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How can you navigate without a compass or GPS

Obviously we all carry a compass and a map when we go trekking, but if I lose them but know I need to get back to my car two days walk away on a heading of 235 degrees.

Are there techniques which are accurate enough to help me get close enough to my destination I can start to look for landmarks that I can also use in the wild with easy to find material?


1 Answer 1


You cannot effectively navigate a bearing without a compass. However if you loose your compass, break it, or otherwise forget it, all is not lost.

You will need several items to fix this situation.

  • Some conductive wire - at least 6 inches of it
  • A harder metal object like a pin, needle, or small nail.
  • Something small that floats in liquid.
  • A container that can hold 4 - 6 ounces of liquid
  • A battery (try your watch or headlamp).

Steps to success

  1. Get out the wire and wrap around the pin/needle, leave extra at the end so they can touch.
    • Wrap the wire like a corkscrew around the object.
  2. Get out the battery and connect one end of the wire to the positive, and the other to the negative.
  3. Keep it there until it becomes hot (this wont be long), remove before the wire burns, repeat 8 - 10 times.
    • The pin/ needle should now be magnetized slightly.
  4. Place the liquid in the vessle, and then place the floating material in the vessel.
  5. Place the pin on the floating material, and protect from the wind.

    • The Pin will orient to North-South.
  6. Mark the ground where the pin is aligned, then create the 90 deg, and 270 deg, marks.

  7. Continue to make intermediate marks on the ground until you are close to the "235" bearing.
  8. Then sight down the ground marks and find a "handrail" or "landmark" in the landscape.
  9. Hike to the "handrail" or "landmark" and then repeat this process until you reach your vehicle.

Next time bring a compass, and a backup

An alternate method for avoiding this situation is to navigate using "handrails" to begin with. "Handrails" are landscape features which the navigator uses as points of reference along the route, and can be used for backtracking. Best practice is to make notes on the map of these features so that they can be used to return to the origin of the trip. When canyoneering "handrails" are sometimes the only effective means of navigation as line of sight is only a few hundred meters.

More information

  • I'd rather carry a spare compass if I was that worried about breaking/misplacing my first. Fits easy into a pocket, stanleylondon.com/… Commented Sep 21, 2013 at 16:16

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