Around AD 1100, the Chinese came up with a revolutionary tool to help people navigate the unknown terrain: the practical compass. Prior to that, humanity relied on various other methods to determine the four cardinal directions, without the aid of a compass.
These techniques included observing natural phenomena and using elements in their surroundings to establish direction. With a little bit of practice and familiarity with some fundamental concepts, anyone can also learn these methods of orientation.
For centuries, people have been using the sun as a directional guide. For instance, during the day, they can observe the direction in which the sun rises and sets to determine east and west. Alternatively, they can use shadows as indicators of the sun’s position and deduce which direction is north or south.
Another crucial natural marker for orientation is the stars. By identifying constellations and following their movements in the sky, people could navigate even in the dark of night. For example, the North Star, or Polaris, has served as a reliable marker of true north for sailors and travelers for centuries.
Furthermore, nature offers many other cues that can aid navigation, such as the direction of prevailing winds, the flow of rivers, and the pattern of vegetation. Familiarity with these signs, along with some basic understanding of navigation principles, can help anyone navigate their way around an unfamiliar area.
Finding your direction during the day
Terrain Association is a reliable way of determining direction, especially if you have a map or a general idea of the location of Point A and Point B. When using a topographic map without a compass, you can use terrain association to orient yourself. This method is also helpful when navigating familiar places since you can use landmarks to guide you, such as knowing that a particular ridge is your northern boundary.
Sunrise and Sunset:
Knowing how to determine direction using the sun can be a lifesaving skill, particularly when you are lost in the wilderness without a compass. The sun can be a reliable directional indicator, especially when it is used in conjunction with other methods.
If you are facing the sunrise, then you are facing east. Similarly, if the sun is setting, you are facing west. In the morning, when the sun is still rising, it is in the east, so if you put the sun on your right, you are facing north. Conversely, after high noon, putting the sun on your left indicates that you are facing north. At noon, the sun is at its highest point in the sky, and in the Northern Hemisphere, it is due south. However, in the Southern Hemisphere, it is due north at noon.
It is important to note that the sun does not always rise and set exactly in the east and west directions. During the spring and autumn equinoxes, the sun rises and sets directly in the east and west. However, on any other day of the year, the sun will rise and set slightly to the north in the Northern Hemisphere and slightly to the south in the Southern Hemisphere. For example, in the United States, the sun tends to rise more from the northeast rather than the east. The farther you go from the equator, the more the sun will move from the due east and due west directions.
Use Your Watch as a Reverse Sundial:
You can also use your analog watch as a reverse sundial to determine the north-south line. By pointing the hour hand at the sun and drawing an imaginary line dividing the acute angle formed by the hour hand and 12 o’clock on the watch face, you can establish the north-south line. In the Northern Hemisphere, this line points to the south, while in the Southern Hemisphere, it points to the north.
A Shadow Stick:
Another daytime technique involves using a shadow stick to determine the east-west line. This method takes a little longer than the sun and watch technique, but it allows you to draw a compass rose on the ground for easy reference. To use this method, place a foot-long stick into the ground, pointing straight up, and mark the end of the shadow with a small stone or twig.
After about 15 minutes, the tip of the shadow will have moved, and you can mark it again. By drawing a line between the two markers, you can determine the east-west line. The first marker represents the west, and the second marker represents the east. You can then add a north-south line to complete the compass rose.
Finding your direction at night
To determine your direction at night, you can rely on the stars and moon, just as you do with the sun during the day. The principles remain the same, based on the Earth’s movement in relation to celestial objects. Here are some techniques to find your way:
Locate the North Star:
Polaris, also known as the North Star, always indicates north in the night sky. While not the brightest star, you can use the two pointer stars in the Big Dipper to locate it. These two stars form the front end of the ladle in the Big Dipper. By drawing a line from the bottom pointer star through the top pointer star, you can find the North Star. It is also the last star in the handle of the Little Dipper.
Use Star Movement:
Similar to the shadow stick method used during the day, you can use two sticks to determine your direction by aligning them to a bright star like the sights on a rifle. After 15 minutes, the star will have moved from its original position. If it has moved up, it is in the east. If it has moved down, it is in the west. If it has moved left, it is in the north, and if it has moved right, it is in the south. Note that this technique is for the Northern Hemisphere, so it should be reversed for the Southern Hemisphere.
Use the Crescent Moon:
Another technique involves using the crescent moon to find south. Draw a line across the points of the crescent moon pointing downward toward the Earth. The point where the line touches the horizon will be south in the Northern Hemisphere and north in the Southern Hemisphere.
What to do in an suburban environment?
Direction finding is not limited to wilderness settings as it can also be a challenge in suburban areas. Luckily, there are techniques for determining direction that are tailored for navigating the urban landscape.
Satellite dishes for television reception are aimed at communication satellites that are located in geosynchronous orbits over the Equator. In the Northern Hemisphere, all satellite dishes will be pointing south, while those in the Southern Hemisphere will be pointing north. Note that the satellite a dish is pointing to may not be exactly due south or north, so it may be off by 15 degrees or so. Additionally, some dishes may be pointed to a satellite far to the left or right, so it’s best to look at multiple dishes to get a general sense of direction.
Streets and Avenues:
Many major cities, including those in the U.S., are designed on a grid work of streets and avenues that intersect at right angles. Normally, avenues run north to south and streets run east to west. If the city has a central road, the roads that cross it often have a direction in their names, such as West First Street or North Highlands Avenue. However, note that each grid-based city may have its own orientation, so it’s best to check the city you’re in.
In regions with a prevailing wind, buildings will have more weathering or erosion on their windward side than on their leeward side. For instance, in North America, where the predominant wind comes from the west, western facades of buildings will be more worn due to erosion.
President Eisenhower comes to your rescue:
In 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower introduced the Interstate Highway System to help America remain competitive. As part of this national road system, interstates were named using a standard approach. Highways that run north to south have odd route numbers, such as I-95, while those that run east to west have even route numbers, like the famous Route 66.
Folklore myths you should ignore
The idea that moss always grows on the northern side of a tree or rock is partly true but misleading. Moss thrives in damp and cool environments, which are often found on the northern side of objects like trees, rocks, hillsides, and ridges. However, moss can grow on all sides of an object, and the presence of moss on the northern side does not necessarily indicate the direction. Therefore, it is not a reliable indicator of direction for an average person.
It is true that streams and rivers flow downhill, but their direction does not always lead towards the Equator. The direction of their flow can change frequently as they follow the contours of the land, and they can flow in any direction. Although following a stream or river may lead you to civilization because people tend to settle near water bodies, they can also end abruptly in the middle of nowhere or in places like swamps and marshes that are difficult to navigate.
Clouds can be a useful tool for determining direction in urban environments. Tristan Gooley, The Natural Navigator, suggests observing the direction in which clouds are moving with respect to your intended direction before entering a building or subway. This information can help you adjust your course accordingly when you come out of the building or subway.
Now you know a dozen useful methods to determine direction without relying on a compass or other navigation tool. These techniques can be utilized at any time of the day and in any location, you find yourself in. Practice applying this knowledge in your everyday routine so that it becomes a natural skill instead of something you only think about during an emergency.