Finding North in the Wilderness Without a Compass or GPS
It is essential that you pack a compass and a GPS when going on a hiking, camping or other trip outdoors. But even if you have packed them in your backpack, anything can happen outdoors, and you may lose all means of navigation. This is when one of these tips for finding the right directions without a compass or GPS can come in handy.
Some tips on basic navigation, use of GPS technology as well as survival in the wilderness
- First of all, you have probably heard of the one that moss grows on the North side of trees, which is definitely not a reliable method of determining where North is.
- Another theory which is not as reliable is that deciduous trees have more branches, leaves and overall vegetation on their southern sides. Although there is some logic for this phenomenon because of the better sunlight exposure, it still can be quite difficult to be used as a reliable method to determine the exact direction without a GPS or compass.
- Find the North star. The oldest and most reliable method to find north is to find Polaris (the North Star) and use it as a direction pointer. Polaris is positioned above the North Pole and is very closely aligned to the earth’s axis. The North Star is not the brightest star in the sky but should be easy to spot especially in a clear sky. In the northern hemisphere, Polaris is no more than 1 degree from the North Pole. You can train for spotting and easily identifying Polaris by training with a compass on a starry night.
Use the sun for finding the correct directions.
- The stick method: This can be done in a sunny day by using one of several methods. You can do it with the help of a “shadow stick compass”. Place a tracking pole or a long stick into the ground on a sunny spot. Place a rock or other marker at the end of the shadow of the tracking pole. About half an hour later place another marker at the furthest point of the shadow. The line of shadow markers runs from East to West. In order to find north, just stand in a perpendicular position to the shadow marker line facing away from the shadow stick, and North will be straight ahead.
- Also, you can use a classic analog wristwatch to determine the right direction with the help of the sun and the stick. Point the hour hand to the stick and sun, and if you are in the North Temperate Zone, the North-South line will be located in the middle between 12 o’clock and the hour at which the hour hand is pointing. In daylight saving time, look for the North-South line between the hour hand and 1 o’clock. If the day is cloudy, place a stick at the center of the watch in a way that its shadow falls on the hour hand. North is right in the middle between the hour hand and 12 o’clock.
Once you have determined where North is, use a topographic map to compare its feature with the actual features you are seeing on the terrain. Try to identify some specific features, roads, rivers or others to get a better idea of the direction you are heading to. Try to make a “mental map” in your head for better direction maintenance and for a safer hiking experience.
A topographic map balances the methods discussed above. Once North is determined (as discussed above) orient the map to north and compare terrain features on the map with the actual contours and features on the ground. Identify topographic handrails such as rivers, trails, and dominant land features (e.g., mountains tops.) These features will help guide the hiker’s travel during the day.