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Is there any reliable method from nature to find north without the stars, sun, or compass?

I have read a little bit on this subject, and a lot of it seems to be controversial.

Let's say I am lost in the woods. It's night-time and cloudy, and it is about to rain. I know camp is north of my position, based on my map. And I need to reach it before the rainstorm hits. But I don't know which direction to go, because I don't know where north is!

Now there are a lot of ways I could go about this:

  • Some say that moss grows most frequently on the north side of trees. However the logic doesn't seem to always work. What if the tree is isolated, or leaning to one side? etc...
  • Some say that in the northern hemisphere, the branches on the south-facing side of the tree will be fuller, while branches on the north-facing side will be thinner and grow upwards
  • Some say the bark on the north side of a tree is darker
  • Cook pines (Araucaria columnaris) supposedly point toward the equator

I could go on and on, but is any of this reliable? Do these methods consistently work?

Now of course, this is all theoretical, you should always carry a compass with you, as well as a map. But I am genuinely curious. How would I use nature to find north?

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    This is discussed over at Earth Sciences SE. My answer there draws heavily on the book Finding Your Way Without Map and Compass by Harold Gatty (old, but highly recommended), and the other answers and comments deal with some of the proposed solutions. If ever there was a cross-site duplicate this is it
    – Chris H
    Commented Apr 19 at 5:34
  • Adding an unrestrained "second" for "Finding Your Way..." by Gatty.
    – Jeff W
    Commented Apr 21 at 21:57
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    Once there are answers you should not edit in such way that the answers lose validity, so editing out getting back to your campsite is not acceptable in this case.
    – Willeke
    Commented May 4 at 5:08
  • @Willike My mistake, I would give a lot to re-ask this question though
    – Arrow
    Commented May 5 at 0:09
  • The answers do cover your edited question although they have big parts about getting back to a small area, no need to ask again. And an other question about navigation without a compass is likely to be closed as a duplicate of this question.
    – Willeke
    Commented May 5 at 6:19

6 Answers 6

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Your question was the subject of a three parts (I think one hour each) series on the BBC quite a few years ago.
They scratched the surface of each method and their overriding conclusion was that if educated to their level you would be able to find your way out of a city park, maybe make the right decision when encountering a road running in a straight line and needing to follow it in one direction. If having to do it without sun, stars and compass.

But it would not be enough to pinpoint a campsite, even a fair sized town would not be guaranteed.

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  • All Roads Lead Home? only clips available officially at the moment by the look of things (and it's from 2011)
    – Chris H
    Commented Apr 19 at 9:56
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    @ChrisH, likely. It sounds about right. (I am not even sure whether I have seen it new or as a rerun a few years later.)
    – Willeke
    Commented Apr 19 at 10:03
  • One method which works in an area I walk quite a bit trees are quite shaped by the western winds, but mostly in exposed locations, again only giving an indication of direction but often not available.
    – Willeke
    Commented May 5 at 19:03
  • that's something I try to look out for, especially after writing the answer based on Gatty's book, that I linked under the question. It's a really interesting effect
    – Chris H
    Commented May 5 at 20:21
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Even if you knew where north is exactly, that wouldn't give you the exact position of the camp.

Arguably that would still give you a chance of finding it, but a lot of things could go wrong:

  • Walking in a straight line in the woods at night is very hard
  • walking directly towards a direction without seeing a point of reference is very hard, especially at night
  • a couple of degrees off could result in enough drift that you would easily miss the camp
  • even assuming you have a rough idea of where you are, estimating the distance you're covering in a dense forest at night is, again, very hard

At this point, in many situations, time and energy would be better spent making yourself as confortable as possible to weather the storm around where you are, waiting for the morning, and resuming in the daylight.

Note: I realize that's not really answering the question, but rather answering the hypothetical.

A more likely scenario is that, instead of a camp, you know that there is a road somewhere north of your position, running roughly east-west. In that case, you know that you only need to hit the road at any point, and so accuracy is less critical.

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The question seems to be asking whether there is some sort of globally applicable, precise, and highly reliable method for direction finding without compass, sun, or stars. The answer is no, because that's asking way too much. However, if you have the right kind of local knowledge, you can often do quite well with this kind of thing. For example, in the San Gabriel Mountains of California, there are often very clear tiger stripes on the landscape, where the south-facing side of a ridge is sun-blasted and has only chaparral or coastal sage scrub, while the north-facing side has trees and lush vegetation. As another random example, if you're on the eastern slopes of the Rockies, then downhill is generally going to be east.

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  • Welcome to the great outdoors stack exchange! I appreciate your answer, I am looking for more examples of nature finding north. This is a good example!
    – Arrow
    Commented Apr 26 at 1:41
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Failing having a piece of technology (GPS, compass, etc.) there are no reliable methods outside of a view of the stars/sky. You can fashion a compass out of a magnetized needle floated on a cup of water (takes some practice to get it floating), so I'd include that in the technology category.

There's no one answer that applies in all situations. Methods that might work in the Northern hemisphere generally won't work in the Southern hemisphere. Even those that supposedly work in the Northern, such as moss growing on the north side of trees will only work where there are trees and the right conditions. This excludes vast swathes of Arctic country, as well as tundra, grassland plains, forests near the equator, deserts; pretty much anywhere except boreal forests.

Even the moss thing is patchy and not a reliable way of finding north in any sense that's good for navigation, other than as a general indicator - it's more of an indicator that north is somewhere within "that direction" of roughly 180 degrees, and in many boreal forests finding which side has more moss/lichen is pretty subjective too.

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  • Nothern vs. Southern hemispheres is generally easily solved by substituting "polewards" for North - for methods that work.
    – Chris H
    Commented Apr 19 at 5:36
  • @ChrisH I'm well aware of that. However, I've spent plenty of time in boreal forests in the southern hemisphere and never seen moss growing particularly on one side of the tree. Also, finding the southern celestial pole is much more difficult than finding the northern celestial pole - there's no pole star in the south, it's a gap between a group of stars.
    – bob1
    Commented Apr 19 at 6:32
  • Good point about the lack of a south pole star. That's the exception, because the moss thing is pretty bad in the north too (see the other discussion at the link I posted in the comments)
    – Chris H
    Commented Apr 19 at 6:33
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You have a plan for this scenario each time you go out.

There isn't a general way. You will need to look around and use what you know of the area.

In your scenario, it is dark and cloudy and you want to get back to camp. So hopefully, you remember the direction that you were walking and you can backtrack. But you should also have looked at a map (hopefully) and given yourself some features that will tell you where you are. Roads, rivers, swamps, etc. Something that you can't miss and will orient you.

You make a best guess as to your direction and go that way looking for things that are familiar that with that will guide you back. Is your camp on a river and are you generally up or downstream of it currently? Which directions have roads? Before leaving camp, you should have given yourself some major features that will help you get back if you end up in your scenario.

If you are using a road, you may choose to go the wrong way on it so what indicators can you use to determine it? An intersection, a river something.

Worse comes to worse, you are building a shelter and spending a night out and with the sun rise you know which way is east.

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How do you know the camp is due north of your position, based on your map? Let's say it's something like "I am at the cove with two islands in it, I can see the islands from here, so I must be [taps map] here, and the camp is there, so that's north."

OK, well forget north and south. Use the map to work out what map-landmark you need to walk towards, away from, or whatnot. Establish that you need to walk uphill, or towards the hill on the horizon, or something. Depending on how far away it is, you will need to re-calibrate yourself after a while, but this imaginary map in this imaginary situation can supposedly support that. Walk in what you think is camp direction for a while until you reach something that is on your map, and then re-establish what "camp direction" is. Not north or west, but left or right, uphill or downhill, "towards that tree" kind of direction.

There is no need to go from a direction-line on your map between "the cove with two islands" and "my camp", convert that into some sort of compass bearing, then ask your surroundings to offer up compass bearing. You have the information you need without considering north and south.

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  • The question was not worded correctly. But this is a scenario and is only an illustration. I want to find ways in nature that point out directions (as I said: "How would I use nature to find north?") The question format is merely theoretical.
    – Arrow
    Commented May 3 at 16:02
  • Yeah, but why? Literally whatever might make you want to know where north is can serve your purposes in another way. Knowing north is only a stepping stone to what you actually want to know, which is what way to go, and you can figure out which way to go without knowing north, even when all you have is a map! Commented May 3 at 16:04
  • Because why not? I am curious how to use nature to find directions, not to directly apply it real life. This is how scientists make discovery's, by making up theoretical questions.
    – Arrow
    Commented May 3 at 16:07
  • @Arrow, alas for you, Stack Exchange does not want theoretical questions and is based on real life situations.
    – Willeke
    Commented May 4 at 5:11
  • @Willeke Hmm... This could probably pass as a real life scenario. I mean, it could happen that one would need to use such tips from nature to make a critical decision.
    – Arrow
    Commented May 5 at 0:08

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