Before a wilderness trip, be sure you understand how to read a map and use a compass. Your map should be the appropriate scale, and display the region’s major features and landmarks. A GPS receiver (global positioning satellite system) can determine your location anywhere on the planet.

In some survival situations, you will not have a map and compass. Fortunately, other methods can determine direction, such as using the sun, stars, trees and plants. These methods will only give you a general direction.

Direction Finding

  • Sun – The sun is the most basic navigational aid. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west wherever you are on Earth (as there is some minor seasonal variation). At midday in the northern hemisphere, the sun is due south.
  • Shadow Stick – Find a level, brush-free spot. Push a 1-metre stick into the ground so it stands upright and vertical. Mark the ground where the tip of the shadow is cast by the stick. When the shadow moves 5 cm (about 15 minutes), mark the tip of the second shadow. Draw a 30 cm line from the first mark through and beyond the second mark. Then stand with your left foot on the first mark and your right foot on the end of the line you drew. In the northern hemisphere, you will be facing directly north.
  • Analogue Watch – You will need a traditional watch with your hands,  and it needs to be set at true local time – hold the watch horizontally or parallel to the ground. Now point the hour hand in the direction of the sun. Bisect the angle between the hour hand, and the 12 mark. This will give a north-south line.
  • Polaris – At night, locate Polaris which is otherwise referred to as the North Star. Search along the Milky Way to find the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper (also known as Ursa Major and Ursa Minor) The star at the end of the Little Dipper handle is Polaris. Although Polaris isn’t the brightest star, it is the brightest in the Little Dipper and ranked as the 45th brightest in the sky!
  • Improvised Compass – Magnetizing a sewing needle by rubbing one end against a magnet or cloth. Place the needle on a piece of paper, bark or leaf. Now very gently place both on the surface of still water.  A bucket, mug or puddle all work well. With any luck they will float and the needle should point north. Re-magnetize needle often.


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