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What are the ways you can navigate when you don't have a compass or a GPS? For example how can you tell which way is north.

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11 Answers 11

Depending on the terrain, a map is often very usable even without a compass or a GPS. If the terrain is anything-but-flat you can generally use the contours of the terrain to orient the map correctly. "Walk down this valley until it branches, then head for the mountain aproximately 30 degrees west." doesn't require a compass.

Learn to read contour-lines on maps, so that you're able to visualize the terrain from the map. Follow lead-lines whenever practical. Rivers, ridges, lakes, treelines, coastlines, powerlines or (obviously) roads are all candidates.

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Basic celestial navigation:

In the northern hemisphere, the star Polaris indicates north.

In the southern hemisphere, you can use the Southern Cross, see Finding the south celestial pole.

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You are wrong! Southern cross is not an analogy of the Polaris in the southern hemisphere! THe Southern Cross is rotating and need not necessarily point to the south. –  Tomas Jan 27 '12 at 23:11
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The Southern Cross can still be used to point your way south. It's not as quick and easy as Polaris (which doesn't lie at true north, it's just a whole lot closer), but it still works. –  MBraedley Feb 1 '12 at 19:45
    
Southern Cross navigation how-to: teara.govt.nz/en/southern-cross/2/3 –  Lukasz Jun 11 '12 at 12:12

I want to suggest a couple of books I really like:

These books are not about quick tips and tricks. These books are filled with stories, history and a lot of nuances that will take a lot of time to actually master. These books are great for anyone who is really serious about the art of navigation (which entails getting closer to nature, noticing more,...). It's great if you're really serious about navigation and the outdoors in general or if you just want a nice read, but as I said before, don't expect a tips&tricks format.

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I will probably have a look at these books, but this would be a much better answer if you could provide a couple of examples quotes... –  Rory Alsop Jan 21 '13 at 8:18
    
@RoryAlsop I'm aware of that, however, these books just can't be quoted without feeling like a quote miner. You just have to hear the whole story, that's why I didn't include any quotes. You can always read the first chapter on Amazon though. –  Ben Jan 21 '13 at 18:53
  • Jason S's "use the map" or / and Russell Steen's "use landmarks"
  • Noam Gal's and berry120's "use the sun" (1)
  • Graham's "use the stars"
  • use rivers - rivers provide water, animals, human-inhabited places, never go in circles and always flow in a consistent direction (this is kind of "use landmarks")
  • climb up high - 1. find a naked hilltop 2. climb it 3. you can now see far away and are also easier to be seen
  • use the moon - for example here this is explained

(1) I was recently looking to measure how accurate my compass is. After some discussions, I was persuaded that the sun is very inaccurate (maybe tens of degrees off when measured with a watch). Well, It is the most easily accessed orientation point, so nevertheless I use it most often of all sources (even when I carry a compass).

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There seems to be a fixation with North in navigation. Step back to the basic purpose, why do we navigate? We navigate to get to somewhere or to find our way back. Knowing north is just one method of doing such. So predicating navigation on knowing which way is north is unnecessary. North isn't the goal, it's a reference for finding what you really want.

There are two different types of navigation:

  1. Finding our way to something new.
  2. Finding our way back.

I never even touched a map or compass until I was in my 30s and I grew up hiking. This is how I learned to navigate. To quantify where this works, 99% of my outdoors time has been off trail, with no map, in the southeastern US.

I'm going to focus on #2 first, since finding your way back home (or to car) is more critical than finding that waterfall (or lookout, or whatever).

  • Look around when hiking, don't just watch the ground. Note unique features and commit them to memory.
  • Stop periodically and look back. Look over your shoulder a lot. The trail or way will look different on the way back than on the way in. This will also help you spot angling forks that can only be seen from one direction.
  • If you are off trail, with no distinguishing features, leave some clues. Not trash. In deciduous forest, disturbing the leaves works. Breaking small green branches works and causes minimal harm, but don't go overzealous with it. Leave marks that indicate the direction to the previous mark when possible.
  • Take it slow, making sure you absorb the features.
  • Learn to walk a straight line. It takes time, but you can learn to hold a bearing, even in uneven terrain. This can help when you generally know "the highway is that way".
  • If you feel lost, don't panic. Flag your spot in a very visible way. Slowly range out from that spot, but keeping your flag in sight until you see a feature or mark you recognized.

It's really that simple. Don't go on a 20-mile excursion your first time out. Your first several times in the woods should, if possible, be small acreage where if you walk in any direction for an hour you'll hit a road or known trail.

What about finding something new? When I hike a new trail, I browse the Internet until I find someone who has taken the time to write directions that don't require a map and compass. I contribute corrections as I find them. Sometimes I never find the thing I left to see, but find something else in the process. Sometimes I find it hours late, but it's a fun trip.

I sometimes wonder if trails handicap learning to navigate. Many people end up knowing little about traveling in the woods but following a trail or staring at a map/gps.

And don't get me wrong, I can use a map now and a high quality Topo map is awesome. But you certainly don't need to know North avoid getting lost (caveat here that I'm sure it's different in some deserts).

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+1 - I agree with all of those points. But if you do have a realistic method of finding where north is, that can never be a bad thing. –  berry120 Feb 1 '12 at 0:18
    
@berry120 -- I absolutely agree that finding North isn't bad :) –  Russell Steen Feb 1 '12 at 0:59
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+1 for "Stop periodically and look back". This was one of two things they told us about caves - the other was, of course, carry a spare flashlight. –  Vorac Jun 1 '12 at 9:09
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In the desert there usually no prominent features around you (like your caveat mentions), and everything withing a few miles looks exactly the same. How you navigate is watch the mountains that are 30 to 60 miles off. Before you start stand facing your car (or the road) and take notice of how far you have to turn or twist your neck to look or arms to point at the mountains. If you continue to update that as you hike, you can always find your way back. Note, this wouldn't work in the Dunes, but nothing works there. –  MaskedPlant Jun 10 '12 at 14:49
    
+1 for impressive skill. I nearly never hiked without a map, but maybe I will try to get some training as you suggested. –  Paul Paulsen Jul 21 at 15:30

When I go off-trail into the woods, I bring a topographic map, compass and GPS with me; of the three, the one I use least is the compass and the one I use most is the map, because I have learned to read the terrain and match it to the map.

Even if you know which way is north, that may be very little help in knowing where you are, how to get where you want to go, or how to get there safely (e.g. avoiding ravines, cliffs, and other natural hazards).

Learn to read a topographic map and it will serve you very well.

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If there's a stick around and enough sunlight, I've found the stick method surprisingly accurate:

  1. Find a straight stick, around 2 feet long (length isn't that important) and plant it straight in the ground.
  2. Mark the end of the stick's shadow, perhaps with another short stick.
  3. Wait for about 15 minutes then repeat step 2.
  4. Draw a line between the two ends you marked in step 2, from the first marker to the second. This will produce a line that points from west to east (where west is in the direction of the first mark you made, east towards the second.)
  5. Draw a line perpendicular to the one you've just drawn and that will point north to south.

I've used this a few times just for fun, never needed to in an emergency situation - but it's surprisingly accurate for such a primitive method, usually only a few degrees off.

See here for a video explanation.

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Does it work only in the northern hemisphere? I imagine in the southern it would be from east to west instead, but not sure... –  Paul Paulsen Jul 21 at 15:26

In many forests you'll find moss growing on the side further from the equator (i.e. on the North side of trees/rocks in the Northern hemisphere and on the South side in the southern hemisphere).

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This is sometimes true, but in my experience it's not a reliable indicator of direction. –  manoftheson Jan 19 '13 at 2:13
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This is just plain wrong. Different species of moss and lichens grow on different sides of trees dependent on a lot of factors. At the northern end of a species' range it may well appear mostly on the south side of trees while other species in the same forest are on the other side or all around depending on local microclimates. Just forget about the moss myth, it will waste your time and keep you from observing the things you really need to pay attention to. –  Olin Lathrop Mar 12 '13 at 20:28

The distribution of sun east / west should be pretty close to the same. In the northern hemisphere, the south side of areas gets more sun due to the sun being more to the south (perpendicular to the equator).

This doesn't necessarily translate into there being more vegetation on the south side of ridges though, it depends on the environment. Southern California for instance will typically have less vegetation on the south side of a slope due to the increased heat and very low level of moisture. In less arid areas, you can see more vegetation on the south slope because they are not starved for water and they have more sunlight than the north slope will.

To sum that up, it's not safe to determine north or south based solely on presence of vegetation. You have to know your environment and what the effects of additional sunlight will have on the area.

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If it's early morning, you'll note that the sun rises in the east. It additionally sets in the West. Normally, more plant-life can be found on the east side of a ridge (I don't have a source for this, I'm sure someone else can be more helpful) as it more fully receives light.

Personally, I navigate almost exclusively by features and carry a contour map with me of the area. I also memorize some prominent features before heading out as a safety precaution. Remember to always map out your route and tell a friend where you're going!

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Navigating by features is very useful - until the fog moves in –  HorusKol Jan 25 '12 at 10:03
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Yes, well. A sense of direction tends to fix that problem :) As does backtracking, not panicking, etc. –  A.A. Grapsas Jan 25 '12 at 23:56
    
true - but to a novice that doesn't know any better, your answer can kind of read like "leave the compass at home" –  HorusKol Jan 26 '12 at 1:31
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Novices should be in a group with experienced people, that's the best advice that can be given. –  A.A. Grapsas Jan 31 '12 at 21:22

If you look at the current time, and imagine yourself in the center a big analog watch, just place your shadow on the location of the hour's hand. Then imagine the location of the 12 o'clock hand, and exactly in the middle of the angle between those two hands is the north.
Be sure to ignore daylight saving time (As the time your hand watch is showing during daylight saving is not the "real" astronomical time), and also don't ignore the minutes (so at 15:20 the hand is a 1/3 of a way further on, between 15 and 16).
I also don't know how it works in the southern hemisphere (It might point directly south? I'm not sure - anyone wants to try it out?).
You can also just use a stick to create the shadow for the hour's hand. But using your own shadow makes for a nice trick.

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unfortunately - in the age of digital, this won't work too well. –  HorusKol Jan 25 '12 at 10:02
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You don't actually need an analog clock. Just the ability to imagine one on the ground around you, and your shadow as the big hand. Maybe even imagining an analog clock is getting harder these days... –  Noam Gal Jan 25 '12 at 12:22
    
don't get it, when I imagine the analog clock, where do the numbers go? –  Michael Durrant Apr 19 '12 at 2:46
    
Put the short clock hand ("hours") right where your shadow is pointing. From this, you can imagine where 12 o'clock is. For example, if now it's 16:30 and you put the short hand on your shadow, the 12 o'clock hand would be 135 degrees to your left. That means the north is 67.5 degrees to your left. –  Noam Gal May 17 '12 at 10:03
    
Carry a clock or carry immagination ;P I carry an analog clock. I point the hour arrow at the sun and know south is approximately to the middle of that and 12o'clock. There are many factors to consider if one is to estimate the accuracy of this method. –  Vorac Jun 1 '12 at 9:03

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