Ten ways to find true north (without a compass)

Posted on February 06 2017, by Nick Taggart

If you have spent any time in the woods, then you've been lost. Most of the time it's a simple question of pausing, looking at your map, looking around, and reorienting yourself in the right direction. On occasion, it is more complicated than that. You didn't bring a map or compass, or it's getting dark, or you're tired and cold and not as sharp as you normally would be. Which is why you should always, always, bring a compass. You wouldn't go shopping without your wallet. You should never go into the woods without your lensatic compass (or wrist compass). 

But's lets say you do go out without a compass. And you're lost. How do you find true north? Well, my friend, here are ten different ways to save your butt:

    1. Stick shadow: Place a stick in the ground vertically. Mark the tip of the shadow with a small stone. Wait 20 minutes, then mark the tip again with another stone. Draw a line between the two sticks, et voila - that line is East-West. And if you are in the northern hemisphere, South is towards the stick.
    2. North star: Look up. Polaris, the North Star, points true north. It is the last star in the handle of the Little Dipper. If you can't find that, find the Big Dipper, the outer stars of the cup point right to Polaris.
    3. Southern Cross: If you're in the southern hemisphere, find the Southern Cross. Follow and imaginary line, beginning with the long axis towards the horizon for a distance of approximately 5 lengths. From the end of that line, draw a line directly to the horizon. That is South. 
    4. Orion's Belt: Find Orion, and then the three bright stars of its belt. Find the single bright star below the belt that marks its sword. Follow an imaginary line, in the direction of the sword, down to the horizon. That is North.
    5. Stick shadow (more accurate): Place a stick in the ground (in the morning), mark the tip of the shadow with a stone. Measure the length of the shadow. Periodically measure the length of the shadow throughout the day. At some point in the afternoon the shadow will once again be the exact same length - mark the tip of the shadow with another stone. Draw a line between those two stones. That line runs East-West.
    6. Wristwatch: Place a wristwatch horizontally on the ground. Point the hour hand at the sun. Bisect the angle between the hour hand and 12 o'clock. That line runs North-South. (This method is described in the Burnt Point Illustrated Map.)
    7. Estimate noon If you are in the northern hemisphere, the Sun will be due South when it is at its highest point (local noon). Pay attention to the position of the sun in the sky and you should be able to roughly estimate noon, and therefore, find due South.
    8. Moss: In the northern hemisphere, in certain types of forests, moss will tend to grow more on the north side of tree trunks. But be careful, this is far from foolproof.
    9. Night Sticks: Push a stick in the ground, vertically. Do the same with a second stick nearby, so that its tip is slightly higher. Get down and line up the tips of the two sticks. Note the star it points at and follow its movement relative to the sticks. If the star moves: Up you are facing East. Down you are facing West. Right you are facing South. Left you are facing North.
    10. Trees: In the northern hemisphere deciduous trees tend to grow on the south side of hills; evergreens grow on the north side. (Use cautiously, as with moss.)

 

But, the 100%, absolutely, guaranteed best way to find true north? Bring a compass. ;-)

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