Giving Directions in a Crisis Situation

by JR, Survival Blog

So you’re the resident prepper in your neighborhood. Maybe your neighbors know, or maybe they don’t. You’ve run through all the scenarios you can think of and have it all planned out. You and your kin are ready to get out of Dodge, and you all know the where’s, how’s, and why’s.

In each “what-if” scenario, are you taking the best route to avoid people? Yup, that’s probably wise. You know the safe ways to get from here to there. No matter how it will play out, you can’t avoid people for the rest of your post-TEOTWAWKI life. You are prepared; you are called to help others.

Map reading and navigational skills are essential tools for the well-prepared. The not-so-well-prepared may also have the need to get from point A to point B in a situation where pre-planning is not feasible. You know how to get to safety by looking at a map, planning a route, and perhaps adjusting based on conditions. How well are you able to communicate directions and routes to others who either have no map to guide them, no ability to read a map anyway, or have the navigational awareness of a drunken butterfly?

It’s 11pm and you are 15 miles on the other side of urban world when it all hits the fan. Forget driving home in this scenario. It’s boots or nothing at this point. It’s no problem because your maps cover your safe route home to meet up with your loved ones. Before hopping the fence to head for the drainage ditch, you notice a normal looking fellow with a backpack clearly lost as to which way he should go. After some brief, nervous chit-chat about what’s going on, you find out he’s from out of state. Knowing that going east would be his best bet of staying safe, you realize your maps only cover your north-south route.

You know the general area well enough to think through a safe route to at least get him out of suburbia, but how do you convey that to him? Can you draw an accurate enough map to get the job done? Can he even follow a map? Is he one of those “I need written directions, not a map” kind of people? We, as “the prepared”, have a duty to help those who need it when it is in our power to provide that help.

Man’s general ability to look at the lay of the land or to recall one from memory and accurately recreate that on paper is a skill that does not get honed especially in our modern world. As with a lot of abilities, our reliance on computers has softened time-proven skills that at one time were essential to survival. However, the forgotten ability for the common man to produce an accurate map can not be blamed entirely on the age of GPS and Google Earth. Our reliance on mass published paper maps can be traced back a few generations, if we walk down the timeline of transportation and land purchases. Pre-computer, we all depended on the USGS to make maps for us, along with county highway maps, tax parcel maps, and even local street maps in the front section of the Yellow pages. Who had the need to make their own map when it was so easy to find one already printed on decent paper, to scale, very accurate, and rich in useful details?

We would all agree that map making is an art, but you don’t need to be a skilled artist to get the job done.

Here are some ideas to get your mind thinking spatially and your hand ready to do the communicating:


Start with a simple map game. We in these United States of America know the familiar shape of the fifty states and can probably sing the song as well. Can you draw the 50 states freehand? Grab a friendly competitor and a letter-sized outline map of the U.S. (or whatever country you are familiar with), give each other two minutes to study and refresh your memories, and then see who can draw the most accurate re-creation of the map on a blank sheet of paper without referring back to the original. This is an attempt to take what your brain can accurately visualize and put it on paper in a spatially correct way.


The next step is to take an actual route in real life and make it into a map. For this, the goal is to create a visual picture that someone else could take and get from point A to point B. Let’s look at your path from work to home or from home to town. Take a sheet of blank paper that’s no bigger than half of a letter-sized piece. First, picture this as an official map. Let’s do this with the idea that you will be walking this route, not driving or riding. Is your route oriented more north and south? You will want the paper to be long up and down (portrait). If you’ll be walking more east and west, turn the paper the long way– left to right (landscape). Take as much of the available paper as possible with your start point on one end and your destination on the other.

Think about what features you would encounter along the way and what details would be helpful to someone following your map. Picture yourself flying over the path, like you’re viewing it in Google Earth. Anyone familiar with your area could lay down the major roads on paper, but what will you encounter when you walk through the woods and avoid the well-travelled ways? Think not only of familiar landmarks, like hills, mountains, creeks, tree rows, fences, buildings, and things that can serve as landmarks along the way. What obstacles and dangers lie along the route? Are there walls, canyons, major rivers, mountains, or angry citizens? Anything potentially helpful should go on the map.

Ideally your map will turn out to be somewhat to scale. What do I mean by that? When you are all done drawing, take it to your favorite digital device (with a large screen), zoom to your map area in your online mapper of choic, and hold your hand-drawn map to the real thing. Are the items on your map in the same relationship to each other as they are in real life? Would your hand drawn map be able to take a stranger to the destination? Practice this skill and give your maps to your friends and family to critique.


Grab your paper and pencil along with a trusting loved one or gullible stranger and head to a park or part of town that you know well but your victim is unfamiliar with. Without pre-planning or scoping out the area, start your friend out at a safe spot and draw him or her a map to another safe part that is a good distance away. See if your mapping skills can lead the wary traveller successfully to the destination. Make it as easy or as hard as the two of you decide. (It might be a good idea to take your communication devices along, too.) This can be a fun game and a great learning tool, if your partner is willing to give blunt advice on your mapping ability.

A few other tips for successful map creating:

  • For most maps used for navigation, north is at up, at the top, on a map. Most map readers will assume this and may have trouble following the map if north is not up.
  • Keep in mind the circumstances when you are creating this map. Is the route long and the traveller will takes days to get there? If so, don’t overwhelm him with too many details, if all he needs is a general idea of what the best route is and what to avoid. Is there a crisis and a great need to boogey out of where you are? If so, keep it basic, short, and sweet. Is the area of travel short but wrought with potential personal danger? Every little detail could make a great difference in a successful journey.
  • Pencil is better than pen. If the map gets wet, ink will run. Pencil will be readable.
  • You need to make a map but don’t have paper or writing tool. Improvise! Just about anything can be written on, if you have the right tool. If you lack a good writing tool, try chalk, marker, charcoal, crushed berries, or anything available to get the job done.
  • Smaller is better but don’t limit yourself if you need to add important details.

Directions Only, Please

So what do you do when you need to make a map for someone who can’t read maps? If the destination does not require a complicated set of turns to get there or is simply not that far away, a map may not be needed at all. “Follow this tree line until you cross the first road, turn right on the road and walk up the second driveway on the left.” No map needed for that one. But if you are about to give complicated directions that you know will require a map and the person simply cannot follow a map, how do you communicate those directions?

In this scenario there are at least two ways to help the person seeking to get somewhere. If the person is not a visual thinker enough to use a map, most likely they need worded directions that would read almost like a recipe or operational manual. In that case there’s a good bet they are also excellent note takers. Give them the pen and paper and slowly give them the directions, and have them write it in their own note-taking lingo. Work with them to create step-by-step instructions that they can follow and make sense of in their own head. Perhaps a hybrid list of directions with occasional diagrams of turns, waypoints or notable features to head toward would be helpful to some people.

If you come across a person who you feel either cannot follow a map or follow written directions (in a crisis they may simply be panicked and not thinking clearly), the second option is to find other alternatives for the would-be traveler. Is someone else going that direction that they could travel with? Is there a safe place not far away that they could navigate to? Could they shelter-in-place until conditions improve? If the person needing directions does not feel confident enough to head out on their own with the instructions you gave them, could they tag along with you? Do all that you can with what you have in the safest way as time allows. Knowing that you’ve done that, the worst case is that you say a quick prayer with them and leave them to fend for themselves, if it becomes apparent you can’t help them any more.

Just as a medic would help others in time of crisis because they know how to treat wounds or a family with a well-stocked pantry would help their neighbors in time of need, let’s prepare ourselves to offer accurate and potentially life-saving directions to those who need it.

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