Friday, September 27, 2013

Finding North Without a Compass

     Directions.  They are important.  They are how we find our way around.  Whether it we're using maps, a list of landmarks our friend gave us, or GPS, directions tell us where to go.  When it comes to survival, directions become even more important.  Directions help us navigate paths, roads, and the wilderness, and can be the difference between finding our way home, or spending the night, or longer, lost in the wilderness.
     Many people take directions for granted, and don't even know how to read a compass.  For those that can, often times they feel safe enough in their skill, that they never think to learn beyond that.  At least until its too late, and they find themselves somewhere in the middle of the wilderness, and they realize that they left the compass back at the campsite.

Find the North Star
     In the Northern Hemisphere, pretty much everyone knows the Big Dipper. The Big Dipper is your key to finding North. This is because the Big Dipper makes it easy to find Polaris, aka the North Star.

     Find the Big Dipper in the sky. There are the stars of the handle of the dipper, and the cup of the dipper. What you want is the stars at the far end of the cup (the side of the dipper not attached to the handle). Take these two stars and draw a line from the bottom star to the top star, and then keep going. This line will take you directly to Polaris.

     You can double check that you have the right star, because Polaris makes the end of the handle of the little dipper. You can also check by making a horizontal line out from the star to the constellation of Cassiopeia (it looks like a sideways W). If the line from your star connects to the center star of Cassiopeia then you have the right star.

     Once you have found Polaris, you have found North. Simply draw a straight line down to the horizon, and follow a landmark that is in the correct direction, or simply stay in line with Polaris itself.

Find the Southern Cross
     The Southern Cross constellation is formed by five stars The four brightest stars form a cross that is angled to one side. The two stars that make up the long axis of the cross points to the point of the sky above the South Pole.

     Follow the line for a length approximately five times the length of the Southern Cross's long axis. The go straight down towards the ground to get an idea of where South is. A landmark on the ground along this line will help you keep your bearing while you are moving.

Find Orion
     Orion is a permenent constellation at the equator, much as Polaris is a permanent feature in the Northern Hemisphere. For the same reason this makes it a perfect feature for finding direction.

     Find the three stars that make up the belt of Orion. Then find the star just underneath these stars that is the sword of Orion. Drawing a line from the sword through the second star of the belt will give you the general direction for North.

Watch Method
     Place your watch on a level surface, such as the ground or even in the flat palm of your hand. Point the hour hand at the sun.

     Find the line that runs midway between the hour hand and the 12 o' clock mark. This is the North-South line. Which ways is South? The Sun rises in the East and sets in the West. This means that at noon the Sun is directly South. You can use this as a guide to figure out which direction is South on your line.

     If you have adjusted your watch for daylight savings time, simply use the 1 o' clock mark instead of the 12 o' clock mark.

     If you are in the Southern Hemisphere, follow the same exercise to determine your North-South line. In the Southern Hemisphere the sun will be directly North at midday, so just use the same logic you would in the Northern Hemisphere to find which way North would be, rather that which way South would be. This will tell you which way is which on your bearing line.

Track the Sun With a Stick
     This is a very easy method to find direction, though it likely won't work on cloudier days, because you need sunlight to make a reading.

     The first thing you need, obviously, is a stick. Find a reletively flat area of ground and stab the stick, securely upright into the ground, so that a shadow is cast on the ground.

     Mark the tip of the shadow on the ground so you can identify where this spot was later.

     Wait for ten to fifteen minutes as the sun moves across the sky, and make another marking at the end of the shadow. The second marking should be in a new place.

      Now, simply draw a straight line between your two marks. This will create an approximate east-west line, with the first mark being west, and the second being east. From here you can extrapolate which way north is. If you stand with your first mark on your left and the second mark on your right, North should be directly in front of you.

     An easy way to remember this is that your first two directions should spell "WE". Then North will always be above your line, and South will be below your line.

The Moon
     This is another way to find direction, which you can generally use at night. However sometimes the moon is up during the day, and this technique works just as well then.

     The moon orbits the Earth on a 28 day cycle, and this creates its familiar cycle through it's different phases.  What actually creates these phases is light from the Sun. The moon does not give off any light of it's own, it simply reflects the light of the sun, which allows us to the see the surface of the Moon from Earth.

     What this means, is that the moon has a regular pattern of light from the sun, and therefore we can use this to find direction. The one thing to note however, is that this technique will not work during a full moon or a new moon because the whole face of the moon is either lit up or is in shadow, and can therefore give us no decernable direction markers.

    The Sun sets in the West and rises in the East. This gives a direction from which the light is coming from, which we can use to determine East and West.  If the moon rises before the sun has set, the side of the moon that is illuminated will be the western side of the moon. If, however, the moon rises after midnight, then the side illuminated will be the eastern side of the moon. This gives us a rough East-West bearing.

Want to find North?  This is even easier to do with the crescent moon.  In the Northern Hemisphere if you draw a line from the top point of the crescent moon, down to the second point of the crescent moon, and on to the horizon, this line will point South.  In the Southern Hemisphere it is opposite, and this line will point your North.  This technique will be more accurate when the moon is high overhead, and less accurate when close to the horizon.


Honorable Mentions:
-Moss Grows on the North Sides of Trees

-Southern Hillsides are Drier

-Southern Hillsides have Less Snow

     I place these techniques under honorable mentions because they are reliant on the amount of sunlight an area gets. They can sometimes work to get your bearings. There is a reason after all, that most people know of these techniques. However, they are in no way a good way to get an accurate bearing.

      Furthermore, as many times as these techniques may provide good directions, there are as many times where these techniques can give false directions, or be completely useless.  In the absence of having any other technique to use to find directions, while these are not perhaps not the most reliable methods, are certainly better than nothing.

     They good to know, but it is also good to remember that these techniques are not the most accurate, and are often not accurate at all. After all how many times have you seen moss growing all the way around the tree? Exactly. So, if you need to find directions, I would give on of the techniques above our honorable mentions a try, and leave the moss, snow dirt alone.