Long ago, people could find their way in the outdoors without a compass—at night or during the day, using natural directional 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.
Use Two Sticks in a Field
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.
Use a Wristwatch
To find your direction during the day, place an analog wristwatch (one with hands) on a level surface.
- Hold a toothpick again the edge of the watch, so that it casts a shadow on the watch.
- Turn the watch until the shadow falls over the hour hand. Imagine a line that runs through the center of the watch to a spot that is halfway between the hour hand and the 12 on the dial. That line runs north-south.
- To get your bearings, remember that the Sun rises in the East.
During the day, look for these directional signs:
- 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 caleld it the “compass plant of the prairie.”)
- The Sun lies due south at noon every day.