Old School Navigation without a Compass

Search and rescue teams have heard the story time and again: a group of hikers decided to head out into the wilderness armed only with their GPS, which for whatever reason suddenly stopped. Since this sort of thing has never happened before, the group in question has fallen into the habit of not bringing a compass on their hiking excursions in case of such an emergency, even though they really ought to know better. Neither do they have a map, and it starting to get rather dark and chilly, not to mention that they are quite hungry.

If only they had practiced their “alternative nav” skills (like how to navigate without a compass) a little more diligently, would never had had this problem. Using these basic, old-as-dirt techniques, anyone can get themselves un-lost, now matter how hopelessly so they happen to be.

The first thing you will need to do is make up for your lack of direction: that is, to find out which way is north. There is a surprisingly simple method for doing this that requires only basic tools you can easily find in nature. The main thing you want is a shadow, the longer and straighter the better. You can use something like a tree if you need, but it is critical that the ground bellow the shadow be clear of brush, leaves, or grass, since you will need to do some markings, and that the ground be as level as possible. A longer shadow will give you more accurate reading, but even a fairly tall stick will usually get the job done if the tree’s shadow falls on ground you can’t use.

Next, put a pebbles or make a small mark in the ground at the tip of the shadow. You need a strike a balance between the mark being small enough that it indicates the tip of the shadow as exactly as possible and the mark being distinctive enough that you will not lose it. Now, wait 10 or 15 minutes and repeat the process with the shadow. Draw a line connecting the two points, and you have a rough east to east line: the first mark will point toward the east and the second toward the west. By standing with the east point at your right and the west point at your left, you will be facing directly north, and behind you will be south. As mentioned above, the accuracy of this method will vary depending on the length of the shadow used, but it should nonetheless give you a basic idea of of which way you are going. As long as you have this, you should at least know which way you are going.

But what if the sun has already set? In this case, if it is a clear night, you can turn to the ancient method that mariners used to travel the seas for thousands of years: celestial navigation (navigation by the stars). Here again, the main task is to reclaim one’s sense of direction. In the Northern Hemisphere, the key to this is finding Polaris, the North Star, which as its name suggests always points north. The North Star is at the end of the “handle” of the Little Dipper constellation, and it should not be much trouble to find once you know that. But if you are having trouble locating the Little Dipper, just remember that the last two stars’ in the Big Dipper’s “handle” point directly toward the North Star. Once you have found it, draw a line from it to the ground in your mind and you will know where north is. And unlike the shadow method, if you lose track of the direction you are walking in, you need only look up at the sky to right yourself.

If you are able to use one of these methods, chances are that even if you were a little less careful than you should have been, you will be able to get out of the woods safe and sound. Hopefully, this will be the first and the last time you forget to bring your compass.