Finding North, South, East and West is Easier Than You Think… If You Know How and Where to Look.
Most of us who hunt, fish, backpack or explore the wilderness take a little time to glance at a map and carry a compass. But sometimes we forget or get lost even in the most familiar places. Here’s how to improvise and find your way when that compass hasn’t found your way into your pocket.
1. The North Star.
This is an easy one assuming a couple of things. For one, you need a clear night with clear skies. To find the North star find the Big Dipper. If you draw a line through the two stars on the front edge of the dipper it’ll point directly at the North star. If the night is particularly clear, you’ll see the Little Dipper emerging from the North star at the tip of the handle of the Little Dipper. What’s great about the North star is that it doesn’t move across the night sky. It is always fixed in the same position over true North.
The important thing to remember was its position on the next day. Pioneers on wagon trains used to point the yokes of their wagons in the direction of the North Star so they could remember the right direction in the morning. You could use a long branch or the trunk of a small deadfall tree to do the same.
Determining other points of the compass is easy once you know which direction is North. The opposite direction is South and to the left at 90 degrees from North is West and to the right at 90 degrees is East. But once you set out in the right direction you need to remember your bearings. It’s easy to meander and lose track so you need to remember an old orienteering trick.
2. Orienteering 101
Orienteering involves the use of a map and compass to plan a route to a destination and your return. In this instance you may not have had the chance for this preplanning step. Hopefully you have a general idea of the direction of your destination, but you need to keep yourself walking in a generally straight line once you’ve determined North, South, East and West. The traditional way of doing this was line-of-site orienteering.
Line-of-sight orienteering involves identifying a landmark at your current location and choosing a landmark in the distance in the direction you want to go. You’ll want to look over your shoulder from time to time to remember the landmark of your original starting point, so you can align your past landmark with the one ahead. Once you reach your next landmark you can look back to your starting point and imagine a straight line connecting your two landmarks that will point you to your next landmark. By doing this you are keeping a generally straight line as you travel. This assumes you have determined the cardinal points of your direction before you set out.
Landmarks could include a very tall tree, a cliff, a clearing, a rocky outcrop or a small lake or pond. What you’re looking for is something that is unique that you’ll remember and identify easily as you travel. But remember to look back to your original starting point landmark from time to time. As your distance from your original landmark increases its appearance may change. There’s also a possibility that you are traveling in a dense forest or swamp and there are no apparent landmarks ahead of you or behind you. In those instances, you have to consider some of the following solutions.
3. The Sun Rises in the East and Sets in the West
It happens every day and you can even detect the rising or setting sun on a cloudy day. One thing to keep in mind is that sunrise and sunset happen in a “general” direction of East and West, but these occurrences happen close enough to give you a good sense of direction. Once you’ve determined your directions in the morning or evening you can point one arm at the sun on the horizon and safely assume that behind you are the opposite of East or West. If you point your arm forward and your other arm at a 45-degree angle from your body, you’ll be able to determine the general direction of North and South. Just remember that if your pointing at the rising sun in the East with your left arm your right arm at 45 degrees is pointing South. If your left arm is pointing at the setting sun in the West your right arm at 45 degrees is pointing North.
4. The Shadows Know
As the sun crosses the sky it makes an arc across the Southern portion of the sky year-round. As the day approaches high-noon and into the early afternoon it’s safe to assume that any shadow is pointing in the general direction of North. This can give you a clue with regards to your direction. If the sky is overcast, see if you can see the sun behind the clouds and try to determine which way the shadows may be falling.
5. The Stick Shadow Method
This approach takes 15 to 20 minutes to accomplish but should give you a better read on direction if you’ve lost your sense of direction at mid-day. It also assumes the sun is shining and casting shadows.
The first thing you do is put a stick in the ground pointing straight up. The stick can be any length, but you’ll get a faster read with this method with a longer stick. Look at the shadow from the stick and place a small rock at the end of the cast shadow.
After 15 to 20 minutes the sun will move across the sky and the cast shadow will move as well. Place another small rock at the end of the second shadow read. Over time you’ll set the shadows migrate to continue a perfect line.
Place a straight stick next to the two rocks. You now have an East/West line defined by the stick.
Place a second stick on top of the first stick at a 90-degree angle creating a perfect crisscross.
Because the sun is traveling in the Southern part of the sky the direction of the shadow will tell you the end of the stick in the direction of the shadow is North.
Once you have determined North it’s an easy matter to determine the other cardinal points of the compass.
6. Moss on a Tree Trunk?
Good news and bad news about the old “moss on a tree trunk” trick. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. The key is to find a large tree growing in isolation in a field that is not covered in the shadows of other trees. Moss on a tree doesn’t grow well in steady, direct sunlight so an isolated tree may actually be giving you a good clue to a Northerly direction.
However, in a heavily wooded forest moss can grow on any side of a tree because the constant shadows from other trees prevent direct sunlight from hitting any growing or developing moss. In fact, some trees in a heavily wooded forest will have moss growing around its entire circumference or even on South, East or West sides of the tree.
Check it out the next time you see a tree growing in isolation in a field or clearing. Chances are good moss will favor the North side of the tree.
7. Yes, You Can Make Your Own Compass
This may come as a surprise, but you can make your own compass in the field. All you need is a pin. You could easily stick one into your shirt or hat just in case. But in order to make this work you have to magnetize the pin first and it couldn’t be easier. Hold the pin at one end and run it through your hair about 50 times. The static electricity from your hair will actually magnetize the pin.
Your next step is to find a small leaf and float it delicately on still water. Carefully place the pin on the floating leaf and it will align on a North/South line. To determine which end of the pin is pointing North remember the shadow tip. The direction of the shadow is inclining towards North and that will tell you which end of the pin to trust for North.
There’s One Other Possibility
Welcome to the 21st century where most of us carry a smartphone. There are apps you can download with a working compass that you can read from your smartphone and even GPS capabilities that will show your exact location on a map and directions along with the nearest towns. This assumes your phone is still charged, but it makes life a whole lot easier if you have your phone on you.
Better yet, you’ll be able to call for help if you’re seriously lost and give your latitude and longitude to any potential rescuers using your GPS app. This assumes your location has access to transmission towers allowing for the use of your smartphone. Many distant wilderness areas don’t deliver a signal or a signal strong enough for a smartphone to work as a simple phone.
Failing that, you can fall back on the old pioneer methods we’ve already suggested. They’re good skills to know and easy to remember and anyone who spends any time in the wilderness should have an accomplished understanding of how they’re done.