Natural navigation is something that has become lost in this day and age of technology. People have become more and more reliant on the use of smartphones and GPS for navigation. However, what happens if there was a natural disaster or anything else that meant you had to bug out? It is likely that in a situation like that, you are not going to have very long to use your devices. You may be lucky and have a specialized GPS and a solar charger, but what happens if you don’t, or if you have one, but it breaks? You are going to find yourself up a creek without a paddle, and possibly literally.
You now have one of three options to decide from:
Option 1, doing nothing, and hope it does not happen is really not an option for the avid prepper. “Doing nothing” is not in your vocabulary.
Option 2, planning your bug out is something that you may want to consider. However, do you know exactly where you are going to go? Exactly where you are going to be able to go? If you think you do, then you can try to spend a lot of time there and get very familiar with the area so that you do not need any other navigation methods. But, if you have to bug out, will you be able to decide with absolute certainty that you will not have to leave that area? Doubtful.
That leaves us with option 3. Learning natural navigation is something that I believe everyone should try to do to the best of their ability.
Natural navigation is the art of finding your way using your natural surroundings. It is something that has been long en lost in mainstream life, and it may become lost forever if people do not continue to learn it and teach it. So, the question is this: What can I use to aid navigation without GPS? The answer is pretty much everything:
In this article, I am going to go through each section in as much detail as I can. Take your time to read it, learn it, and practice it until it becomes easy to do. That may take a long time, but better that than not learning it at all. I have gone into a small amount of detail on some of these subjects in our Primitive survival article, and if you want a brief overview, take a look there. If you want a bit more detail, then continue reading.
You can learn a lot from the sun about navigation. Everyone knows that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. So, you wake up at the crack of dawn, look out of your tent and see the sunrise. That is due east, you think to yourself. But is it? The answer is, more than likely, no. That is because of the tilt of the Earth as it rotates around the sun.
As you can see in the GIF above, the axis of the Earth’s rotation only points directly at the sun precisely as it passes the Winter and Summer markers. Those two points are the two equinoxes, autumn and fall. And they are the only two days of the entire year that the sun will rise due east and set due west.
Therefore, the time of the sun changes depending on what time of year it is. Each day after the equinoxes, the sun’s rise and fall position changes slightly either north or south. At the summer solstice, the sun will rise as far to the northeast, and sets as far to the northwest as it ever will. In the winter solstice, it will rise as far to the southeast, and sets as far to the southwest as it ever will.
The difference between the two extremes of rise and set of the sun can change so much that, depending where you are in the world, and what time of year it is, the sun never sets. So, as you can see, thinking you are traveling east every day that you walk towards the sunrise is entirely wrong. The difference of position comes from your latitude and time of year. The closer you are to the poles and solstice you are, the further away from east and west the sun will rise and set.
Without telling you every city in the world and what position the sun rises and sets at what time of year, you will have to do a little bit of experimenting yourself. If you are in a place with a detailed horizon, buildings, hills, etc. then you will be able to figure it out and use those points as reference, if not, things get tricky.
Now that you know the difficulty that you may face with natural navigation using the sun, you need to learn how to do it. Keeping in mind everything said above; it is not always as simple as walking towards the sun in the morning, then following it back in the afternoon. Some times of the year, it is that simple, but more often than not, it is more complicated.
The easiest way for you to remember which way the sun will be pointing at its rise is this:
- Summer solstice: Northeast.
- Both equinoxes: Due east.
- Winter solstice: Southeast.
And the sunset is this:
- Summer solstice: Northwest.
- Both equinoxes: Due west.
- Winter solstice: Southwest.
As you can see, if you were to follow the direction of the sunrise in summer, and then expect to be able to find your way back in the afternoon by following the sunset, you would be traveling something like the next image:
There are a few things that you need to practice to be able to be confident in knowing where the sun will rise and set in your area. First of all, you need to practice. For that, you may want to get a compass before you actually need it. If you have a compass and it is working, then you may never need this method. However, things happen, and stuff gets lost, so it is still a wise idea to use your compass and take note of where the sun rises and sets.
Next, you will have seen that we have written how to find a general north-south line using the shadow of a stick on the ground. Now, we have to clear something up a little bit. Midday, when we are talking about natural navigation, is not at the time that your watch says. Noon is, in fact, the point that the sun is at its highest in the sky.
At that point, if you put a stick vertically in the ground, the shortest shadow that it casts will be a direct north/south line. The great thing is, it does not matter where in the world that you are; this will work.
Finally, you have to put all of the points into practice. You need to keep trying, make some notes about where the sun is at what time relative to where you are in the world. Do not forget to check our primitive survival article, for the other part, to natural navigation with the sun.
We have already touched on the subject of natural navigation with the moon here. However, in this article, we will take a little bit more of a more detailed look at how to do it.
There are two ways to find your bearings with the moon. One of them is very fast, but not very accurate, and the other is very slow but very reliable. The choice is yours of which to take. I will first recap the time-consuming method that is in the other article:
If the moon is a crescent, draw a straight line that joins the two tips of the moon together. Then continue that line to the horizon. That point is pretty much south. I say pretty much because it is not overly accurate. Using the sun is much more reliable, but if you need to keep moving in the night, this will suffice.
However, one point to note is that it works best if the moon is high in the sky, and does not work at all on a full moon.
Slow is the operative word here. It takes a lot of time. However, if accuracy is something that you need, and now, this is by far the best way to do it.
All objects that you see in the sky, if you are in the northern hemisphere, arc across the southern sky. That can sound a little difficult to understand, but I will try to explain it as best I can.
If you stand facing due south, everything that you can see in the night sky will move from your left, east, to the right, west. Some of the celestial bodies will appear from the horizon behind you, and at their highest point, they may be in front of you. However, not all of them will arc enough to be seen in front of you; they all arc the same way. And that is moving towards the south, and then away from it after reaching its peak in the sky.
Here is an image showing you what I mean:
All celestial bodies follow a path similar to the celestial equator line that you can see here. However, as you know, the sky is full of them. Therefore, you have to imagine there are thousands of them all following similar paths from all around the celestial horizon line.
With all of that in mind, let’s talk about the actual method:
As we now know, the moon is at it’s highest point in the sky when it is due south when observed from the northern hemisphere. So, what we need is a moon that is bright enough to cast a shadow, but it does not have to be a full moon.
- Place a stick in the ground.
- Mark the endpoints of the shadow throughout some time.
- Keep doing so until the lines get longer.
- The shortest line points due south.
As you can see, it is a pretty simple and accurate method, but it takes a very long time.
There is a lot of mystery around being able to use the stars as natural navigation. Although a lot of that mystery is not needed, it still makes people want to be able to do it. And that is a good thing. More people should learn to use the stars to find their way. You never know when you might need to do it for real. Using the stars to navigate is a lot easier than you think it is. You can even learn the method that I am going to give you here in minutes.
All of the celestial objects in the sky appear to move around us throughout a night. However, there is one that never seems to move – Polaris. Polaris is located in a very fortunate place for navigation when compared to the Earth. It is almost directly above the axis on which the Earth rotates, as you can see in the next image:
If you draw an imaginary line through both poles of the Earth and continue it out very far, it will be met by Polaris, Otherwise known as the north star. Although many people will tell you that it never moves in the night sky, that is not entirely accurate. The reason for that is because it lies about one-degree off-center. Therefore, if you had a long exposure photograph of Polaris, you would see a tiny circle.
You can just about see the semi-circle directly in the middle of all of the other rings here. That is the north star. As you can see, it hardly moves at all, and that is why it is such an excellent star in the night sky for natural navigation.
How Do We Find Polaris?
Finding the north star is pretty easy once you have the know-how. If you have ever seen the big dipper, then you will have already been pretty close to seeing it. Use the next image to see how to find Polaris:
The big dipper is one of the easiest constellations to find in the night sky. The numbers that you see on the GIF is the amount of times that you have to multiply the distance between the last two sars on the big dipper to find the north star.
After you have found it, that is north.
The big dipper does move. It rotates anti-clockwise relative to the north star, so depending where you are and what time you look, it may appear to be on its side or upside down. However, the relationship between the north star and the big dipper always remains the same.
This question is an easy one to answer, although sometimes, people forget what north means. I know that sounds a bit strange, but use Google maps to show the UK in its entirety. You are most likely to have an image that shows it “standing” straight up. However, if you press the compass button, you will see that the whole island tilts slightly over to the left. That is because north points towards the north pole. Not up the country.
Therefore, you have to have a pretty good idea of where you need to go to use the north star for navigation. However, if you are bugging out, you are only likely to need to go tens of miles instead of thousands.
There is also another star that you can use to help you navigate at night. That is a star called Mintaka. Mintaka is the first star in Orion’s belt constellation that rises and sets. They are the only three bright stars that form a line in the whole night sky. Mintaka rises very close to due east and sets very close to due west.
It does not matter where you are in the world; this fact is actual. The only problem that you may encounter is that you need to see where it rises and sets at the specific time of it happening. If you have enough time to wait for it, then great. If not, you will have to consider using a different method to estimate your natural navigation until it is time to see those stars.
The weather is a problematic tool when it comes to natural navigation. It is certainly something that you will need to pay an interest in before you bug out. The whole world has a prevailing wind trend, meaning that the majority of the time, the wind blows in one direction, depending on where you are. Therefore, you are urged now to pay an interest in the prevailing wind in your area and check which way it usually blows.
The main issue with using wind for your natural navigation is that there are three layers of observable wind, and they are often different. The wind direction that you would feel on your face goes one way, the lower clouds go a different way, and the higher clouds go the same route as the wind on your face, but at a different speed.
In the United States, it is common for weather patterns to follow the winds in a west to east pattern. However, take some time to find out which direction the wind usually blows in the area you live, and then you can start using the wind to your advantage.
If you can not feel the wind, there are a few telltale indicators that you can use to help you. Depending on where you are in the world, they range from the windswept tops of trees to the sand dunes and snow ridges. Sand dunes and ice ridges often form a horseshoe shape, with the horns pointing with the wind, and the rounded section pointing towards the wind.
So, this image is of the sand dunes in the Sahara desert. Therefore, looking at this image and the one above it, you can safely say that you are facing pretty close to north. If it were a sand dune in the United States, you would be more than likely facing south.
The same goes for snow ridges:
If this was a photo of a snow ridge taken in Greenland, you could quite safely say that you are facing west. That is because you are facing the hill from the horn side. That means that the wind is blowing towards you. In Greenland, the prevailing wind goes west to east.
The sun and the stars are the easiest and most popular ways of natural navigation. However, what happens if it is cloudy? Ok, you can use the wind. What about if it cloudy and not windy? Now we have to start looking at other ways of finding your way. Plants are a lot more complicated and challenging to use for navigation; however, if you learn the art, it is a lot more rewarding too.
The way that things have changed on the ground are a great indicator of the natural elements like the sun and wind. The first and easiest place to look is the trees. Trees are never symmetrical, but they often have a lot more foliage on one side than the others.
When you are using trees for navigation, remember to look at it from every angle of the tree. As you do not know which way is north, you may have a hard time to see any difference in the tree. However, take a look at the image above, you can easily see that there is a lot more foliage on one side than on the other.
The side that has more growth often faces south. However, that is only applicable in the northern hemisphere. That is because, in the northern hemisphere, the sun spends most of its time in the southern sky. Contrary to that, in the southern hemisphere, the sun is mainly in the north of the sky. Therefore, the extra growth will be on the northern side of the tree.
When you are in a heavily wooded area, it becomes a lot more challenging to see this as the sun only reaches the tops of the tree. If this is the case, try to find a tree that is open around it. You may be lucky and be on high ground and be able to see a tree in the distance, but you may have to walk some distance to find one.
Wind and Trees
Using the wind and trees is another way of telling which direction you are traveling. Although I have picked a clear image, that is to show my point. Take a look at the image below:
Combine this image with the map of prevailing winds above, and you will have a pretty good idea of what is north. For example, if this tree is in the United States, where the prevailing wind travels west to east, you can see that the tree has grown west to east too. Therefore, it is another image that has been taken facing pretty close to the north.
However, as I said earlier, do not just look at this and presume that it is directly north. You may find that you are looking at the tree slightly off and that you are facing northwest.
Sun and Trees
It is not only the wind that will shape trees. The sun does a pretty good job too. We all know that flowers bloom towards the sun to catch its energy. However, at night, they close up again. Trees do not move as much as that in a single day. But you can still see the effects of the sun on the braches.
All plants need the sun to grow, and they all grow towards it. Trees are no different. As you now know, the sun is in the southern sky most of the time when viewed. That makes tree branches grow more horizontally on the south side of them.
In the image above, you can see that the branches on the left are a lot more horizontal than on the right. Therefore, the photo has been taken facing west. With practice, you will start to notice this more and more in daily life. This method of natural navigation is a lot more tricky than with the sun, but a lot more rewarding.
Using animals for natural navigation is even more complicated than the others, but again, you may find yourself in a position that you have no other choice.
The majority of the wind in the US blows from the southeast, and animals, in general, will take shelter from the wind. Therefore, if you are in a place that has bushes and animals, look for the side of the bush that is less healthy than the others. That side is the place where the animals shelter from the wind.
The great thing about the picture above is that you can see two of the navigation points in one picture. This sheep is lying down behind the bush sheltering from the wind, and the branches are near horizontal on the opposite side. Therefore, this image is likely to have been taken facing the southwest if it is in the northern hemisphere.
You can also see that there is less foliage on the side with the sheep. That could be for one of two reasons: One, that the sheep eats and lies on that side of the bush, and two, that more leaves grow on the southern side. Either way, you know which direction you are facing because of the bush.
There is a less conspicuous way of telling which way the prevailing winds blow too. That is by looking for spider webs. Spiders know which way the wind blows the same way as the sheep do. Therefore, there is often more webs on the opposite side of a bush to the prevailing wind.
There are many ways in which you can find your way using natural navigation. This article has touched on the most common ways that you will find, but there are certainly more pointers that you can find. However, we will save them for a future article. I suggest that you print this page out so that when you are in need, you do not have to try and find this article. If you have no internet, then you have no chance of seeing this page.
Learn what you have read and practice it before you need to know it. It could be the difference between finding your way to safety and getting lost forever. One piece of advice that I would like to give to you is to decide which way you want to bug out before you need this guide. If your next town is east, for example, then you know what you need to look for and which way to head.