Find Your Way Without a Compass

April 16, 2011
Guiding Stars

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.

Observe Nature

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.


The Old Farmer's Almanac for Kids, Volume 1

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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).