I’m not the greatest navigator. I learned a long time ago that I have a poor sense of direction. Put it this way…I can become turned around in a culdesac! I CAN read a map, but knowing north from south when walking or navigating is something I’m pretty miserable at. When my GPS on my phone says “head west toward Johnson Street,” I get upset because if I knew which way WEST was I might not need to use the frickin’ GPS!
Anyway…this method uses nothing but a few sticks and as long a the sun is shining you can use it. I can even use it. Ron Hood discuses this technique in one of my favorite survival skills videos that I wrote about on this site: Survival Basics. This method assumes that you’re in the Northern Hemisphere.
Take a straight stick and poke it into the ground so it stands up straight. Find where the shadow falls from the stick and place a medium-sized rock at this point, at the top of the shadow. Let some time go by. You’ll see that the shadow has moved. Place a second rock on the tip of this second shadow.
I did this at home on a recent sunny day. At first I went out there after 15 minutes and you could see that the shadow had moved, but it was not a great change. The movement is a lot more noticeable if you let an hour or so go by, but if you’re in a hurry to do your navigating you can pretty quickly tell which is which. Of course, this has its drawbacks if the weather is not consistently sunny.
I found that the irregularity of the grass made the end of the shadow, where you put the rock, hard to see. But it’s there, as you can see in the photo of my hand.
Obviously, given that we know the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, you’ll know that the line created by the two rocks is the east-west line. Allow some more time to go by for a third point, and mark it with a third rock. The direction in front of the stick is north. If you’re on the move, you can do this a few times throughout the day to ensure that you stay on course.
After I placed four more rocks over the course of an afternoon, a clear east-west line emerged, which you can see in the photo above.
If you’re on the move at night, use the moon and the stars. Many people learned as children that the “Big Dipper” or “Plough” constellation points north. If you find the handle of the Big Dipper and follow it along to the farthest “Edge” stars and follow them on farther up, those point to the North Star, Polaris. This star is helpful because while other stars rotate in the night sky, Polaris stays relatively fixed. The Dipper does rotate around Polaris, but those “saucepan” stars always point to it.
Polaris is also the end star in the handle of the Little Dipper constellation. Of course, it’s helpful to not have too many clouds in the sky to use the stars.
The moon can be helpful but I have a harder time remembering this and if I was in a panicked situation I would worry that I would remember wrong! The moon also rises in the east and sets in the west. The horns of its crescent point to south when a line is drawn from the top point to the bottom point and then extended to the ground.
Also (and this is the part I get mixed up on!), if the moon is rising before the sun sets, the bright side of the moon will always face west. But if the moon doesn’t rise until late in the night, the bright side of the moon will always face east. If you think about it it makes sense, right? The bright part is reflecting the sun’s light, so whichever side is bright tells you east or west.