A Guide to Navigating at Night: No GPS, No Compass


Feel con­fi­dent enough that you can find your way back? It doesn’t hurt to try, espe­cial­ly if you have a gen­er­al idea of the direc­tion you should be walk­ing in. Here are some tips from the experts to help you find your way home when nav­i­gat­ing at night.

Hiker navigating at night

Ide­al­ly, you should always have at least a com­pass with you when you head into the big out­doors. “If you real­ly have no idea of which way to go, you are bet­ter off stay­ing put until it gets light,” says Adri­an Owens, a mul­ti­ple US Ski‑O Nation­al Cham­pi­on who teach­es ori­en­teer­ing class­es at Ster­ling Col­lege in Vermont.

Ampli­fy Your Night Vision
Nav­i­gat­ing at night is no small task, even with the best of flash­lights. But it’s much safer and eas­i­er to use a lantern-style lamp instead of a tra­di­tion­al flash­light, accord­ing to Sam Mor­ri­son, an avid explor­er and Health Expert for Glac­i­er Well­ness. “Although flash­lights pro­vide strong, direct light, they do not offer suf­fi­cient light to safe­ly nav­i­gate a path,” says Morrison.

All it takes to cre­ate a makeshift lantern is a 1‑gallon jug of water and a stan­dard head­lamp. “This sim­ple con­trap­tion pro­vides enough ambi­ent light to safe­ly maneu­ver across the unfa­mil­iar ter­ri­to­ry and act as an emer­gency bea­con if nec­es­sary,” he adds.

In misty or fog­gy weath­er, Mor­ri­son rec­om­mends tak­ing off any head­lights and hold­ing them at waist height. “This will allow you to see fur­ther into the dis­tance and nav­i­gate more suc­cess­ful­ly,” Mor­ri­son points out.

If you have good light, it makes sense to point it towards the ground and see if you can find your own tracks. “Crushed leaves, mud­dy spots, bent over grass can all be clues,” Owens says.

Search for Sounds and Sights
Before you start walk­ing in any direc­tion, stand in one place, take a deep breath and try to pay atten­tion to your sur­round­ings. Lit­tle things you might miss at first can make a huge dif­fer­ence to help you get oriented.

For exam­ple, Owens points out that some­times a dis­tant light from a town can help you stay on a straight path toward it. “If you can see a bright star or plan­et, you can try to iden­ti­fy it for your­self by not­ing its rela­tion­ship to the oth­er stars near­by and then walk­ing towards it,” says Owens. “Because the Earth rotates, the stars will appear to move, but slow­ly; you can make a cou­ple hours in a pret­ty con­sis­tent direction.”

This is even eas­i­er if you can rec­og­nize con­stel­la­tions. “In the north­ern hemi­sphere, the abil­i­ty to ID either the Big or Lit­tle Dip­per and near­by North Star is fair­ly easy to learn,” says Owens.

If the wind is con­sis­tent, Owens sug­gests try­ing to walk down­wind. “That will keep you rough­ly in a straight line and a lit­tle warmer,” Owens says.

Although traf­fic noise is hard to pin­point, a bark­ing dog can be a good point of ref­er­ence. “Once on a night-time win­ter camp­ing evac­u­a­tion, I used the noise from a sled dog ken­nel sev­er­al miles away to find my way out to the road,” says Owens.

Count Steps
Either count­ing your steps or keep­ing track of time is an impor­tant part of stay­ing found. Count­ing steps can give you an indi­ca­tion of how far you have trav­eled, although it doesn’t help with direc­tion, accord­ing to Owens. “Most people’s walk­ing steps are between 2 and 3 feet,” Owens explains. “Mul­ti­ply your num­ber of steps times two to get a rough esti­mate of dis­tance traveled.”

If you’re going off-trail at night, plan to head away from the camp and up a stream bed for 400 steps, then sit to lis­ten for owls, or what­ev­er you are inter­est­ed in. “Com­ing back down you can count to 400 again to know when to expect to see famil­iar land­marks,” says Owens.

Use Land­marks
An easy way to get your bear­ings at night is to find sig­nif­i­cant land­marks you can iden­ti­fy and use as guide­lines. For exam­ple, lin­ear fea­tures like streams are prob­a­bly the eas­i­est to use at night. “If fol­low­ing a stream, try to stay about 30 feet away so you don’t get slowed down fol­low­ing every sin­gle turn or get tempt­ed to cross the water at every curve,” Owens says. “Twen­ty to thir­ty feet is still usu­al­ly close enough to hear the stream even if you can’t see it all the time.”

Large con­tour fea­tures like ridge­lines and val­leys can also be fol­lowed at night, except you can’t hear them so they might be slight­ly con­fus­ing. “Obvi­ous­ly hav­ing a map with you, or a clear men­tal map with these large fea­tures is vital to cre­at­ing a nav­i­ga­tion strat­e­gy,” Owen adds.