Finding Direction Without A Compass

Nature provides you with a variety of ways of finding directions. Even when a map and compass are available, knowing how to interpret the signs of nature become a great help.

Finding direction in the wilderness

There are several methods that you can use to determine direction including the sun, moon, stars, wind, trees and other plants. However, these methods will give you only a general direction, but, in combination with knowledge of the terrain, these methods will let you come up with fairly true direction to help you navigate without a compass. Practice the methods that follow. They will increase your confidence in the wilderness and may make your trip more enjoyable.

Walking direction

Even if you know your walking direction, it’s not an easy task to walk in a straight line. Many theories have been put forward to explain why lost people travel in circles. However, almost every person tends to veer in one direction or another in a consistent way, whether they are lost or not. Irritant forces, such as wind, rain, snow storms, dust storms, or even sunlight can cause a wanderer to deviate from their path. In meeting obstacles on the intended path, keep this influence in mind and deliberately alternate to the right and to the left in passing obstacles.

To be able to follow a straight line between two points without any compass you should use landmarks. It’s elementary practice to find two landmarks ahead and line them up, and to do the same thing looking back. Back marks are just as important as for marks, and in the absence of natural back marks, you can make your own.

Map and compass navigation

Remember! No one should venture for a wilderness trip without a map and a compass. Being able finding direction by map and compass is a required skill for all wilderness travelers.

Using Celestial Navigation To Find Direction

Make sure you learn celestial navigation. It’s vital to help you find your way in the back country in the case that you don’t have a compass. Celestial navigation is the practice of navigation by the sun, stars, moon and planets.

Navigation by the sun

navigation by the sun

The simplest and the most fundamental method for the map and compassless natural navigator is to use the sun. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west – roughly speaking. Note: The exact point along the horizon at which the Sun rises or sets varies throughout the year.

When it reaches its highest point at noon, its direction will be either south (northern hemisphere) or north (southern hemisphere). In winter, the sun is lower in the sky so you will notice shadows are long.

Using a pocket watch

A method of finding north and south commonly used and trusted is by means of a pocket watch. Unfortunately, the apparent simplicity of this method may give a very wrong impression as to its accuracy. Finding a direction with a watch is a rough method of estimation. The pocket watch method can result in up to a 20 degree in error. To get good accuracy you need to have access to a table of the sun’s direction. As a wilderness traveler, you probably don’t carry this information, otherwise you are a devoted natural navigator.

However, there are times and places where finding direction with a watch will be reasonably correct. The most important things to remember when using this method are:

latitude 40 and 60

· Only to be used in latitudes between 40 and 60 degrees north or south of the equator, see the picture to the right. The nearer the Equator you are, the less accurate this method is.

· The most accurate result wills occur at noon on any day.

pocket watch

· Your watch has to be running on accurate local time.

Point the hour hand directly at the sun and then bisect the angle between the hour hand and twelve o’clock. This imaginary line will run north/south. If you are not sure which end of the line is south, remember that the sun rises in the east, sets in the west and is due south at noon for the northern hemisphere.

If you are in the southern hemisphere you instead point the twelve o’clock mark on the watch towards the sun and then bisect the angle between the hour hand and twelve o’clock. Remember, in the southern hemisphere the sun is due north at noon.

Learn celestial navigation, it’s vital knowledge for the map and compassless natural navigator.

Finding north or south by the moon

Except for a few nights every month, the moon can help you finding north or south direction. The moon produces no visible light of its own. It only reflects the suns light, and herefore, it indicates the direction of the sun.

A rough rule of thumb

finding north

An easy rule to remember is this old navigation trick. However, it is not particularly accurate but at least provides you with a rough guide, and in many situations this is good enough. If the moon is in a crescent phase simply draw an imaginary line through the tips of its “horns” down to the horizon. The point where it touches is roughly South for the northern hemisphere and North for the southern hemisphere.

East – West


You can also use the moon to determine a rough east – west direction. If the moon rises before the sun sets, the illuminated side will be facing west. However, if it rises after midnight, the illuminated side will be facing east. Why is it so, you may ask?

The earth is rotating on it axis to give us day and night, and we see this as the sun is moving from east to west in our horizon. The moon, for its part, revolves around the earth and goes through a complete moon phase cycle in about one month. During this month cycle, we see different proportions of the visible moon from our position on earth.

When the moon is positioned between the earth and the sun, the moon appears invisible in the night sky. Then, as it moves away from the earth’s shadow around sunset, it is illuminated by the sun, which is in its western position. After midnight the moon has reached the opposite side of the Earth and becomes visible as it is illuminated by the eastern sunlight.

Find north by finding the North star

Being able finding the North star is a basic celestial navigation skill for all wilderness travelers in the northern hemisphere. Navigation by the stars is an old method that is still useful, assuming the sky is clear. Mariners have used celestial navigation for thousands of years.

North Star

In the northern hemisphere, the location of north can be determined by the North Star. The North Star, also known as the Pole star, is a valuable navigation aid because it’s located almost above polar north. The North star is not a very bright star, but unlike the other stars, it remains at a fixed location in the sky.

finding the North star

In finding the North Star, the Big Dipper (Ursa Major) and Cassiopeia (shaped like a W) are helpful. Neither of these constellations ever sets and they are always visible on a clear night, however, they are not always in the same place. The position of the stars in the sky depends on the time, date and geographical position (latitude and longitude). You probably have noticed how stars appear to move across the sky during the night. The reason for that is due to the Earth’s rotation around its axis. That’s also the reason the sun moves across the sky in the day. That means the picture you see on this page probably does not match the sky you are viewing, but that is an easy fix as you can just rotate the image.

To locate north:

· Find the Big Dipper in the sky. Follow the edge of the cup 5 times its length toward a medium bright star. You have found the North Star, which is virtually north.

· To double check that it’s really the North Star, locate Cassiopeia. The North Star resides halfway between Cassiopeia and the Big Dipper.

Sky maps

Sky maps show the positions of stars in the sky at a certain day, time and the latitude and longitude of your observing location. Stars appear to move across the sky during the night because of the Earth’s rotation around its axis. That’s also the reason the sun moves across the sky in the day. There are many types of sky maps, and it requires a bit of explanation to use it. Are you new to sky maps, read this.

What does the sky look like where you are?

Do you want to find out? First you need to know the latitude and longitude of your location.

Now, when you know your geographical position and how to read a sky map, create a sky map adaptable to your location.

Navigate by the Southern Cross

In the southern hemisphere, the location of south can be determined from the Southern Cross constellation. It is perhaps the easiest constellation to find in the night sky. It can be distinguished from other cross shaped groups by its size, it’s smaller, and its two pointer stars. The brightest star is at the foot of the true cross.

The stars that make up the Southern Cross appears to rotate throughout the night around the South Celestial Pole. However, it is the earth that is rotating and the actual location of the Cross in the sky will depend on the time of the night you observe it. Actually, the Cross will also appear in a different position in the sky depending on the time of the year.

This means the sky map picture on this page is only valid for a specific time, date and position (latitude, longitude). In order to match what you actually see in the night sky, you have to rotate it. To find the right sky map on your location, see the information at the page Finding the North Star.

To locate south:

· Locate the two bright pointer stars and the Cross constellation. There are actually 5 stars in the constellation visible with the naked eye, the four stars that make up the cross and a smaller star, in between the bottom star and the right star.

· Project an imaginary line through the long axis of the cross. Begin with the star that marks the top of the cross.

· Draw a perpendicular bisector between the two pointer stars, which is a line starting at the midpoint between the two stars and coming out at right angles. This line should cross the imaginary line through the long axis of the cross. The intersection of these two lines is close to the South Pole.

· Place a marking arrow on the ground to enable you to remember the position by day.

Navigation by wind

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.


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.

Wilderness navigation using natural features

Plants and trees can be of great help in wilderness navigation.

Navigating by trees and plants

navigating by plants

In northern temperate climates, there is a marked tendency for the flowers of plants to face the sunny side, south or east.

Trees affected by the prevailing wind can be of help to the natural navigator. However, trees are affected by many factors and confirm your findings by observing several trees in the same neighborhood. 

navigating by trees

A couple of pointers that can be useful in using trees for finding direction are:

In the northern hemisphere and on the side facing south (in the southern hemisphere it’s the side facing north):

· there is probably more foliage.

· tree branches are probably stronger and longer, provided that the tree is growing freely.

Navigating by moss

The old saying that moss grows on the north side in the northern hemisphere is only partially accurate. Moss and lichens do not necessarily thrive where they receive the most shade, but, and this is important, where the moisture is retained the longest. Humidity is an even greater factor than shade.

Each locality has its difference in climate, and you should determine for yourself which side retains moisture the longest in your particular area. Only in this way can mosses and lichens be a valuable guide to direction.

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