Navigating with a compass is the most basic way we have today to find our way outdoors, but sometimes we luck out or make a mistake and end up without a compass. We might have forgotten it at home, lost it on the way or find out it is broken, and despite the fact that you should always have a backup compass, you found yourself without one. So what can you do?
Navigating without a compass was obviously a much practiced skill prior to the emergence of modern compasses (the old ones were big and heavy) and we can go back to our ancestors for some basic skills on how to navigate without a compass. So without further ado, lets explore those magical and ancient skills.
The sun is probably the most common tool used to navigate without a compass due to the simplest of facts: the sun always rises in the east, moves south where it peaks at mid day and than sets in the west, always (at least on Earth). This repeating sequence allows us to use the course to find directions and is always available. Despite the common belief that you need actual sunlight, all you really need is daylight as that will always generate a shadow – which is the tool we actually need.
To use the sun (or shade), we need to first understand that shadow behaves differently in the northern hemisphere vs the southern hemisphere. All the examples will be for the northern hemisphere (with a southern version in brackets).
The stick method – creating a sun watch can be a way to find the east-west line: put a straight stick in a relatively flat piece of ground and mark a circle around it. The sun will cast a shadow with the stick – mark the contact point between the stick and the circle. Go and do something for 10-20 minutes (eat, rest, get water, repack) and then come back to the stick. Mark the new contact point between the shadow and circle and then draw a line between the two marks – this line is the west-east line (first mark is on the west).
Using an analog watch – probably the best way to navigate without a compass, though you will need to get a robust analog watch (I need one as well!). If you only have a digital watch, just draw a representation of the watch on a piece of paper. Align the hour arm (the 12:00 marking in the southern hem) towards the sun, or use small stick to make a shadow and align it with the hour arm. Create an imaginary line half way between the hour arm and the 12:00 mark – this line is the north-south line. To find the north just go back to the sun’s course through the sky: prior to 12:00 it is in the east, south at noon and then in the west.
*If using the watch method during daylight savings, add 1 hour to the 12:00 calculation (so use the 1:00 location instead of the 12:00).
Using time – knowing the time can help you find north: at noon the sun is in the south, so facing opposite to it will send you due north. Early in the morning north is a quarter turn left from the sun and during sunset it it a quarter turn right. In the southern hemisphere all these are opposite. This method only gives an estimated direction.
The moon works very much like the sun, rising in the east and setting in the west. All the methods used to find direction using the sun are relevant (though light dependent) to finding direction using the moon.
Navigating using the stars is one of the most ancient ways of navigating – using the various celestial bodies, the star constellations and how they are set in the sky in different seasons. Celestial navigation is really a huge subject (check look here to get a feel), so we will only touch the tip of the iceberg: finding the northern star (Polaris) in the northern hemisphere and using the southern cross to find south in the southern hemisphere.
Northern star (northern hemisphere only)
The easiest way to find the northern star is by using the Big Dipper, Small Dipper and Cassiopeia. Find the “Big Dipper” (Ursa Major), locate the pointing stars (the two stars that make the side of the Dipper opposite of the handle), and estimating five times the distance between the two stars in the direction they point. There you will find the North Star (Polaris), which also the tip of the handle of the Small Dipper (Ursa Manor).
Another way to find the northern star is locating Cassiopeia in its distinctive W shape, drawing an imaginary line between the two stars at the top of the W and than drawing a perpendicular line to it heading away from the center of Cassiopeia.
Southern cross (northern hemisphere only)
Find the Southern Cross and than create a line from the two point stars heading towards the horizon. Imagine a line 5 times the distance between the two pointer stars, and at the end of that line look perpendicularly towards the horizon: this is south.
Other methods to navigate without a compass
High Point – Climbing to a high place and looking for clues such as a body of water you know, civilization, roads etc can help you orientate yourself.
Vegetation – In the Northern Hemisphere, moss on the south side of trees will be thicker and greener because that side often gets more sun. Also, branches tend to be more stretched on the northern side as they get less sun.
Snow melt – snow tends to melt quicker on southern slopes and northern slopes usually hold on to snow longer. This is highly dependable on weather.
When outdoors, not having a compass doesn’t necessarily means being lost, it just means you need to be more aware. Using any of the methods above is not always the most accurate way to navigate and it very much depends on the conditions to get a good result. It is also important to remember that all those methods only point to true north and the right adjustment to a grid north is still needed. Last but very much not least:
When going outdoors, always have a compass with you and make sure you also carry a backup – your well practiced skills.