the obstacle. Once clear, I would subtract 90 degrees from my bearing to travel due north the same distance that I traveled due south, to return to the area I would be in had I not had to maneuver around an obstacle. Once there, I would again return to my original 90 degree azimuth

Crossing a River

If you need to cross a river, walk the banks of the river to find the most suitable location to cross. Frequently, there are fords or shallow areas where it is much easier or safer to cross.

Know What You Can and Can’t Safely Traverse

As Dirty Harry said, “A man has got to know his limitations.” This advice applies to both genders. There are certain obstacles that should not be attempted. You have to know what is safe for you and what level of risk you are comfortable with. Some things simply should not be attempted because they are too difficult, will take too much time or effort, or are too dangerous to attempt. Many a hapless special forces student has discovered this while attempting to cross a deep draw on Bones Fork Creek in Camp Mackall.

If you are hunting elk by yourself in mountainous terrain and no one knows exactly where you are, it may not be the best idea to traverse a steep slippery slope. Discretion is the better part of valor. Many times it is easier and safer to find another way.

All of the above takes time and experience to master. There is no time like the present to learn and practice new skills. Good luck out there.