Many of the people who read our articles here in SOFREP have either just volunteered for a Special Operations school slot or have already done so and are either waiting for a class date or to enter the military from Day 1 with Basic Training. For those who are interested in getting through both the grind of the courses that you’ll encounter, we strongly recommend that follow our PT program that will help you attain a level of physical fitness to not just pass the course but excel. It is a 17-week physical fitness training program that starts gradually and works your way up to where you should be ready to take it on. But today, we’re going to jump into Land Navigation

Everyone who volunteers for Selection always has concerns and questions about rucking. We touch on that a few times every week in our PT program and we’ll continually post rucking articles on the site that you’ll no doubt find helpful. Part of the battle is the proper fitting of your boots, socks and dealing with basic foot care. It starts with the individual. Taking care of your feet is paramount in Special Operations and if you do it properly, the road through Selection and qualification will be much easier and less painful… guaranteed.


Land Navigation: The Hidden Dealbreaker

So today, we’re going to jump into Land Navigation is one of the other key areas that end up failing the majority of candidates who volunteer for Selection. There are basically two reasons that people fail at land navigation. One is the course, especially the one in Hoffman, NC that is used in both the Special Forces Assessment and Selection (SFAS) and the Special Forces Qualification Course (SFQC) is exceptionally difficult, the most difficult, toughest individual land navigation course you’ll find in the U.S. military.

And the second reason for failure is the same as for the physical failure…lack of preparation. Just as lack of preparation will sink a candidate physically, the same, perhaps even more so will do it for land navigation.

But before you all psyche yourselves right out of passing, remember this. Thousands and thousands of land navigation students have passed the course before you and thousands more will pass it in the future. It is far from impassable, so get that in your head. Difficult? Absolutely, but it is something that everyone who is properly prepared can get a first-time go on.

So, we’re going to start with the absolute basics of land navigation, just like our PT program, and go from there. Map Reading is the start. Can you do it and do it like second nature and in the dark? If the answer isn’t a resounding yes, then let’s dig in and begin.

Marines Land Navigation course
Marines with Echo Company, 2nd Recruit Training Battalion, complete the land navigation course aboard Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, June 11. Land navigation is part of Basic Warrior Training and is designed to teach recruits how to use a compass and map for navigation. (Photo by Warrant Officer Bobby J. Yarbrough/USMC)

If you don’t have access to a land navigation site or course on a military base, all is not lost, while those are preferable, it isn’t a necessity. However, there are plenty of military manuals, study guides, and civilian orienteering clubs that will offer classes and practical exercises to get a neophyte map reader up to the expert level in no time. Most of them would be more than willing to help out any candidate who is aspiring to become a Special Operations member.

When I was a cadre member at SFAS in Camp Mackall, I frequently taught that condensed block of instruction for Special Forces candidates. At that time, it was more of a refresher of those particular skills that candidates were already expected to know when they arrived. Those soldiers who came from a Ranger or Airborne, Light Infantry background were obviously quite experienced in this and were immediately engulfed with questions from fellow candidates.

For those candidates who are in the military already, seek out those NCOs or officers who were in those types of units and ask for their help. They can give you some good tips and help out with any problem areas that will arise in your train up.

My advice is to know map reading and land navigation to the point that you could teach a class on it long before you arrive at Selection. For those that aren’t yet in the military, it may present more of a challenge but it isn’t impossible.


Land Navigation Terms and Definitions

The skills and terms that you should be very familiar with include, but won’t be limited to:

  • Contour Lines: what are contour lines? Know the 3 types and how they appear on the different terrain features. Also, know how to find and identify the contour interval on each map sheet
  • Terrain Features: How many are there?  Know how to be able to identify each
  • Declination diagram: Be able to identify it on the map and know how it works. Be able to immediately know what the declination is for your area.
  • Azimuth and Back azimuth: Identify what it is, how it is used, and how to calculate it using the declination diagram. What are the two ways it can be measured?
  • Orienting a Map: What is the definition of it. How many methods are there to do it and be able to do it using each way
  • Intersection: What is it? How is used? and most importantly how is it determined
  • Resection: What is it? What is it used for? And be able to do it easily
  • Dead Reckoning: What is the definition?  Know the steps that entail using it. (Many candidates use this exclusively but not all accurately)
  • Field Expedient Direction: How many ways are there to determine it? Be able to perform each one
  • 8-digit Grid Coordinate: What does this measure? How close will that take you to a point on the ground?
  • 6-digit Grid Coordinate: What does this measure? How close will that take you to a point on the ground
  • Colors on the Map: How many are there and what do they denote?
  • Mils to degrees: How many mils equal one degree? How is each one used?
  • Circle: How many mils? How many degrees?

These are just a sample of terms and skills that you’ll need to know in Selection. Scan the list above. Are you an expert (or very close to it) on each one of these skills? If the answer is no for any of them, then you aren’t ready for Selection and need to spend some time training. Even if you are, you should get in some good practice beforehand, especially if you haven’t done it in a while.


Special Operations Forces Selection PT Preparation Week 2, Day 4

Read Next: Special Operations Forces Selection PT Preparation Week 2, Day 4

But There’s More to It

Army land navigation
An Army Reserve drill sergeant watches as a sergeant plots his 2nd point during the day land navigation course at Fort Gordon, March 8, 2016. (Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Brian Hamilton/108th Training Command- Initial Entry Training)

Invest in a nice map case, one that will keep your maps dry and allow you to make some marks on the clear portion with a grease pencil to make any notes to help you along. And secure your map case to your body. Secure everything to your body. Your map case, your weapon, and your compass. Sounds elementary school level…right?

In every class I was involved, a candidate thrashing through the draws, and thickets in the swamps of Camp Mackall would lose a map and case because it would get torn right out their pocket. Lose your map, and Selection is over for you. Be smart, dummy cord it to your body.

My favorite map case had a built-in loop that I kept inside my shirt snapped to a D-ring on my shoulder. When I was moving and didn’t need it, it was easily accessible inside my shirt and was safe from loss.

Next, save yourself some time, land navigation isn’t a tactical exercise. Fold your map with the area that you are working in, right on top and easily found.  When you stop to do a map check, use your grease pencil to check off where you are, then you have a quick reference point for the next leg of the journey. Nothing wastes more time than fumbling with a map under a poncho with a red lens flashlight and trying to unfold it..

Invest in those Ranger beads that allow you to keep your distance accounted for. Again, it sounds almost crazily simple, but moving through the thick terrain, trying to keep track of checkpoints and attack points (we’ll get to those soon!) and it really easy to lose track of the distance traveled.

We’ll cover a variety of more topics on these and do some practical applications in the very near future. Remember the only stupid questions are ones that go unasked.


This piece was originally published in March 2020. It has been edited for republication.