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Survival: How to Find True North Without a Compass

Lost in the wilderness or fleeing through hostile territory, knowing how to navigate without a compass is an essential survival skill.
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Living in the modern world it's hard to imagine being lost -- with no idea where you're at -- and suddenly having to travel cross country, without a compass, map, or nowadays, GPS. Before the modern age and back to the time of primitive tribes in far off lands, most often people used the sun during the day to navigate -- and at night the moon and stars to find their way.
Once you understand how they did this -- how people navigate without a compass by using the position of the sun or position of the stars and moon -- to help plot direction -- with a little practice you'll be able to do so also.

Navigating by the sun, moon, or stars works on the high seas just as well as it works on land.

Use the North Star to Find True North

The North Star has been used by many people over the centuries to help find true north. Today's Boy Scouts teach finding the North Star as a method for finding north and you can also.

Find the Big Dipper and the North Star

1) To find the North Star you first have to locate the Big Dipper constellation in the night sky. Here's a link to a constellation chart if you're not sure what the Big Dipper looks like.

2) Next, locate the furthest two stars in the "spoon" part of the Big Dipper and then draw a straight line connecting the two, then continue away from the top of the spoon with that line, approximately five times the distance of the space between the two stars (see top illustration at link above). That line you draw should end right at the North Star.

3) Once you've located the North Star, place a stick in the ground, perhaps 2 feet tall, and then a second shorter stick a foot or two away, with the taller stick directly between the shorter stick and the North Star.

4) Now, line your eye sight with the tops of the two sticks with the North Star, so that what it looks like is a diagonal line (in your mind) starting from the top of the shorter stick, slanting up to the top of the longer stick, and finally connecting with the North Star in the sky.

5) Finally, draw a line in the ground from the base of the shorter stick to the base of the longer stick -- and then continue to draw a line in the ground so it points away from the longer stick. If you've done this right the line will be pointing true north. See: Finding direction without a compass

Two Sticks at Night Method

1) Place a stick in the ground so that it stands vertically.

2) Place a second taller stick just beyond the first stick.

3) Now bend down behind the first stick and line up your eye so that a straight line could be drawn (in your mind) from your eye, to the tops of the two sticks, and then finally to a star in the night sky.

4) Be patient and watch the star for a few minutes ...

If the star moves up, you are facing east; if it moves down, you are facing west; if it moves right, you are facing south; if it moves left, you are facing north. See: Farmer's Almanac - Find your way without a compass

Staying on a Straight Course while Crossing Terrain

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Line up landmarks in front of you. Pick out a tree, hillside, rock outcropping in the far distance, then find another landmark between you and it. Many people who are lost have been known to travel in circles -- theory is that they pull to one direction subconsciously and before they know it eventually circle around, vs staying in a straight line. See: Discovery News: People naturally walk in circles

POWs (prisoners of war) who escaped into the jungle were sometimes known to find that they were traveling in circles. Sometimes (as in the case of a POW) traveling in a circle is the last thing that you want to do in a survival situation. Learning how to find your way without a compass can be a life saver.

Discover News writes: "The results, published today in the journal Current Biology, showed that no matter how hard people tried to walk in a straight line, they often ended up going in circles without ever realizing that they were crossing their own paths.

But there was a twist.

Circular walking befell only the four forest walkers who had to walk in overcast conditions and the one desert walker who walked at night after the moon had set. Those who could see the sun or moon managed to travel fairly straight.

Previous studies have shown that bees, pigeons and a variety of other animals move in tight circles when orienting cues like the sun are missing. The new study suggests that, whether we're conscious of what we're doing or not, people are tuned into those types of environmental signals, too."

The good news about navigating without a compass or a map? As long as you pay attention to where the sun and moon are (and the approximate time of day or night in regards to their position), you can stay in a fairly straight line.

When clouds cover the sun and night sky however, now you have a problem. You'll have to bring some other methods for navigating without a compass into play.

Use Landmarks to Navigate Without a Compass

1) If you come upon a landmark (or see one in the distance) or you have to go around an obstacle, once you get passed that landmark or obstacle, look back, and then look forward, and create a line in your mind between a point in the distance in front of you to the obstacle or landmark behind you.

2) Move forward along that line. After a short distance look back to ensure the obstacle/landmark stays directly behind you and notice the angle to the landscape you are traveling -- this is going to help you stay on a straight course.

In an area of heavy brush or trees, with little visibility in the distance, you'll have to do this often. Otherwise it will be difficult to stay on course.

3) Draw a line in the ground that lines up with your angle of travel and look directly ahead, into the distance, where the line points ... pick out a distinguishing feature in the landscape up ahead and now set your sights on that location.

4) When you get to that location, look back at a landmark you had traveled from, and draw a line in the ground that continues to point the direction you are wanting to travel.

Doing this throughout your trek should keep you in a fairly straight direction.

Navigating Through Hostile Territory without a Compass

Let's say for example you are traveling cross country, through hostile territory, with a highway or railroad just a mile or two to your left or right.

If your goal is to stay out of sight while traveling the same direction as the highway or railroad, you'll need to line up landmarks that point in the same direction that the highway or railroad lead.

You could always simply travel within 50 yards of the highway or railroad, but if you are in a dangerous area (such as in a time of collapse or you're simply an international traveler who's escaped after being kidnapped) you may not want to be anywhere near a public roadway, as that's where people may be searching for you, or on the look out for (and targeting) travelers.

Increasingly people from America are at a higher risk of being kidnapped in foreign countries -- many people who kidnap Americans are simply criminals that want to collect a ransom (as seen in Mexico and South America and even Phoenix, Arizona, which has experienced a high rate of kidnappings in recent years).

Some kidnappers however are terrorists who just want to take the lives of Americans.

Though you may not ever be lost in the mountains -- if you travel to other nations you may one day have to escape abductors -- thus a good reason for learning how to navigate the land without a compass.

If You Have a Compass, It Doesn't Mean It Will Help You

Even if you have a compass, it doesn't mean you're going to be able to find your way. A compass needle points at magnetic north -- magnetic north is not the same as true north.

Unless you understand how a compass works -- and the slight difference in degrees (which varies based on your location in the world) -- a compass will point you in the wrong way.

How to Use a Compass

You need to learn how to use a compass correctly and also have a new enough map that has the current degrees for true north vs. magnetic north -- called "declination". Depending on where you are in the country (for example, North America), the declination is different in different locations.

In the western half of the United States, magnetic north is greater (a higher number in degrees) than true north. On your compass true north will be to the left of magnetic north -- where the needle is pointing. How many degrees to the left will depend on how far west you are from the 0 degree mark on a map of the U.S., referring to declination.

The earth's magnetic field is gradually shifting west a 1/2 degree to a full degree every five years. To be the most accurate with a compass your map should be newer than five years old. An older map is still good -- but not when a compass is brought into the picture.

A compass works by pointing to magnetic north -- because the earth's magnetic field is constantly changing slightly each year -- and because the magnetic field doesn't line up with the north pole on a map. As such you have to calculate the difference in degrees between magnetic north and true north -- or the compass is going to point you in the wrong direction.

If this sounds a bit complicated, here's a link to an article put together by a Boy Scout troop.

Land Navigation

Navigate Without a Compass - Study the Vegetation

Study the forest -- moss grows on the north side of trees.

When looking at a mountain, there will be more vegetation on the north facing side of a mountain then on the south. The same can be said for a valley. Look to the slopes to both sides of the valley -- if the valley runs north and south, there will be more vegetation on the north facing slope than on the south facing slope.

Sun Navigation

Find Your Way Without a Compass - Use a Watch with an Hour Hand

First, be sure that your watch is set to the correct time and working properly. There are two methods to using a watch to navigate: One method is for the northern hemisphere and the other is for the southern hemisphere.

Northern Hemisphere: With your watch level with the ground, point the hour hand at the sun. Now, look at where the "12" is on your watch. Identify the halfway point between the hour hand and the 12. That direction is south. Which means the exact direction opposite of south is north.

Knowing east and west should now be clear to you.

Southern Hemisphere: Hold your watch level with the ground and point the 12 at the sun. Identify the mid-way point between the 12 and the hour hand. That direction will be north.

Please note: During daylight savings time (spring through early fall) this method will be slightly off. Turn back your hour hand one hour for the purpose of finding the exact direction -- then be sure to turn your hour hand ahead to the correct time just a few moments later after you've determined the direction (if you forget to turn your hour hand ahead to the correct time your route finding later that day will be off).

Sun Shadow Method

Another method for finding north calls for using the sun and just a stick, dirt, and two rocks.

1) First, place a straight stick approximately 3 feet in length in the ground, early in the day before noon. Note the shadow that is cast by the stick. Mark the tip of the shadow with a small rock or twig (peg) in the ground.

2) Next, draw an evenly balanced circle around the stick from that rock. When you're done the stick will be directly in the center of the circle and the rock will be on the edge of the circle.

3) When noon occurs a bit later (technically called "solar noon" -- when the sun is at it's highest point in the sky -- which is generally in the noon hour on a clock -- but varies depending on time zones and locations) the sun will now be at it's highest point. This means that the shadow from the stick (in the center) will be at it's smallest point.

4) In the minutes and hour that follow the sun will begin to drop slightly in the sky as the day continues; the shadow from the stick (in the center) will begin to point longer and longer toward the circle that you drew in the dirt.

5) Once the shadow reaches the edge of the circle, mark it with a small rock or twig. Congratulations -- you can now identify east and west by drawing a straight line in the dirt from the first rock/twig to the second rock/twig. If you are in the northern hemisphere, the first rock/twig will be pointing west and the second rock/twig will be pointing east.

However, if you are in the southern hemisphere, the first rock/twig will be pointing east, not west. See: Navigation using sticks, stones, and the sun (refer to method "B" under "shadow stick").

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