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Land Navigation

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Overview of Maps

A map is a navigational aid that represents a specific area, such as part of the earth’s surface. Conventional symbols are used to identify objects and features on a map. Maps are critical communication tools for incident planning and operations, and are used for a variety of purposes, for example:

  • To assist with navigation.
  • To determine the location of a specific point or area (e.g., water sources, threatened resources).
  • To calculate distance.
  • To determine size of an area.
  • To determine terrain and vegetative cover.
  • To determine routes of travel.
  • To determine names of streets, rivers, mountains, and other features.
  • To visualize a specific area.

Reading Topographical Maps

A topographic map is printed on a flat piece of paper yet it provides a picture of the terrain and man made features through the use of contour lines, colors and symbols. Contour lines represent the shape and elevation of the land, such as ridges, valleys, and hills. Colors and symbols are used to represent other features on the land, such as water, vegetation, roads, boundaries, urban areas and structures.

Using a Compass and Clinometer

A compass is an instrument that is used for navigation and mapping because it measures the geographic direction between two points. It is a fairly simple instrument that uses a magnet, mounted on a pivot that turns in response to the earth’s magnetic field, to determine direction (but not position). The magnetic needle points to the magnetic North Pole, which is different from geographic North Pole. A compass bearing, which is typically expressed as an angle (degrees), refers to the horizontal direction to or from any point. In this article, the term "bearing" is used interchangeably with the term "azimuth."

Global Positioning System

The Global Positioning System (GPS) is a satellite based navigation system that can be used to locate positions anywhere on earth. Designed and operated by the U.S. Department of Defense, it consists of satellites, control and monitor stations, and receivers. GPS receivers take information transmitted from the satellites and uses triangulation to calculate a user’s exact location.

Orienting a Map

Orienting the map to true north is key to navigating successfully. Orienting a map also gives you a general idea of your own location on the map. This section describes two methods to orient a map: topographical orientation and compass orientation.

Measure a Bearing

A protractor or compass can be used to measure a map bearing; a protractor is easier to use and more accurate than a compass. There are different types of protractors, but a common one is made out of flat clear plastic and is in the shape of a semi-circle with degree marks.

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