“Jesus, that’s Jason Bourne.” That quote from the popular Robert Ludlum series has become a derogatory smear online when someone makes a comment about “gray man,” “op sec,” or “non-permissive environments.” It seems like everyone is a secret agent these days or trains with someone who was making them cool by association.
I get it, there are some practical habits Bourne brings up throughout the series, including where to look in a house for firearms and keeping a vehicle in good working order. Something that gets me some odd looks in land navigation classes is the concept of “Map Recon.” I have never served in the military, but this practice is one my late mentor (who was a Vietnam Vet and Army Survival Instructor) taught me.
Map recon, also known as scouting, can help you get an idea of the terrain you’ll be traveling to before you actually step foot on the ground. Anyone, Jason Bourne included, can and should use this practice to improve their readiness and survivability.
Map recon requires understanding how to read maps. You can learn this by taking one of our land navigation courses or by reading great books like Essential Wilderness Navigation by Craig Caudill. Use multiple maps with different layouts to get the best picture of where you will be. Topographic maps will show elevation and relief, whereas satellite image maps may pick up on little details topo maps may miss. Keep in mind, maps are not seasonal, and what may be represented on a map (like a creek) could be dried out if you try to find it in the middle of the summer.
Additionally, some online programs may have more revisions to electronic maps than appear in print copies. I would recommend using a variety of maps and looking for any anomalies like manmade features that appear in one place and not anywhere else. Pay attention to those and see if they are consistent across the maps or if they are just an outlier that could be a misprint.
Reading Terrain Features
In Fieldcraft Survival’s land navigation classes, I teach students to look for the superlatives when doing map recon. Look for the largest body of water, as it will likely not be affected by seasonal change. Look for the tallest feature as you may likely spot it before anything else. Look for the biggest, widest, longest, etc. Why? Because we like to think in superlatives.
Looking at a map, learn to identify the most likely path someone would take to enter an area as well as the most likely path out. Learn to recognize unlikely paths (ingress points) as well as inconvenient ways out (egress). This can help you determine what areas in the backcountry are going to have the most traffic, depleted resources, and privacy. Another important map scouting/map recon practice is to look for deltas or changes.
This can be a change in elevation, like cliffs or steep trails, as well as changes from forest to wetland. It is also important to note changes to the roads you travel on. How many times have you been given instructions “when the pavement ends….” These can become catch points for later navigation use.
The expression “hope for the best and plan for the worst” reinforces the idea of emergency azimuths. If you travel to a remote campground, incredible fishing hole, or other notable destination, what direction would you turn and move toward to get out of there quickly? The only way to know the best course direction is to know your emergency azimuth.
These bearings can lead you to safety or to a rallying point where other members of your party will meet up with you. They can be predetermined to help you find a ranger station where emergency medical treatment can be provided, or they can take you to the most abundant water source.
Good Land Navigation Tools
An absolutely true statement for map recon is that good tools make your job that much easier. A map scale ruler will help you take accurate measurements on your map that can be recorded on Rite in the Rain paper. This tool isn’t necessary if you know the string or paper-edge technique, but it’s accurate. Another great tool for map recon is lamination and wet-erase markers. You can augment your map with symbols, directions, and notes without having to worry about the ink wiping off.
We recommend you take a photo of your map before you store it away just to have a backup copy. Another excellent tool that is used to verify locations when you are lost, and record locations when you want to chart them later is a simple wrist-mounted GPS. I use a Garmin Foretrex 601 — but only intermittently.
There are times when you’ll want to use it to track the distance you’ve traveled, but it excels at giving you precise UTM or MGRS coordinates down to a 1-by-1-meter square. Being able to remove uncertainty in your travels is extremely important to your safety, and these tools are worth their weight in gold in terms of saving you time, money, and energy.
Universal Land Navigation Habits to Learn
Even though I threw a jab at all the Jason Bourne wannabes at the beginning, I have to say, there are good universal habits you can adopt that he would probably know too. Scouting maps and relying on maps can be done in the backcountry or it can be done by ripping off a building map in an embassy as you are trying to escape.
How else would you know to use the gutter to get to the ground level? In all seriousness, you should practice map recon whenever you can. Learn cardinal directions and points of reference on hotel grounds when you travel. If you own property or have access to a plot of land, recon it in person and on a map.
Get in as many land navigation reps as you can and learn to make the process automatic. Maybe then you will be as cool as Bourne when he debriefed Marie in the diner.