Prevailing winds

Prevailing winds leave the biggest impression and directional effects on vegetation, snow, sand and other objects on the surface of the earth. Different areas around the world, practically without exception, have a prevailing wind from a particular direction that dominates at some seasons, and often at all seasons. As a wilderness traveler, you should know how to interpret those effects on nature to help you find your direction. Nature navigation relies on your skills of observation.


Prevailing winds In areas with strong winds, you may be able to observe how trees have been influenced to lean in a particular direction. By this observation, you can tell from which direction the local prevailing wind blows. If the trees are leaning north, you will probably find a southerly prevailing direction. The direction is measured in terms of where the air is coming from. A southerly direction means it blows from south to north.

Another effect you will often find on trees in areas with extremely strong prevailing winds, such as the tops of mountains, is a greater growth of branches and leaves on the sheltered side. These lopsided trees with branches extending from only one side are sometimes called "flag trees", because they resemble a flag fully extended from its pole by the wind.

Sand and snow


The Polar Regions have much in common with hot sand deserts. Cold snow behaves physically in many ways similar to sand. In sandy deserts, the wind piles sand into strange and wonderful hills and ridges called dunes. Size, shape, and orientation of dunes are determined by available sand, vegetation, and the strength and prevailing direction of the wind.

Don't confuse dunes with ripples. The ripples of sand, or in Polar Regions, the ripples of snow, indicate the wind direction. However, these ripples are very small and never more than a few inches (centimeters) high. They are not valuable as an indication of the prevailing wind direction, because they can be formed very quickly by any substantial local wind.


Some regions have a more fluctuating pattern of air movement than others, and it's important that you are aware of those conditions.

If you live near the coast, you may be familiar with the sea breeze. In the afternoon, there often is a steady wind blowing in from the water. This is because the land masses are heated by the sun more quickly than the sea in the daytime. The warm air rises, flows out to the sea, and creates a low air pressure at the ground level which attracts the cool air from the sea. At night, the air often reverses direction and blows from the land to the water.

Warm or cold air

As a compassless natural navigator, you can also use certain simple principles in identifying the direction. In the northern hemisphere, air from north will be generally colder than from south. The reverse applies for the southern hemisphere.

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prevailing wind direction