Finding Your way Without a Compass

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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13 Responses to “Finding Your way Without a Compass”

  1. Robert Beals

    One compass is good, two are better. Having a compass and topo map can locate one quickly if you have confidence in your skills and equipment. That is where the second compass comes in. If you lose confidence in your compass you can become quickly confused, a “second opinion” can help clarify the issue.

    • Tom Watson

      A topi map does you no good if you don’t know where you are on it. Having landmarks to cross-reference is the key to using a map…with that, having 20 compasses won’t do you any good. Shooting a bearing to two landmarks and knowing where those lines intersect on your topo…and then establishing a bearing for travel.

  2. Jim TenEyck

    Climb a tree to find a landmark?…………..really? You must be a little “squirrely” to be climbing a tree high enough to see a distant landmark. You may not need to worry about being lost doing that……the searchers will find your body at the bottom of the tree. Always carry 2 compasses & a topo map…..learn how to use them……..and always trust your compass……unless there is metal in the area, then you need know that ahead of time. As always…….the devil is in the details…’s YOUR life.

    • Tom Watson

      Well, if you are in a flat, featureless northern spruce forest where all the trees are the same height, and you are able to climb a tree, you just might sight a road or lake, etc. I’ve done this and was able to orient myself. One needs to assess the area and judge one’s own ability. Climbing a tree was not a risky option in this case. If you are uncomfortable or unable to climb a tree safely, then it would be prudent not to. A person’s got to know their limitations.

  3. John M.

    You don’t have to take off your analog watch if the sun is out. Hold your hand out palm down and point the hour hand toward the sun. Half way between the hour hand and 12 will be South. Have done it for years, just before I verify it by checking the compass.

    • tom watson

      I agree, one needs to understand the principle behind some of these outdoor skill tips and can then modify the process for the same result. It doesn’t take long to align the 12 and the hour hand as you say — no need to do the whole line and shadow thing on the ground. Knowing “why” you are doing something helps you become more self-reliant. Good post, thanks.

  4. Windy Wilson

    About misconceptions about compasses and North.
    I met a woman who said she had trouble with using maps because to her “North” was that spot on the map or something. I didn’t want to interrogate her too closely, we were at a social event and I was suppressing the lawyerisms. :)

  5. Paul McCourt

    In later years. After accumulating knowledge of the Outdoors from experience, I don’t think I canever trust Compasses any more, because they are Magnetic, and North seem to vary, depending where you are, and the Magnetic variances depending where you are. However, i DO have one on hand should the need arise.
    Mostly, I calibrate my Built- In Compass by checking on the position of the Stars each night, especially The Southern Cross and The Pointers, Alpha and Bata Centauri. Looking at known Landmarks is also very handy, or Anything that could be a useful Landmark to you if you’re in a strange place. A Tree. A Hill or Cliff, River, Rock, Whatever. IF it catches your eye. Get a Photo of it if you have to. As long as you can Remeber it, it may serve to Guide you.
    I also check on the Sun’s Movement and height above the Horizon. Height is to do with the time of year. It’s Movement to do with the Time of Day.
    One little Trick I learned was, when the Sun starts to get a bit low in the sky, is, put your fingers together, as if you’re going to shade your eyes from the glare, and work out how long till Sunset by how many Hands between the Sun and the Horizon. To simplify, if it is One Hand, or Four Fingers, from the Horizon, you have approximately 1-Hour till Sunset. Each Finger Width is, approximately 15-Minutes.
    Try it! It works!
    REMEMBER!! WHENEVER You go Bush, or Walkabout, BEEP REPAIRED!! DON’T go anywhere Alone! ALWAYS tell people where you’re going! MAKE SURE you have Water and all the Essentials you will need to have with you. Knife, Gun, Compass (even if it doesn’t work) Fire Starter/s, Smart Phone and Solar Charger, Hat, PACK, and ANYTHING ELSE You can think of. Even if its just for a Day Trip.

    • george doby

      used the fingers for time for many many years. it is a little less than 4 fingers =hour in winter and a little more then 4 fingers in summer but with a little practice its easy

  6. Richard Schweiter

    Using a wristwatch to find your direction ONLY works if you have an ANALOG watch. Most folks now use a digital watch, which will not work.


      THIS is precisely why knowing the concept behind the skill comes in handy. If you have a digital watch, you have the time, right? You can draw the face of an analog clock with the correct time and orient that hour hand to the sun to learn the direction using the watch/clock method after all. THAT’s the point of this technique and that’s why knowing WHY you are doing something is important. The time reference is merely to associate the sun’s position with direction, so the digital watch gives you the key information, you just need to think through how to convert the information you have to the information you need.

  7. W C Lane

    I have used the watch method many times. I have not ever had a compass let me down. I was a combat medic with the 82nd Airborne and we spent many, many hours practicing orienteering and learning to survive in friendly and hostile environments. If you can have a topo map of the area with you and its hilly you will do well to learn to orient yourself by landmarks ( ridges, valleys, draws etc) it is a very valuable skill to practice and master.

  8. tom watson

    All these suggestions below mean well, unfortunately not all of them appear to know what “well” means. Circumstances and other special conditions all contribute to how you might determine directions or react to a situation…it’s not all or nothing. Better to have multiple options and skill sets and know WHY you are doing something than to have some hard set, and sometimes ‘drama queen’ approach to your self-reliance preferences.