How to Use a Watch as a Compass

Using Your Watch as a Compass

If you’re in the northern hemisphere, hold your wristwatch horizontally and point the hour hand directly towards the sun. The middle point between the hour hand and the twelve o’clock marker is true south. If you’re in the southern hemisphere, hold the twelve o’clock marker towards the sun instead. True north should be at the midpoint between the twelve o’clock marker and the hour hand.

Brian Connelly
Last Updated: October 28, 2020

Want to know how to use your watch as a compass?

You’re in the right place! In this guide, we will be covering the following:

    • How to use an analog watch to find the direction
    • How to determine your direction in the Northern Hemisphere and the Southern Hemisphere
    • How to compensate for Daylight Savings Time

Nowadays, many of us have GPS watches that can tell us the number of steps we’ve taken, our altitude, which direction we should be headed, and even predict the weather that might be coming our way…

…but all this can lead to a false sense of security. What if your battery dies or there’s a technical malfunction? If you didn’t have a backup map and compass handy, would you be able to navigate to where you need to go?

Of course, there are plenty of other ways to navigate without a map and compass, but one of the most convenient, if not one of the more accurate options, is to use your old-school, analog wristwatch as a compass.

In this article, we’ll show you how it’s done with a simple, straight-talking guide on how to use a watch as a compass.

Sound good? Then let’s begin!

Here’s what you need:

  • An analog watch
  • A clear view of the sun

What if You Don’t Have an Analog Watch?

If you have a digital timepiece or only have your phone to tell the time, don’t worry. You can still use this technique by taking just a few extra steps.

Simply fashion an improvised clock/watch face by using sticks on the ground or by using a pen and paper. Or, if you’re good at visualization, you can skip the sticks and do it all in your head.

Navigating in the Northern Hemisphere

  1. Take off your watch and hold it parallel to the ground. Make sure that the 12 o’clock marker points to your left.
  2. Next, rotate your watch until the hour hand is pointing in the direction of the sun.
  3. Find True South by finding the midpoint between the hour hand and the 12 o’clock marker. In the morning, go clockwise from the hour hand to the 12 o’clock marker. In the afternoon, go counterclockwise from the hour hand to the 12 o’clock marker. 
  4. True North should then be on the exact opposite side of the angle you have calculated, thus giving you a rough north-south line and a reference for the other cardinal (E, W) and intercardinal (NE, NW, SE, SW) points.

Warning: If you are in daylight saving time, follow the entire procedure as described but use the 1 o’clock marker rather than the 12 o’clock mark.

Navigating in the Southern Hemisphere

  1. Hold your watch horizontally.
  2. Rather than pointing the hour hand towards the sun, point the 12 o’clock marker instead. Doing this will account for the difference in the sun’s orientation between the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. For daylight savings time, use the 1 o’clock mark as your reference.
  3. True North is the midpoint between the the hour hand and the 12 o’clock marker. True South is directly opposite.

ProTip: If lining up with the sun proves to be difficult, push a stick into the ground where it can cast a visibly clear shadow. You can then use the shadow as your point of reference instead of the sun.

No Compass, No Problem!

So there you have it…you can now navigate using an old-school analog watch as a compass and have another cool skill to show off to your friends! 

Back up plans are important. Particularly in the backcountry, where you are almost entirely reliant on your own skills and abilities. As such, you should always have a Plan B for navigation, you lose or break your compass or GPS somewhere along the way. By learning the above skill, you’ll be ready to roll even when your technology fails you, meaning that losing your Plan A will never give rise to the predicament/sticky situation/s**tshow it might have done otherwise.

What did you think of our article on using a watch as a compass? Is there anything we missed? If so, or if you’d like to let us know how your first tries at navigating with a watch go, drop a comment in the box below! 

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