How to Tell Direction Without a Compass

Losing your way while hiking in unfamiliar terrain is no joke. And yet, every year, it’s something that happens to thousands of hikers while out on their wanders in the wilderness and even in more established hiking areas. 

One of the main factors contributing to this figure is a lack of navigational equipment. Compasses get lost, batteries in GPS devices die, and maps can get drenched to the point of unreadability. 

That’s why it is important that all of us should know how to find the direction even without the use of a compass or other equipment. Plus, it’s a mighty cool skill to show off to your friends!

If you found yourself in such a situation, how would you find your way? How would you know which way is north? Would you be able to navigate to safety?

In this article, we will show you how it’s done with a simple guide on how to navigate without a compass.

# 1 Using a Wristwatch

If you are lost in the middle of nowhere with an analog wristwatch, then it looks like your luck hasn’t fully run out. This is because you can actually use your watch as a compass.

Find a location that gives you a clear view of the sun. If you’re in the Northern Hemisphere, take your wristwatch off and hold it flat with the twelve o’clock marker facing left. 

Rotate until the hour hand is pointing directly towards the sun. Approximately in the middle of the hour hand and the twelve o’clock marker should be true south.

Easy, right? But there’s a caveat.

The process for finding north is different depending on the time of the day. In the morning, you need to go clockwise from the hour hand to the twelve o’clock marker. In the afternoon, you must go counterclockwise.

If you’re in the Southern Hemisphere, the process is essentially flipped on its head. Here, you also need to find a clear view of the sun. Then, take off your watch and hold it flat in front of you. Now, instead of the hour hand, point the twelve o’clock marker towards the sun. True North should be approximately at the midpoint between the twelve o’clock marker and the hour hand.

# 2 Using Stars to Navigate

The stars are humankind’s oldest navigational tools. And one of the most trustworthy, too…

This section offers a quick introduction to some basic methods of navigating by using the stars, your eyesight, and a handful of sticks.

Locating the Big Dipper

The key to navigating at night if you are in the Northern Hemisphere is to find Polaris—aka the ‘North Star’.

The North Star is a vital navigational marker as it lines up very close to the rotational axis of the Earth, is easily identifiable in the night sky, and provides a stable, reliable north bearing. The bottom line? If you are in the Northern Hemisphere, you are facing North if you are facing toward Polaris.

However, finding the North Star can be tricky. Here’s how it’s done:

Polaris is the last star in the tail of the Ursa Minor (also known as the Big Dipper) constellation.

The Big Dipper looks exactly as its name suggests: a trio of stars form the handle while four stars in an irregular square pattern form the bowl.

To help you find the constellation, here are a few pointers:

  • The last two stars of its “handle” are named Dubhe and Merak. These two are known as the ‘pointers.’ The third star, the one closest to the bowl, is called Alioth.
  • The star at the tip of the handle is known as Alkaid and is the third brightest star in the constellation.
  • The star that connects the handle to the bowl is known as Megrez and is the dimmest star in the constellation.

After finding the Big Dipper, you can then proceed to locate the North Star by tracing a line almost directly upwards from the stars at the front of the dipper (Dubhe and Merak).

Tell Your Direction with Sticks

If you can’t find the North Star, don’t worry, there’s still one other way you can navigate using the stars. This time, you’ll need the assistance of a few sticks or other, similar objects like tent or trekking poles.

Here’s how it’s done:

Push a stick approximately two feet long into the ground so that it stands upright. Make sure that the stick is as straight as possible. Once it is secured in the ground, position yourself behind it so that the tip is at your eye level.

Next, push a taller stick into the ground roughly a yard behind the first. While sitting or crouched, line up the tips of both sticks to a bright star in the sky. You may need to adjust the sticks accordingly so that they line up with the stars correctly.

Now, wait for the star to reposition itself in the night sky as Earth moves. You need to be patient as it may take up to half an hour before you notice any change in position.

The way the star “moves” will be the key to help you find the direction:

  • If the star moves up, you are facing East
  • If the star moves down, you are facing West
  • If the star moves right, you are facing South
  • If the star moves left, you are facing North

ProTip: If the star moves in two directions, you are facing towards an ordinal direction, e.g. Southeast if the star moves to the upper right.

# 3 Using Signs in Nature e.g. Moss, Snowmelt, Ripening fruit, etc.

While most natural navigational aids can be found in the heavens, a handful of features on the ground can also provide us with a lot of information regarding directions.

Here are three methods with which you can determine direction using nature:

Trees Grow Towards the Sun

In the northern parts of the Earth, the sun spends most of its time in the southern part of the sky. Because trees, like all plants, are nourished by the sun, the south side of a tree tends to be lusher and denser compared to its north side.

Just make sure to observe all sides before you make conclusions as other factors affect a tree’s growth as well.

Moss Thrives Damp Conditions

Moss is also a good, though slightly less reliable, indicator of direction. Working on the same principle as above, observing the location of moss on a tree or rock can give us a rough read on the cardinal directions. 

Because the northern side of a tree catches less sunlight compared to the south side, it provides the more humid or damp conditions in which moss loves to grow. Therefore, in the northern hemisphere, moss mostly proliferates on the northern side where there is less sunlight.

However, always take extra care when using this method as some trees have bark that holds more moisture and will have moss regardless of direction.

The Direction of the Prevailing Wind

For this method to work, you need to be familiar with the prevailing wind in the area in which you are hiking.

In the UK, for example, the prevailing wind blows from the south-west. As such, a single exposed tree in a windy location may physically be leaning towards the north-east.

This method isn’t as effective when applied in a forest or woodland, because here the trees are likely to shield each other from the prevailing wind.

# 4 Track the Sun’s Path with Sticks

If it’s daytime, you can easily determine the directions by observing the sun’s movement across the sky using a single stick. This is based on the fact that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west.

Here’s how it’s done:

First, you need to find a stick and plant it upright in fairly level ground with minimal vegetation or objects that might distort a shadow. The stick should be at least two feet long and should be as straight as possible.

Next, mark the tip of the shadow using a stone or any object that won’t blow away in the wind. After 10 or 15 minutes, you can then proceed to mark the new spot where the stick’s shadow falls. You can then make a line between the two marks: this is the approximate east-west line. The first marker represents west; the second mark represents the east.

# 5 Improvise a Compass

If you have enough materials, you can even make a crude, makeshift compass out in the wild.

There are two options which you choose from:

Option 1: This option will work if you have a magnet with you while in the backcountry. If you have a magnet, the only thing you need to source is a needle. If you don’t have your sewing kit along for the hike, then a bit of wire will do the trick.

Simply rub the point of your needle against the magnet 10-12 times to magnetize it. Rub against the north pole of the magnet if the magnet is labeled and then tap the eye of the needle against the magnet’s south pole. 

Next, take a leaf or anything that floats and secure the needle or the wire on the leaf. Lastly, place your makeshift magnet in still water and leave it to turn. After a few seconds, the needle tip should be pointing roughly north. 

Option 2: If you have no magnet, then you can use silk or wool from your clothing or a steel or iron object to magnetize the needle. Just rub or tap your needle or wire against your clothing or the steel object around fifty times and it should be good to go.

Finally, place your needle on a leaf in water using the same method described in Option 1.

Navigator Skills = Survivor Skills!

Knowing how to navigate without relying on a compass is a backcountry skill that every outdoor enthusiast should learn. It falls into that broad category of things you don’t really need to know until you really, really need to know! 

Our advice? Take a little bit of time, use the tips provided above, and put in a little practice to ensure you’re ready to roll compass-free if and when need be.

Did you enjoy reading our article? If you have any comments on this article or think we missed something out, please feel free to share your thoughts with us in the comments box below.

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