Navigating Wilderness: A Short Guide to Naturally Finding Your Way

Before 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 nav­i­gat­ing wilder­ness tips:

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.

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 Nat­ur­al Handrails
A handrail is an immov­able nat­ur­al or man­made land­mark. You can use this 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 a route as you’re nav­i­gat­ing in the wilderness.