Don't Get Lost - STAR Course Preparation

How To Increase Your Land Navigation Confidence And Alleviate The "Pre-Selection Scaries"

It’s no secret that in order to succeed at SFAS, you’ve gotta find your points. I’m unaware of the statistics on the STAR course pass/fail rates, but I do know it’s an emotional endeavor for many Green Beret hopefuls. Physical fitness, check. Being a good dude, check. Finding my way in the wooded Sandhills of Hoffman, North Carolina? Check?? 

Land navigation is the biggest unknown at SFAS. Yes, the standards for ruck and run times during gate week aren’t known by more than a handful of people. You don’t know what kind of team you’ll be on during team week. You know FOR SURE you’ll have to do the star course.

But it remains a big unknown. Why? Because you could be in excellent condition, a pro at working cohesively in a team environment, and an overall good dude but still be unsuccessful if you can’t figure out how to get from point A to B with a map, compass, rubber ducky (fake rifle), rucksack, and positive mental attitude. 

You’re 100% in charge of your own fate with land navigation. For some people, this thought is met with excitement and motivation. For others, it’s the reason they can’t sleep at night. If you’re the latter, what if I told you there’s hope? That you don’t need to live in fear. You can reduce the magnitude of the doubt and uncertainty you feel towards the STAR course.

In this article, I'll provide suggestions for resources you can use in order to boost your land navigation skills. It won’t be a comprehensive class on land navigation doctrine that you’ll learn at SFAS. Rather, I want to provide you with actionable steps you can take in order to ensure you’re well prepared for it. 

The only way to truly become a master at land nav is to do it. You can read about it till your heart sings, but practical application is a must.


"The Cadre Had It Out For Me"

Land nav is a very common culprit for lack of SFAS success. Of course, not finding enough points is a no brainer - If you suck at navigating in the woods, you won’t get selected. That one is pretty obvious.

But there are other rules you must follow at land nav, and thus, several other ways to get dropped even if you do find a sufficient number of points. Walking on, or too close to roads, using your headlamp in an unauthorized manner (walking with it or white-lighting it), talking with other candidates, losing sensitive items (map, rifle, scorecard etc.) are all common ways to get a “no-go”.

Sadly, many land nav failures refuse to accept responsibility for their outcome. For whatever reason, there's always an excuse that has nothing to do with them.

"It was the carde's fault."

"I was 51 meters from the road."

"I accidentally turned my white light on." (while walking through a draw a night)

"The point wasn't where it was supposed to be." (it was 25 meters from where you plotted it)

"I was just doing a map check." (while walking down the road)

Anything to put the onus on someone or something else. Don't be this guy. Everyone gets the same opportunity. Everyone is held to the same standard.

I’m not aware of the minimum standard for points found, but I would highly suggest focusing on going 8/8. If you happen to find 7, you’ll still be fine, but you’ll never hear me recommend shooting for anything less than the maximum standard.


Not Your Typical Activity

Walking around in the woods day and night by yourself is far from a normal, everyday activity for most people. Only having a map and compass to find your way just adds to the fun. Oh, and don’t forget you’ll be doing this with a heavy ass ruck on, while on the clock.

This can either be an enjoyable, rewarding part of SFAS or an absolute stress fest. Many guys will self select during land nav. Don’t be that guy. You have a GPS in your hand. It’s an old school GPS, but one nonetheless. How can you create more peace of mind around land nav? 

It all boils down to confidence. The more confident you are with your land nav skills and fitness levels, the better you’ll fare. Guess what breeds confidence? Competence. When you’re competent at something, your belief in your ability to succeed at such grows tremendously.

You may be able to put on a confident facade with some things in life, but an objective, results driven event like land navigation is not one of them. You need to be well versed in something to have any real confidence. Many candidates show up to SFAS having had little to no land nav experience (no, the land nav you do at basic training does not suffice). 

If you’re an 18X-ray, you’ll be introduced to land navigation at SFPC. At SFAS, land nav week is a crawl, walk, run. You'll be trained extensively in the classroom and given the opportunity to conduct a plethora of practical exercises and cadre led terrain walks prior to the infamous STAR course. You can show up with little to no land nav experience and if you’re a fast learner (and a rucking monster), you should be fine. But if you have the ability to prepare for it beforehand, it certainly doesn’t hurt. More confidence isn’t a bad thing.

However, there are good ways and questionable ways to go about it. So let’s take a look at some of your options.


Figure It Out? 

For best results, you’ll want to get live reps. You could read all about it and become an expert on the terminology. You could study maps of the terrain and practice plotting a route planning. But nothing compares to actually getting out and doing it. Many will recommend doing some land nav research, going out into the woods with a map and a compass and practicing on your own.

While this approach isn’t necessarily something to avoid at all costs, it probably shouldn’t be option A. This can be quite dangerous. I would equate this to jumping into the deep end without knowing how to swim. I would confidently make a hefty bet that more than one selection prep candidate has become hopelessly lost when doing something like this. Getting hopelessly lost while you’re at selection is embarrassing and certainly something you want to avoid, but it’s not the end of the world. You’ll be found.

Getting hopelessly lost when no one is tracking you with gps and (hopefully) 1 other person knows where you are and what you’re doing is far more serious. You do not want to become the subject of a “hands across America” search party. There are other options I suggest resorting to first before you decide to go out on your own and “figure it out”.

Do I Need to Practice?

First, if you’re comfortable in the woods, or grew up in a woodland area where you spent lots of time getting around on foot, you’re probably going to be fine during land nav (the navigation part, at least - doing it with a ruck on and at night time will add some variables to contend with).

If you’re a city kid or someone who severely lacks a sense of direction, it would greatly benefit you to do more extensive preparation. There’s no fool proof way to determine this, but here are some questions you can ask yourself:

-At 9 am, noon, and 5 PM (during summertime average daylight hours) would you be able to point NSEW intuitively (in an area you’re unfamiliar with aka not your home/yard)? 

-Have you ever done any real hiking or backpacking in wooded terrain? 

-During these hikes, did you have a good sense of where you were? E.g. after walking several miles, would you be able to intuitively get back to your car or the trailhead you originated on? 

-Have you ever used a map (not google maps) to get from A to B in a vehicle?

-Have you ever used a topographical map to get from A to B on foot?

-Have you ever been out in the woods at night time by yourself?

-Do you feel comfortable in the woods at night by yourself (most people don’t, but so long as you’re not hysterical in this situation, you can answer yes)?

If you answered no to more than one of these questions, you’ll certainly benefit from familiarizing yourself with land navigation. If you answered yes to most of them, although preparing will still benefit you, you’ll probably grasp it well enough to succeed so long as your physical fitness is sufficient. This is especially the case for those entering as an 18X-ray - you’ll receive extra land nav training during the SFPC course prior to selection. I had never done any sort of navigating myself, but I tend to grasp things rather quickly and found all of my points in SFPC and SFAS.

If you’re unsure, and you have the means to practice prior to going, here are some considerations:

  • Civilian land nav courses (these are hit or miss in terms of value, so do your research)
  • Joining an orienteering club

* You may learn some different SOPs and terminology from civilian orienteering than those which are taught at SFAS, but the concept remains the same: find your way from A to B on foot with a map and a compass. The members of these groups are mostly ultra-runners and “trail people” who actually take it very seriously. You probably won’t win competitions unless you’re a seasoned orienteer, but getting reps is getting reps.

If you’re in the military already:

  • Call 5th RTB in Dahlonega, GA (the home of mountain phase of Ranger School) and inquire about training on their land nav course. This is a common practice for those preparing for SMU (Delta/CAG) selection. I do not know if this option is available to anyone and everyone (I presume you need to be in the military to partake - so this likely isn’t an option for 18X-rays), but it’s worth a try. I know several tier 1 operators who contribute much of their success at “The Long Walk” to utilizing this particular strategy. If you can navigate in the mountains of Dahlonega, navigating in the sandhills of North Carolina is a walk in the park. 
  • Inquire about which units are doing land nav training and request to tag along (way easier said than done - I get it - but worth a try)

In any case, the more confident you are entering land nav week at SFAS, the less of an emotional event it’ll be for you. It’ll take some commitment and effort to get yourself some reps, but for many, this effort is worth it. The “pre-selection scaries” are a real thing. Regardless of how comprehensively you prepare, you’ll always experience feelings of doubt.

But many who are unsuccessful at the STAR course refuse to take responsibility for showing up unprepared. It was someone else's fault they didn’t make it. Everyone gets the same training. Everyone gets the same amount of time. No one is getting a leg up. The best aspect about land navigation is also the worst aspect of it; it’s on you, bro. If you want to improve your chances and relieve some of your stress before going, there’s something you can do about it. It takes effort, but it’s possible. Competence breeds confidence.

In part 2, I’ll go into detail about some of the tools and strategies I used throughout my career to improve my land navigation performance and find every single point I’ve ever been assigned. Thank you for reading!

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