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As we get ready for hiking, camping, or just being outdoors, let’s explore how to find your way in the dark—without a compass—by using the stars, the Sun, and nature’s signs. Here are some fun pointers for the next time you’re outside. 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
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.
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.]