In an ideal situation, 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.
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.
Amplify Your Night Vision
Navigating at night is no small task, even with the best of flashlights. However, 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, according to Morrison. “This simple contraption provides enough ambient light to safely maneuver across the unfamiliar territory and act as an emergency beacon if necessary,” Morrison 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 straight walking 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.
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.
One of the easiest ways to get your bearings at night is to find significant landmarks that 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, says Owens. “Obviously having a map with you, or a clear mental map with these large features is vital to creating a navigation strategy,” he adds.