6 Land Navigation Mistakes to Avoid On The STAR Course
After reading part 1, you’re now up to speed on resources and strategies to practice your land navigation (“land nav” throughout the article). It’s time to talk about execution. You’ll learn several land navigation techniques at SFAS. They will teach you the “by the book” methods and potentially offer some personal anecdotes for execution.
There are many techniques that work, but some that work far better than others, and some that I highly suggest minimizing the use of. I’m not going to do a deep dive on the basics of land nav in this article. There are books and resources online you can refer to if you want to learn basics like plotting points, reading a map, contour lines, terrain features, etc.
I’m simply going to explain some of the strategies I’ve implemented over the years to find 100% of the points I’ve ever been assigned in SOPC, SFAS, The Q Course (they used to do another pass/fail land navigation assessment in the Q), and SMU selection.
I’ll say up front that I’m not claiming to be the world's best navigator. I relied heavily on my fitness and ability to move fast while navigating (which happens to be tip # 1). But if you want to be able to finish in a timely manner, your land nav techniques must be on point (pun intended).
If you’re planning poor routes, constantly buried in your compass, stopping for map checks, marinating about pace count, worrying about getting wet, losing gear or second guessing yourself, you’ll move at a snail's pace. This is not the way.
You Have The Tools
A map, compass and a protractor is a GPS system. Sure, it’s old school. It’s not a Garmin 601. But it’s the most trustworthy GPS system on the planet. Being comfortable with it takes practice. It likely won’t click day 1. But you can learn it and improve rapidly if you keep some key concepts in mind.
I like to use “inversion thinking” to illustrate my suggested strategies. Inversion thinking starts by identifying what not to do (mistakes), and allows you to work through it backwards to learn what to do in order to reach the desired end result. In this article, I’m going to highlight 6 common mistakes land navvers tend to make in regards to route planning, movement, and mindset, as well as provide guidance on how to avoid them.
Mistake #1 - Fitness
Show up physically unprepared. Many people make the mistake of worrying about the best tips, tricks, and hacks to improve their land nav. The next 5 mistakes will all be in this category. But physical fitness is, somehow, often overlooked. If you don’t have the rucking endurance required to continue moving on foot while thinking clearly for days on end, it doesn’t matter how good your navigation skills are.
Most people are totally aware that they need to show up to SFAS able to run and ruck fast throughout gate week. They know they need to be able to climb a rope and execute the obstacles on Nasty Nick. But gate week is, hands down, the easiest of the 3 weeks at SFAS.
Land navigation week is the first big test that separates those who prepared thoroughly and those that didn’t. The ruck is heavy. The mental stress is high. The movements are long. You’ll accumulate a lot of miles on your feet from day 1 of practical exercises to the last day of the STAR course. If you’re not ready for this, you’ll have a hard time out there. Oh, and don’t forget, you’re by no means done once land nav week ends. Team week is even more physically demanding than land nav week.
An often overlooked aspect of SFAS prep is walking with a ruck on. Regardless of what you’ll see and hear elsewhere, the ability to walk fast with a ruck on is crucial. Most guys do a lot of ruck running to prepare. They may do one very heavy ruck movement per week at a slower pace. But almost no one practices walking fast with a moderate load. You do not need to run during the star course in order to succeed. That’s right - not at all.
The only time I’ve ever ruck ran during any selection process was after a chest deep water crossing on night 2 of the star course at SFAS. I was faced with a short, seemingly harmless water crossing (just a few steps to the other side) but the depth of the water was a shock to me. 3 steps in and I was chest deep.
I was only in the water for about 10 seconds before I was out the other side, but I was soaked, and I was freezing (it was mid February with temps in the mid 30s). My 2 options to avoid potentially catastrophic hypothermia were to stop and change into my dry uniform, or take off running to warm up. I had a good idea of where I was going and didn’t want to waste time, so I chose the latter. At SMU selection, I would routinely run the last 200 meters coming into an RV (to show the cadre I was putting out - you’ve gotta play the game).
Aside from these two particular instances, I never ran. I always walked. And I always finished land nav courses several hours before the cutoff time.
Why didn’t I have to run? Being precise with land navigation helps, no question. But I also emphasized ruck walking in my selection preps. I ended up getting to where I could walk comfortably at a 12:30/mile pace. Will everyone be able to walk at this speed? No - shorter guys are at a disadvantage due to their inherent shorter stride length.
But I can guarantee one thing: you can walk faster than you do now. The next question I usually get is, “did you always walk that fast during land nav?”. The answer is no, but that’s not the point. When your baseline walking speed is fast, your easy, energy-preserving walking pace is faster than other guys’ all out walking speed. Because my baseline fast-walk pace was under 13:00/mile, my “preserve energy, wooded terrain” walking pace was 16:00-17:00/mile.
I can assure you, if you improve your ability to move fast with a ruck on in an energy preserving manner, you’ll have a massive advantage for land nav success. Unfortunately there’s no secret hack to improving your ruck walking pace. It just takes practice, repetition, and progression. It’s just like any other skill. So before you start worrying about specific land nav techniques, ensure you’re focused on becoming a rucking monster.
Mistake # 2 - SP/RV activities
SP= Start point - the point at which you receive your first grid coordinates and begin your land nav lane
RV= Rendezvous Point - I don’t recall what they’re called at SFAS, I’m going to call them RVs. In any case, these are each of your assigned land nav points at which you’ll check in with the point sitter and receive instructions and coordinates for your next movement
The biggest mistake one can make at SPs and RVs is to rush through plotting and route planning and start moving as quickly as possible in an effort to save time. At your start point in particular, It’s crucial to take a moment to gather yourself and ensure you’re thinking clearly.
The common mindset for the STAR course SP (especially on night 1) is full of uncertainty, anxiety and urgency to get moving. My biggest suggestion is to not follow the crowd, who will inevitably be in a hurry to get moving ASAP. Do not let it fluster you. Take the time to get your mind right. If you’re going to take any extra time while you’re on the course, do so at your SP and RVs.
RVs are slightly different, because you’ll have built some degree of confidence by the time you get there. Finding an RV proves you’re capable of navigating (even if you didn’t take the most efficient route to get there).
Either way, how you think and spend your time at these points will make or break your next movement, and ultimately, your overall performance on each night/day of land nav. Guys who quickly plot and rush to get moving usually end up choosing a terrible route, getting lost, plotting the wrong point, or forgetting something.
They inevitably end up losing the time they think they saved by quickly exiting the SP/RV. Take your time here, do not rush. I promise, you’ll pass all the guys who left early soon enough.
Route planning is one of the most important pieces of land nav. Aside from being physically capable of getting from point to point, your route plan and execution thereof will make or break your results. Drawing a straight line from your start point to your finish point and hoping to dead reckon several kilometers through undulating terrain is a guaranteed losing strategy.
You’ll need to break your route down into smaller segments, and identify checkpoints to keep you on track. Not a single person on the planet can follow an azimuth for 8 kilometers through wooded terrain. So if your next point is 8K away, you’ll want to break it down into shorter legs (more on checkpoints later). You’ll want to be wary of crossing draws, especially at night time, unless you’ve seen the draw before and are aware of it’s crossability.
That said, I don’t usually like to make the blanket recommendation of “avoid draws at all costs” like some folks do. Sometimes, it just makes more sense to cross a draw. There’s no hard and fast rule to determine whether or not to cross draws - that’s something you’ll have to determine yourself. If skirting a draw will result in several extra kilometers of walking, busting it may be warranted.
I crossed through a plethora of draws on the STAR course, and although experiences vary, it can be done. Avoid the black and white mentality of “cross all draws” or “cross no draws”. Think critically, and apply common sense.
You’ll also want to avoid walking on or too close to roads and becoming “roadkill”. You’ll want to walk on or near easily identifiable terrain if at all possible. Practice plotting points on a map and planning routes to them. Generally, there will be ample features and landmarks between your SP and FP for you to use several checkpoints to keep you on track.
Whatever you do, do not take route planning lightly. Picture yourself walking in certain areas on the map. Is it realistic? Is it not? Will I be able to tell when I’m walking in this area? Plan accordingly.
Checkpoints - As previously mentioned, plotting from your start point to your finish point and expecting to stay on a perfect azimuth the whole time is an exercise in futility. It won’t work, so don’t try it. Breaking things down into smaller increments is a great strategy for any big goal in any area in life. Land nav is no different.
Part of good route planning is the identification of checkpoints to utilize along the way. Depending on your land nav skill and the terrain, you may have a checkpoint every 300-1000 meters. If you’re not an advanced navigator, shorter checkpoints are usually best. But don’t get too wrapped around finding the perfect distance for your checkpoints. It’ll depend on the terrain.
Your checkpoints need to be easily identifiable, especially at night. A grid line is not identifiable. A random spot on the map isn’t either. Things like intersections, bodies of water, draw systems, hill tops, bowling alleys (large open areas) are great checkpoints. These are identifiable day and night.
Handrails - A handrail is any terrain feature that can be used for containment. Ideally, you’ll find routes with left and right handrails, but at minimum, you’ll want to find one to keep on one side for each leg of your movement (handrails will change throughout the entirety of your movement). The main advantage to handrails is they allow you to move faster without always referring to your compass.
While looking at the map and planning your route, identify any potential handrails along each leg of your movement. Because the terrain at Hoffman is relatively non-prominent, hand rails are going to be your money makers. Roads, open areas, slopes, and draws are all potential handrail options. Before you begin your movement, identify the general direction of each leg of your movement. If there’s a handrail pointed in that direction that leads you to your intended checkpoint, you know you’ll be able to follow it without always needing to double check your compass.
A key consideration at Hoffman is to ensure you identify potential “false handrails'', which are features that may intersect with what you’re using as a handrail that have the potential to confuse you or throw you off track. An example of this would be a fork in the road where 1 road veers off NW and the other remains N/NE (the intersection of these roads would be a perfect checkpoint). Ensure you’re identifying this before you move so you don’t end up handrailing the wrong road.
Talk Thru/Walk Thru- The military likes to use the term walk thru/talk thru when conducting rehearsals for a mission or training exercise. Prior to conducting a walk-thru, everything is talked over in detail to ensure everyone is on the same page. The order is wrong (usually the talk comes before the walk), but the concept is what’s important. Use this on your own as a means of completing your route planning priorities.
Before you get up to go, talk yourself through your movement. You want to minimize the frequency with which you stop once you begin moving (more on this later), so having a clear picture in your head of what your movement will look like is key. Yes, you can even talk it through out loud, just keep your voice down to a whisper so no one thinks you’re breaking the rules.
You don’t need to have everything memorized for the entire movement, but at minimum, you should have a very clear picture of what the first few legs of your movement will look like, along with the checkpoints you’re looking for. You should also be forming a picture of the landscape and terrain in your head. Not just what it looks like on the map, but also what it’ll look like in person. I cannot stress the importance of this step enough.
I highly recommend not trying to expedite RV/SP procedures. Take your time. Get your wits about you. Ignore anyone else around you. Don’t be embarrassed or ashamed even if you’re the last guy to leave. Check and double check to make sure you do not forget any of your equipment (this is very common).
You’re not being graded on the speed with which you plot points and plan routes. You’re being assessed on your ability to find your points in the required time. If you avoid mistake #1, you’ll make up for any lost ground by being meticulous with your route planning. The next step is to execute.
Mistake #3 - Movement Blunders
Moving from point to point is when the men are separated from the boys. My recommendations may differ from those which you’ve seen in the past, but they work quite well for me, as well as many an “expert land nav badge” holder. Since you’ve taken the necessary steps to avoid mistake number 1, you don’t need to worry about your ability to move out fast. However, you cannot move out fast unless you know exactly where you’re going. You also cannot move out fast if you’re buried in your compass.
Compass burial - Being buried in one's compass diminishes situational awareness to almost zero. Think of the average gen-z’er walking down the street looking at their phone. Do you think they have any clue what’s going on around them? Absolutely not. While the distractions present on a phone are different from that of a compass, the concept is similar.
If you’re always staring at your compass, you’re missing out on the world around you. The world around you is what you need to be focusing on. You’ve done your route talk through, you’ve painted a mental picture of the terrain during your RV procedures. Now you need to see it in real time. Now, many are probably wondering if I’m recommending not to use a compass at all. Absolutely not.
(Don't be this guy) Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/armyrotc/38645752694 (Madison Thompson)
Your compass will guide you to the promised land. But it will not take you directly there without the use of the terrain, handrails, and the world around you. To clarify further, here are a couple of examples:
What STAR course strugglers do: "Ok, I’m going to set my azimuth for 22 degrees. I’m going to stare at it the entire time and ensure my azimuth doesn’t shift or move. I’m also going to count every time my right foot hits the ground so I know my exact pace count (more on pace count next). After 760 meters, I will hit my intersection."
What candidates that finish the STAR course several hours early do: "Oh, my next checkpoint is north/northeast. There’s a downslope to my right for the next couple hundred meters, which leads to a bowling alley. There’s a draw system and low ground to my left. If I walk generally N/NE for the next 8 minutes or so, I’m going to see an intersection. That’s my checkpoint. I’m going to walk fast, checking to make sure I’m still going N/Ne every few minutes. But I’ll focus more on the terrain to guide me."
In the latter example, the candidate has significantly more situational awareness. He’s confident. He’s not trying to stay on this perfect 22 degree azimuth for 760 meters. My suggestion is that 95% of the time, your compass should be used for general directions. Not perfect azimuths. There’s a time and place to shoot an azimuth and follow it to a T (going from your final checkpoint/”attack point” to your actual point, for example), but it’s not the entire time.
Terrain Association - The best way to land nav efficiently and with haste is to terrain associate. The other option is to dead reckon, and while this may be necessary for short durations, it’s a terrible way to go about it the entire time. Even if you have checkpoints that are a couple hundred meters from one another, if you’re buried in your compass, you’re going to be going far slower than you would be if you were to terrain associate.
Terrain association is using the map to formulate a picture of the terrain in your head (which you’ve already done before you left the RV), then actually looking up and being situationally aware of the terrain around you. “Oh, I’m on a hill”. “Oh, there’s an intersection”. “Oh, there’s a large open area.” Instead of, “ok, I need to hold this perfect 137 degree azimuth for 600 meters AND keep pace count.”
Terrain association clears your mind of exact measurements, and allows you to focus on moving out, think logically, and be aware of the terrain you’re on. Occasional map checks are great to confirm you’re on the right track. But it should be a smooth, fluent process, not a long and arduous one.
Pace count - The following recommendation will be highly controversial. Many people pedestalize using pace count, but In my opinion, pace count should be used only in some scenarios. The goal with land navigation is to clear your mind of unimportant thoughts to enable you to focus solely on the task at hand.
Think of a dirty, cluttered office full of stacks of paperwork, old food wrappers, rolled up trash, dip cans and spitters, half drank coffees, and rubbish all over the place. Imagine trying to get your best work done in an office like this (some of you may live this way, which is a whole different can of worms). You’re going to struggle thinking clearly.
Clutter, or unorganized excess “stuff” that doesn’t need to be there will always present a distraction from the task at hand. Now, let’s take this analogy between the ears. Here are some thoughts that go through an average candidate’s head at any given time while navigating:
-What’s my azimuth?
-Am I veering right?
-Will I find my point?
-What if I get lost?
-What if I fail selection because of this?
-Why does my right foot hurt so much?
-When will the sun come up?
-Should I skirt this draw or go through it?
-What’s my pace count? Was I at 700 or 600? Or was I at 800? Wait a minute - fuck. What’s my pace count? Fuck fuck fuck.
If you could keep a perfect pace count for back to back 12 hour STAR course lanes and never mess it up, pace count would be a good tool to use. If you’re doing 2 man land nav and one man is in charge of moving in the right direction and the other is in charge of pace count (and nothing else). Excellent.
The problem with trying to keep pace count as a 1 man show is that you’re inevitably going to lose track. I don’t care how high speed your pace count Ranger beads are.
I don’t care how “dialed in” you think you are. You’re either going to keep a perfect pace count but lose focus on other important things. Or you’re going to lose the hell out of your pace count, spend precious mental energy trying to regain it, and drive yourself insane. Just like with azimuths, pace count should be used for short, infrequent durations (e.g. attack point to next RV).
How do I know how far I’ve gone then? This is where route planning shines. Yes, if you’re dead reckoning through the woods and oblivious to the terrain around you, a pace count may be the best way you know how far you’ve gone. But if you formulate that good picture in your talk thru, do a quick map check and look up and take in your surroundings, you’ll know where you are.
I used pace count a little bit when I first began land navigating. But I used it very sparingly on the STAR course, and not a single time in West Virginia at SMU selection.
If you’re really anxious about this whole “no pace count” tip, my suggestion is to use your watch to your advantage. Determine during PEs how long it takes you to walk 500 meters. Do it at night. Do it during the day. Do it in thick brush. Do it in open areas. This is good data to have. But in reality, if you’re a proficient land navver, it’s also not needed.
Mistake #4 - Dogmatic thinking
Depending on who you talk to, you may hear recommendations like “avoid draws at all costs”, or “always stay on the high ground”, or “you need to run point to point”. I urge you to not think in absolutes if you want to be successful at land nav. There are no hard and fast rules.
Avoiding draws at all costs may have worked for someone. But it may not be appropriate for you and your strategy. There are some draws that you’ll want to avoid. There’s no doubt about this. But in some situations, it makes sense to bust through a draw. In most cases, you won’t know whether a draw should be busted or skirted by looking at the map. Most draws are depicted similarly on the map, and those that may look innocent on the map may not look so innocent in person, and vice versa.
It’s important to think critically and plan your routes the way you want to plan them. Although having an alternate route in mind isn’t a bad thing, it’s best to trust your instincts. If your route plan has you busting a draw, don’t second guess it. Go bust the damn thing. Likewise if it has you skirting the draw.
Spending too much time second guessing yourself or using the words “always” or “never” will be more detrimental to your overall performance on the land nav course than making a plan and going with it. By the time you get to the STAR course, you’ll likely have a good idea of what the terrain looks like.
Usually, you’ll be able to predict whether a draw should be busted or skirted. That being said, sometimes you’ll choose wrong. Candidates sometimes spend hours navigating a draw. In this case, they obviously would’ve been better off skirting it. You need to accept some risk if you want to be a Green Beret. Planning routes in the sandhills of NC is an example of such risk.
Always taking the high ground and running from point to point are other examples of “it worked for me, so it’ll work for everyone” advice. The terrain at Hoffman is very non-prominent. It contains enough variation for terrain association, but it’s not mountainous by any means.
The high ground approach may or may not be a good strategy for you. In many cases, walking on high ground may be appropriate for the speed of your movement. In other cases, it won’t be. The “high ground” recommendation is very common for “The Long Walk”, which takes place in the mountains of West virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. Even still, while I kept on the high ground in some situations, I was not dogmatic about it.
I was on low ground for a lot of my movements because it made sense given the situation. The low ground was part of what I thought to be the most effective route. I never once thought about “always or “never”, and instead thought critically. The result? I finished every day of stress week (the final week when land nav speed and precision is everything) several hours early.
Running from point to point is an option, but by no means is it necessary. If you’re precise with your navigation, and you trained up appropriately, the course can be easily finished within the time domain without running for a single step. Of course, if you have ground to make up because you spent some time lost, running may be warranted.
If you do what I did and walk through deep water and it’s freezing cold out, you can run to warm up. But if you think that the only way to finish within the time limit is to run, you’re mistaken. So long as you’re deliberate with your movements, save some energy. This is why I continue to emphasize getting good at walking fast with a ruck on.
But the advice remains - attack the land nav course using your own game plan. Not someone else's.
Mistake #5 - Blind Trust
In a perfect world, you’ll know where you’re at 100% of the time. But in the real world, no matter how dialed in you are with your land nav skills, there will be moments in time where you won’t know exactly where you’re at. There will be times where you’re, by definition, lost.
But there’s a big difference between being temporarily lost and hopelessly lost.
Your goal should be to avoid being hopelessly lost at all costs. Remaining calm, cool and collected when you lose track of where you're at is paramount. If you can get lost, you can get unlost. Many people will fall into the trap of blind trust in their skills.
I know this may be difficult to understand now, but when you’re mentally and physically fatigued, It’s quite easy to convince yourself that you’re not lost, even when you know you are. “Oh, I’m still on the right azimuth, I’ve just gotta keep going till I hit this next checkpoint” (even though you know deep down you should’ve hit the checkpoint already).
To avoid getting hopelessly lost and ruining your day, the moment you find yourself second guessing where you’re at, it’s best to just stop. I usually recommend minimizing the frequency with which you stop while navigating, but this is an exception. Stopping for a map check to figure out exactly where you are is what you must do in this situation. It won’t “figure itself out”.
You won’t suddenly become unlost. You have to get unlost yourself. The biggest mistake you can make is to ignore your gut feeling that you may, in fact, be lost, and just continue moving. Every step you take beyond this moment is going to result in more work on the back end when you finally do stop to recalibrate.
To avoid becoming hopelessly lost, whenever you’re not feeling like you’re 100% sure where you’re located, stop, take a knee, and confirm where you’re at. If you can’t figure it out, you can use a multitude of different techniques that you’ll learn in the land nav classroom portion. Resection, intersection, panic azimuths (multiple ways to use panic azimuths, but the use of them to get un-lost is underrated) or in some cases, going all the way back to your last checkpoint may be necessary.
But whatever you do, remember this; "walking and hoping" is not a strategy for getting un-lost. It won’t “work itself out”.
Final Mistake - Long Halts
Fatigued STAR course candidate brain: “Stop and take in the scenery whenever you feel you need it. You’ve earned a break, buddy. Just take 10 and kick back with an MRE. You’re ahead of schedule!”
My final recommendation is to avoid stopping for longer than a few minutes while on the course. You’re going to be tired, hungry and daydreaming of being anywhere other than the land nav course while you’re out there. Your mind will try to trick you into thinking you need a break. Do not fall victim.
The only thing more miserable than continuing to move forward when you’re smoked is to get back up after a long break and get moving again. Many candidates will take longer breaks between RVs to change boots and socks, put a nice dry uniform on, enjoy that “morale MRE” they’ve been saving since the beginning, and kick back against a tree for some well earned R&R. I advise you to not do this.
The only reason to stop during your movements should be a quick map check while on a knee, or to solve a potential future emergency (e.g. the soaking wet uniform in the dead of winter scenario when you’re unable to warm yourself up by other means). You don’t need new socks. You’re going to walk through water again. You don’t need to stop and eat a full MRE. You can graze on something on the move to sustain yourself.
I personally don’t even recommend sitting while plotting your points and route planning at RVs. I always found it easier to get going again if I took my ruck off, got into the prone to do my plotting and planning, refill water as needed, and got up as soon as I was ready to move. That said, if you do want to sit, the only time I suggest doing so is at RVs.
Candidates routinely fall asleep on the course when taking their “short rest breaks”.They lose things like their rifle, map, scorecard or other sensitive items. It’s one thing to lose something at an RV. As painful as it may be, you can always go back and retrieve it. But if you stop at a random tree in the middle of the course, going back to find your lost items may cost you in a big way. So when in doubt, unless it’s an emergency, keep moving.
In the history of the STAR course, there are hundreds, or more likely even thousands of candidates who have failed even though they were completely capable of passing. You’ll hear cadre echo “don’t self-select” over and over again while at SFAS. Land navigation week is full of candidates who psych themselves out and self (non) select.
Your mental approach to the STAR course is crucial. Simply having confidence in oneself can be the difference between you finding 3 points and you finding all of them. To build confidence before even attending selection, refer back to part 1. But when you get out to the STAR course, it’s crucial to ensure your mind is right.
A little bit of nerves is normal. I was nervous before every single day of land nav I ever completed. It didn’t matter how I performed the day prior - I was still nervous. But how you handle nerves is on you. You can use it for fuel, or you can let it cripple you. Continue telling yourself over and over again that you have the tools to be successful.
Mental stress is exacerbated when you’re tired, sore, hungry (all of which you will be). It’s crucial not to let it get the best of you. It’s easy to think way too far ahead when it’s midnight on night one of the STAR and you’ve just received grid coordinates to your first point. Perhaps that first point is at the opposite boundary of the course and well over 10K away.
If you find yourself thinking “oh man, I have to find 8 total points and I don’t even know if I’ll be able to find my first point”, you’re setting yourself up for failure before you even start.
The use of checkpoints not only helps you physically find your points, but helps alleviate stress IF you utilize them properly. Instead of thinking you need to somehow walk 14K in the dark and find your point, break the route down into checkpoints. “Ok, my task right now is to find my next checkpoint”. That’s it. Once I find it, then It’s onto the next.
Focus on the task at hand, and reach your next checkpoint. Always remember that you have the most accurate, trustworthy GPS known to man. You just need to believe in your ability to put it to use and execute.