A Short Guide to Navigating Wilderness Naturally

©istockphoto/fbxxBefore explorers had maps, compasses, and handheld GPS devices, humankind was navigating the world using directional clues in the natural environment. There is information hidden all around us—in the sun, moon, stars, clouds, weather patterns, changing tides, plant growth and more. Here are a few quick natural navigation tips:

Learn To Find Polaris
Polaris is less than one degree from the celestial pole—making it one of the easiest ways to identify cardinal directions at night. Also called the North Star, it has been documented over the ages in cultures throughout the Northern Hemisphere. “It was Grahadhara in Northern India and Yilduz in Turkey. It has been known as al-Qiblah to the Arabs, in testament to its aid in finding the direction of Mecca. The Chinese had at least four names for it,” writes navigation expert Tristan Gooley.

To find Polaris, use the Big Dipper as reference. You’ll see the three stars of the dipper’s “handle,” and four stars that make up the “dipper.” Measure the distance between the two farthest-right stars in the dipper, then follow an imaginary line between them and up and to the right. The distance to the North Star is five times the distance between the pointer stars. (Tip: Polaris is the brightest star in its immediate vicinity, so if you see two stars of similar brightness close to each other, you’re looking in the wrong place.)

Use Clues To Find The Sun
The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. In the middle of the day, the sun will show you which way is south. Even if you can’t see the sun on a cloudy sky, you can asses which direction is south by feeling a damp rock. If one side feels dryer or warmer than the other, chances are it’s the southern aspect. Be warned: the myth about moss growing on the north sides of trees is just that—a myth.

Use Natural Handrails
A handrail is an immovable natural or manmade landmark that you can use as a point of reference as you travel. For example, hikers might look at a map and make a mental note to keep a river on their left-hand side as they travel, and boaters might stay between a chain of islands and the mainland’s shore. Using a handrail can let you travel relatively quickly while staying on route.

For more information about navigating with clues from the natural world, check out The Natural Navigator: The Rediscovered Art of Letting Nature Be Your Guide and How To Read Water: Clues and Patterns from Puddles to the Sea, both by Tristan Gooley, and On Trails: An Exploration by Robert Moor.