Find Your Way Without a Compass

How do you find directions without a compass?

July 15, 2020
Hiker Finding Way Without Compass

Long ago, people could find their way in the outdoors without a compass—at night or during the day—by using the stars, the Sun, and nature’s signs. Here are some pointers for the next time you are camping, hiking, or just outdoors. Don’t get lost!

Use the Big Dipper

The most accurate and reliable direction finder is right over your head. It’s Polaris, the North Star. Polaris is over the North Pole, so if you find it in the night sky, you’ll know where north is.

Here’s how to find the North Star: 

  • Find the Big Dipper.
  • Then, find the two stars at the outer edge of the Dipper’s bowl. These are pointer stars. They “point” to the North Star. 
  • Extend an imaginary line from the pointer stars across the sky to the next bright star.
  • Stretch your arm out full length and spread your fingers, and the North Star should be about as far away as your thumb is from your middle finger.

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Use Two Sticks in a Field

In the evening, when you can see the stars:

On a cloudless night, drive a stick into the ground until the tip of it is at your eye level. Behind it, plant a taller stick such that the tips of the sticks line up on a bright star, as you look at them. After a few minutes, the star will appear to have moved (but remember: stars don’t move; it’s Earth that’s rotating). If the star seems to move …

  • up, you are facing east.
  • down, you are facing west.
  • right, you are facing south.
  • left, you are facing north.

During the daytime, when the Sun is shining:

Find a stick that’s almost a foot tall. Poke a stick into the ground in the ground so that it is standing straight up. Look for the shadow. Then place a rock at the end of the shadow cast by the stick. Wait about 15 minutes.

Put another stone at the end of the second shadow. With your back to the stick, stand with your left toe touching the first rock, and your right toe touching the second rock. You’re facing north.

Draw an imaginary line from the first rock marker to the second. West is the direction of the first marker.

Use a Wristwatch

  • If you have a watch with hands (not digital), you can use it like a compass. Place the watch on a level surface.
  • Point the hour hand towards the sun. Then find an imaginary line halfway between the hour hand and the 12 on the watch face. (During daylight savings time, the halfway line is between the hour hand and the 1.)
  • That imaginary line points south.
  • This means North is 180 degrees in the other direction.
  • If you can wait, watch the sun and see which way it is moving. If it’s rising, that’s east. If it’s setting, that’s west. 

Make a Needle Compass 

Got a first aid kit? Get the needle from it. Find either the silky liner of your sleeping bag of another material.  

  • Rub the needle on the silk or wool material about 100 times and static electricity will build up and create a magnetic charge. 
  • Lay the needle on a leaf placed in a small pool or cup of water. 
  • Place the leaf delicately on the pool of water and place the needle on top. If there is no wind, the needle should orient in a north-south axis toward magnetic north. The thicker end of the needle (the side with the eye) will favor the northern direction. 
  • You also can use shadows (shadows tend to favor north) to determine which way your needle is pointing. From there, you can figure out your coordinates.

Observe Nature

During the day, look for these directional signs (applicable for certain locations in the Northern Hemisphere):

  • Deciduous trees tend to grow on the south side of hills; evergreens grow on the north side.
  • In the desert, the giant barrel cactus always leans toward the south.
  • The leaves of the pilot weed grow in a north-south line. (Settlers crossing the Great Plains called it the “compass plant of the prairie.”)
  • Moss on a solitary tree that is openly exposed to the sun. Moss likes shade so the northern side of a tree is typically in shade most of the day.
  • In the Northern Hemisphere, the Sun lies due south at local noon every day. [Note: Local noon, aka “local apparent noon or “solar noon,” occurs when the Sun crosses the meridian (an imaginary line that runs through the north and south poles and a point directly overhead) and is highest in the sky for the day. Local noon is usually not the same as clock-time noon.]

Source: 

The Old Farmer's Almanac for Kids, Volume 1

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Reader Comments

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lost in the woods

I always told my kids to go downhill in the woods until reaching a stream or at least a dry creek bed. Following it downward will eventually lead to human contact. Probably not good advice in the vast space of the West, but works in New England.

Use the Sun's shadow and a vertical stick

The advice about "sun at noon" and "wristwatch" will give you the wrong locations for North, as others have pointed out, because of local vs apparent noon, time zones, daylight saving time, and so on. But here is a way to find North on a clear day (in the Northern Hemisphere):

On flat ground sink a 4-foot stick into the ground so it is vertical, and so its shadow will be unobstructed. Starting in mid-morning, place stones on the ground every so often at the point of the tip of the stick's shadow. The stone which is the shortest distance from the base of the stick points North (draw a pointer from the base of the stick through that stone). Note: you can stop placing stones when the shadow starts to lengthen.

wristwatch

The Editors's picture

Thank you for your feedback: We have added a few details to the text about the wristwatch method and the sun being due south at noon to clarify. Thank you for sharing your alternate method!

Find Your Way Without a Compass

In Texas, only the evergreen juniper trees/bushes grow on south side of hills. Deciduous trees grow on north side. Have observed this in Oklahoma also. As you go further west in Texas, only cactus grows on south side of hills, and the evergreen junipers are only on north side. Basically the south side of hills supports only the vegetation that is most drought/heat resistant, while the north side supports vegetation that needs more moisture/shade.

I don't understand how people

I don't understand how people "followed the drinking gourd" north. When I stand outside and face north, the Big Dipper points south toward Polaris. If I followed the direction it pointed to, I'd go south. I've always heard you always know where north is by finding Polaris. It turns out, I know where north is and Polaris isn't it. Please help me understand where I am going wrong.

Polaris does not move in the

The Editors's picture

Polaris does not move in the sky (well, it rotates just a little, as it isn't exactly North, but close enough), and is always there--it does not set. Polaris is also the tip of the handle of the Little Dipper. The orientation of the Little Dipper will rotate as Earth rotates (so our view changes), so sometimes the bowl of the dipper will be higher than the handle, and sometimes lower. Also, the orientation will be usually the opposite to the Big Dipper--so if the bowl of the Big Dipper is higher than its handle, the bowl of the Little Dipper will probably be lower than its handle.
The Big Dipper will be rotating as well--sometimes you'll see the bowl higher than the handle (as if liquid in the bowl would pour out), sometimes level, and sometimes lower (to hold the liquid in). The two stars defining the outer side of the bowl of the Big Dipper (away from the handle) will always point to the tip of the handle of the Little Dipper. As you've done, you need to draw the line from the bottom of the Big Dipper bowl to the top of the bowl, and extend it further about 5 times out to find Polaris. Sometimes this line is drawn down (or south) in the sky if the Big Dipper is on top of the Little Dipper at that point, as both rotate around Polaris. The direction of that line drawn may move downward, or southward, from Big Dipper to Little Dipper, but its stopping point, Polaris, in relation to where you are on the ground, is north (you'll be facing north to see it). Could that be the confusion?
How high above the horizon that you can see Polaris will depend on your latitude. It's about on the horizon at the equator. As you move northward, Polaris will be seen higher in the sky, until at the North Pole, it is directly overhead. At, say, 42 degrees north latitude, Polaris will not be overhead, so drawing a line to it down from the Big Dipper, if it was "above" Polaris at that point, would seem to be going southward (even though the line would be going to the north point).
Hope this helps!

Stars as directions

I just finished reading all comments.. If you don't live where sky is nice and clear you can forget all this. Carry a compass.

Also, to find North without a

Also, to find North without a compass, look for green moss on trees & rocks. It grows best on the North side.
Some boulders that have lain undisturbed for long periods will tend to split along a North-South line due to uneven heating by the sun.

The last point under "Observe

The last point under "Observe Nature" is somewhat misleading. The sun is at true South at local noon, not mean noon. The difference is that mean noon is the time at which the sun is highest in the sky at the standard meridian for the time zone (the meridian of longitude that passes through the center of a time zone and is used to standardize time in the entire time zone) while local noon is the point at which the sun is at the highest point in the sky for the exact location. There can be as much as a half-hour difference between mean noon (1200 at your time zone) and local noon. That's as much as 7.5 degrees in the wrong direction. Here's what I recommend:

Gather a standard-sized sheet of paper, a drawing compass, tape (scotch tape is fine), a short nail (less than an inch long), a pen or pencil, and a clipboard. Stick the nail through the center of the piece of paper and record your location and tomorrow's date (or whenever you use this device) at the edge of the paper. Clip the paper onto the clipboard (with the nail standing vertically) and tape the loose end of the paper to the clipboard so that the paper has no wrinkles (!!!). Then get a good night's sleep (especially if you are doing this in the summer). Be prepared to record the position of the nail's shadow every hour or so (the smaller the intervals the better). Set the clipboard (with paper and nail) on the ground outside (in a sunny spot) before ten o'clock am at latest (if you record the shadow at very short intervals, then you could probably start at eleven, but any later and it defies the purpose). Mark the point of the nail's shadow at whatever interval you choose (hour is sufficient if you don't need great precision) and record the time for each. Keep recording until after one o'clock (or if you want a complete plot, keep going until the shadow fades away; these plots can be useful for those interested in astronomy as I will explain). Now trace your plot (for an astronomically useful tracing, try to trace the curve). A good record should show a "U" that approaches the nail. Remove the nail (without shifting the paper or clipboard!!!) Take the drawing compass and draw a circle around where the nail was. Draw a line between the two intersections of the circle and shadow plot. Find the middle of this line, draw a line from this point to where the nail was. This line points south (true south). This is the astronomical definition of south.

The plots can be used to predict the motions of celestial bodies by calculating the altitude of the sun from the shadow plot. Measure from a point you marked to where the nail was and record that distance as a variable, B. The equation for altitude is as follows:

A = arctan (C/B)

where A is the altitude and C is the nail's height

Observe how the planets move in comparison with the line formed between the sun at the altitudes by mentally pulling the shadow plot inside out and imagining it in the sky (at the calculated altitudes). While standing near the clipboard (right next to it), find visual references for yourself (I use branches of trees). Then you can watch the stars move in relation to this imaginary line (I won't spoil it for you!).

The method of making shadow plots to find south is quite accurate. I have used it to create several sundials, all of which were quite accurate (within ten minutes of my watch). This is more accurate than sighting polaris (the North Star, which actually deviates slightly from North in a circular pattern) and I strongly advise anyone interested in astronomy to study shadow interpretation (gnomonics) and dialing (theory and construction of sundials, which are more complicated than they seem).