A college buddy took his uncle deer hunting in northern Minnesota. Hardly the outdoorsman, the uncle was given a compass and told that he would be hunting immediately south of the cabin and that if he got lost, “just follow the needle back home.” He took that literally because upon becoming lost that afternoon he remembered his nephew’s advice and followed the needle back to camp. Fortunately, he was due south of the cabin, but to this day he is convinced that the needle on a compass will always point back to your point of origin. Oh, if it were that simple!
Sometimes we don’t even have the luxury of a compass and must rely on other methods to find a north-south line of orientation. The simplest means is to use the sun itself. Rising in the east, setting in the west, the sun’s path during the day is a good indicator of direction. If you can measure the movement of the sun, you can create an east-west line.
Gauge Sun’s Movement
There are two basic methods for gauging the sun’s movement. One is a stick stuck into the ground so that it casts a distinct shadow. Mark the end of the shadow and wait a few minutes. The shadow will move. Mark that movement and draw a line between the two marks. That is your E-W line.
Using your watch to create a north-south line is also simple. Use a level surface; lay out the watch face up. Stand a stick upright at the outer edge of the watch face so its shadow falls down along the hour hand of the watch and across the center of the watch face. Now imagine a line halfway between this shadow and 12 o’clock. That is your N-S line; south in the direction towards the stick; North is the direction away from the stick and shadow. Even without an analog watch (minute and hour hands) you can draw a watch face onto the ground and if you know what time it is via a digital watch, you can proceed with this imaginary watch face to get the same results.
At night there is the North Star found by following the outside edge of the cup on the Big Dipper to the tail of the Little Dipper, which is where, the North Star is located. The North Star is also half way between the Big Dipper and The “W” shaped constellation, Cassiopeia.
Check Moss, Trees For Clues
Sometimes there is no light source in the sky. An overcast day can be very perplexing if you are lost or “temporarily disoriented.” Sure moss grows on the south side of a tree. It grows on the north, east and west sides, too. Perhaps it may be greener and thicker on the south side so take note. Some plants follow the sun across the sky so if the overcast is recent, some of these plants (sunflower family) may still be revealing. One can also check a felled tree, because growth is greater on the south side of the trunk so check for wider growth rings on the stump.
Early snow in the fall and late thaw in spring can also reveal the north slopes of higher mountains.
I was disoriented in a northern Minnesota spruce swamp one summer on a dark, gloomy day. My only recourse was to climb a tree big enough to hold my weight as I climbed up beyond the thick of the canopy. From that lofty perch I was able to see a distant natural landmark and figure out where I was. A compass would have been so much easier!
The next time you are in the field, see if you can determine your directions with the help of these tips. You never know when you might need to put them to practice for real.
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