Sometimes around the year AD 1100, the Chinese developed the first practical compass for helping people navigate in unknown territory. But before that auspicious day, mankind had other ways to know which way was north, south, east and west that didn’t involve using a tool.
They used what was around them and what they saw happening in nature to determine direction. With a bit of training and understanding of some basic concepts, so can you.
🌤️ Finding Direction in the Field During the Day
The easiest way to tell direction, especially if you have a map or know the direction that Point A is from Point B, is to use terrain association. This is what we all do when we use a topographic map without the aid of a compass. It’s also what we do every day when we walk or drive somewhere familiar, since we know which way to turn at each landmark or, for example, that the high ridge is our northern boundary.
The next few techniques we can use during a day afield involve the sun and a watch.
2.Sunrise and Sunset:
First, since we know that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, if it is still rising (in the morning), then it is in the east; if you put the sun to your right, then you are facing north.
The opposite is true after high noon: Put the sun on your left and you are again facing north. If it is 12:00, the sun will be in the south in the Northern hemisphere and in the north in the Southern hemisphere.
The sun only rises and sets due east and due west on two days out of the year: the spring and autumn equinoxes. Any other day, it will rise and set slightly to the north in the Northern Hemisphere and slightly to the south in the Southern Hemisphere; in other words, in the U.S., it rises more from the northeast rather than the east. The farther you get from the equator, the more it moves from due east or due west.
3.Use Your Watch as a Reverse Sundial:
This technique requires an analog watch (the kind with hands on it). Hold your watch flat with the face pointing up. Point the hour hand at the sun. Then draw an imaginary line dividing the acute angle formed by the hour hand and 12 o’clock on the watch face. Ignore the minute hand, you don’t need it.
This imaginary line is your north-south line. In the Northern hemisphere, the line points to the south. In the Southern Hemisphere, it points to the north. If you can’t remember that, then figure out east or west like we just discussed and you know north. One caveat with this method is that if your watch is set for Daylight Savings Time, you should use 1 o’clock instead of 12 o’clock.
4.A Shadow Stick:
The next daytime technique is to use a shadow stick to determine an east-west line. The shadow stick takes a bit longer to use than the sun and your watch, but it lets you draw a compass rose, or diagram, on the ground so you don’t have to figure out north each time.
Start by placing a foot-long stick into the ground and pointed straight up. You want to be able to see its shadow. The ground should be level, flat and cleared of any brush or anything that sticks up above the ground. Next, place a marker, such as a small stone or a twig, into the ground at the end of the shadow.
After about 15 minutes, the tip of the shadow will have moved a few inches. Mark the very tip of the shadow the same way as you did the first time, then draw a line between your two markers.
Since the sun always moves from east to west, the shadow will move in the opposite direction. The first marker is west; the second marker is east. You can now add a northsouth line on the ground, and you have your compass rose showing the four cardinal directions.
You can then add in the intermediate directions if you need.
🌕 Finding Direction in the Field at Night
Just as the sun was your best friend for direction finding during the day, the stars and moon are your go-to celestial objects at night. And, just like with the sun, the techniques at night are also based on the movement of the Earth in relation to the stars and moon.
5.Find the North Star:
Polaris, the North Star, will always mark north in the night sky. It is not one of the brightest stars in the night sky, but you can use the two pointer stars in the Big Dipper to find it. The pointer stars are the two stars that form the front end of the ladle in the Big Dipper.
A line drawn from the bottom pointer star through the top pointer star will point to the North Star. The North Star is also the last star in the handle of the Little Dipper.
6.Shoot the Stars:
Just like the shadow stick that you used during the day, you can use the two sticks at night to determine your cardinal directions. On a clear night where you can see at least one star, align two sticks like the back and front sights on a rifle so that they “aim” at a bright star. After waiting 15 minutes, the star will have moved from where it was when you aimed at it originally.
If the star moved up, it is in the east. If it moved down, it is in the west. If it moved left, it is in the north. If it moved right, it is in the south. This is for the Northern Hemisphere, so reverse it for the Southern Hemisphere.
7.Use the Crescent Moon:
The last nighttime technique is to use the crescent moon to find south. If you draw a line across the points of the crescent going down toward the Earth, the point where it touches the horizon will be south in the Northern Hemisphere and north in the Southern Hemisphere.
In The Urban (Or Suburban) Jungle The backcountry isn’t the only place we often need to know direction. Trying to navigate in the concrete canyons of a major urban area can befuddle anyone.
Fortunately, there are a number of ways to tell direction that are designed for the urban jungle.
Satellite dishes for television reception all point to one of several communication satellites that are in geosynchronous orbits over the Equator. So, satellite dishes in the Northern Hemisphere will all be pointing to the south and those in the Southern Hemisphere will be pointing north.
Since the particular satellite a dish is pointing to may not be exactly due south or north of its location, the direction may be 15 degrees or so left or right. Also, some dishes may be pointed to a satellite far to the left or right, such as someone in New York City trying to watch a station in Italy or Albania, so look at several dishes to get your general direction rather than just one.
9.Streets and Avenues:
Many major cities in the U.S., as well as other parts of the world, are based on a grid work of streets and avenues that cross at right angles. Where this design strategy is used, normally the avenues all go in one direction and streets all run in the other direction.
Although each grid-based city may be different (check the city you are in), in general, avenues run north to south, and streets run east to west. If the city has a central road, like Main Street or Broadway, the roads that cross it will often have a direction in their names, such as West First Street or North Highlands Avenue.
In a region with a prevailing or predominant wind, the buildings will have more significant weathering or erosion on their windward side than on their leeward faces. So, with a predominant wind coming from the west, which is what is common in North America, the western facades over time will be more worn from the erosion.
11.Thank you, President Eisenhower:
In 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower implemented the Interstate Highway System as a way to help America stay competitive. One of the benefits of this new system is that they came up with a standard approach for naming the interstates that were part of this national road system.
Highways that run north to south will have an odd route number, like I-95, while interstates that run east to west will have an even route number, like the famous Route 66.
12.Look to the Clouds:
Like many things of use to the modern pioneer, the things we notice about the world around us are often some of the most useful. On his website, Tristan Gooley, The Natural Navigator, noted that clouds can be a real help when trying to determine direction in the urban canyons.
Before you head into a building or down into a subway, look up at the clouds to see which direction they are moving with respect to the direction you want to go. When you come back out into the daylight, look up again to determine which direction you need to turn to get back on track.
Well, there you have it: a dozen handy ways to tell direction without a compass or any other navigational tool. Plus, you can use them any time of day and anywhere you may find yourself. Now, take your new knowledge and start practicing it in your daily activities so that it becomes an ingrained skill rather than something you need to think through in an emergency.
The most popular survival solutions to check out: