Finding Your Way Without a Compass


When it comes to finding your way in nature understandably the best method is with tools like a GPS system, or a map and compass, or even just a compass. These are the most efficient tools for the job for sure, but what if you don’t have a GPS, a map, or a compass? Luckily nature has more than a few methods of proper navigation. These include using the sun, the stars, and even the local vegetation to guide you through difficult situations without being lost.

Being able to navigate is a skill anyone looking to explore the outdoors should know. These skills are invaluable in an emergency situation, and if you are a prepper it’s this kind of knowledge you should focus on. Think of this as your plan B when plan A (your compass) goes wrong for whatever reason.

Moss and trees

Most people have heard of the old wives tale passed as seasoned outdoors-man advice that moss grows on the north side of a tree. So, if you see moss on a tree you can tell which direction is north. This is somewhat true, but not entirely. In the Northern hemisphere trees receive less light on their north side, which facilitates the growth of moss. So this old wives tale applies to the Northern Hemisphere and the opposite for the Southern Hemisphere.

Another condition concerns the dark and damp nature of certain forests. If a thick canopy blacks out the sun and keeps the forest floor damp then moss can grow around the entirety of a tree. If you are in an area without a thick canopy, and nothing else blocking sun on one side of a tree of the other, then moss growing may indicate a northerly direction. However, this is a method you shouldn’t trust, unless for whatever reason it is the only method you have.

Finding your way without a compass - moss


Sticks and Shadows

There is a very simple and effective method to find your direction using materials easily found in nature. You’ll be using the sun and shadows, combined with a few natural materials to gain your sense of direction. The first step is gathering a nice straight stick, right around three foot long, but it’s not a required exact measurement. The stick needs to be stripped bare, no limbs, leaves, or anything extra on it. You’ll need to start before noon, preferably in the morning for the best results.

Go ahead and find a nice flat, area with a good, open view of the sun. If you have too much shade the technique will not work correctly. Find a nice open field if possible. Now stake the stick into the ground. Make sure it is in the ground nice and solid, you may need to sharpen one end to do so. Back off and examine where the stick’s shadow falls.

Mark the area where the shadow falls with something distinguishable, a rock, two sticks crossed, something man made if possible. Whatever you place needs to be solid, and won’t disappear is the wind blows. The next step is just waiting; wait for 15 – 20 minutes. You’ll notice that the shadow has moved. Mark where the shadow have moved, repeat this process about three times, for a total of about an hour of waiting, watching, and marking.

At the end you should have three or four marks, following a distinct direction. The sun rises in the east and sets over a western arc. The line you marked will have run from east to west, with the first point going west and the last point going east. To determine north place your left foot by the first mark, and then place your right foot at the last point. You are now facing north. Simple enough.

Night Time Navigation

If the sun has gone down what are you to do? You certainly cannot put a stick in the ground and watch a shadow and allow the sun to direct you. If it’s the middle of the night you can rely on a navigational technique used by sailors and navigators for hundreds of years. It involves the use of stars.

Besides being something awe inspiring and beautiful to look at, the night sky can be an amazing way to navigate. The first thing you need to do is find the Big Dipper, also known as Ursa Major.

The Big Dipper isn’t technically a constellation, but is quite easy to spot. The Big Dipper of course looks somewhat like a ladle, and is quite easy to locate. The next step is to find the Little Dipper, this one can be a bit trickier.

Locate the bottom of the Big Dipper, the two stars that are farthest from the handle of the Big Dipper. These two stars are known as the pointed stars because they point to the Little Dipper, and Polaris, aka the North Star.

Ursa Major & Ursa Minor

Original photo by Alex Zalenko

If the North star doesn’t stand out too much for you, if you can locate the Little Dipper you are good to go. At the very end of the handle of the Little Dipper is the North Star. If you are facing the North Star, of course to the rear of you is south. The North Star is true north, so no declination is needed.

When using the North Star for navigation it is not wise to simply stare at the sky while walking. Especially in the wilderness, for one you may get a neck cramp or you could fall into a hole and break your ankle, or stumble down a mountain, or, well you get the idea. Line up with the North Star and pick an object that also aligns with the direction you are trying to move, or close to it.

Walk to this object, then pause, look to the star and make sure you are still moving in your chosen direction. This method is known as dead reckoning, and is very handy to keep your attention on the task at hand, while moving in a particular direction.

Compass free is possible

There is no reason one cannot successfully navigate without a map and compass. These methods may not be the fastest possible ways to navigate and move, but they are effective methods. You can do either without any special equipment, and you can use what nature provides.


About Author

Travis Pike is a veteran Infantry Marine and a lifelong firearms enthusiast. He lives deep in the woods of North Florida, where he can shoot at his leisure. He has been hunting since he was 8 and has always enjoyed the outdoors. Travis is an NRA certified instructor and loves teaching others anything and everything about firearms. He splits time between writing, running a training course, and of course a 9 to 5 job. He is a vocal gun rights activist. When he’s not writing, shooting, or working he is often found sipping craft beer on his porch

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