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Finding Your Way Back Without a Compass

August 28, 2019 4 min read 0 Comments

Finding Your Way Back Without a Compass


 A map and compass are the quintessential dynamic duo of backcountry navigation – any time you head out for a hike, you should keep this route-finding Batman and Robin close at hand in an easily accessible pocket of your pack (even if you plan on sticking to the trails!). But what would happen if you found yourself caught off guard by a broken compass, or even worse, a broken compassanda missing map? Don’t worry, all is not lost – use any of these five methods to find your way home without relying on a compass.


Finding North Using A Wristwatch


You may not be carrying a compass, but do you have any way to tell the time? If so, finding north will still be a breeze. This method will be easiest for adventurers carrying an accurate analog wristwatch –

  1. Hold the watch flat in your hand and point the hour hand toward the sun.
  2. Find the 12 on your watch and picture the angle between the hour hand and the 12.
  3. Imagine a line extending across the face of your watch which bisects (cuts in half) the angle between the hour hand and the 12.
  4. This line is your imaginary compass needle – the end of the needle which is farthest from the sun is the one pointing north.

If you have a digital timekeeping device, you can still use this method – just look at the time and draw out a clock on the ground, following the same steps listed above. And if you’re in the southern hemisphere, you’ll have to make an additional adjustment – instead of starting with the hour hand pointing toward the sun, start with the number 12 facing the sun; then follow steps 3 and 4.

What happens once you find north? Orient your map so that the top is facing north, use features of the landscape to figure out where you are, and then find your way back to somewhere familiar!


Find North Using Shadows

First, collect a 1-2 foot long stick and a couple of rocks or other markers. Then find a flat, open space where the sun is shining and take the following steps –

  1. Dig your stick into the ground so it stands up vertically. Place a rock at the end of its shadow.
  2. Wait about 20 minutes.
  3. While you were waiting, the sun was moving from the east to the west. This means the shadow of the stick was moving from the west to the east. Place a second rock at the end of the shadow in its new location.
  4. The two rocks are positioned along the East/West line. To find North, place your left foot on the first rock and your right foot on the second rock.
  5. Now that you’re facing north, orient your map and get yourself home!

Find North Using Stars

Navigating at night? If the stars are out, finding north will be easy.

  1. Locate the Big Dipper.
  2. Find the two stars which form the end of the ladle part of the dipper, farthest from the end of its handle.
  3. Trace a line from the bottom right star of the ladle toward and through the top right star. The North Star (Polaris) will be located along this line. It will be about five times the distance away from the top right corner as the distance between the two stars at the end of the ladle.

Or even more simply –

  1. Locate the Little Dipper.
  2. Polaris is the star at the end of the dipper’s handle (farthest away from its ladle).

Last steps? Orient map; get the heck home! If you’re in the southern hemisphere, you’ll have to find South using the Southern Cross and Pointer Stars (the south celestial pole is aligned with the head and foot of the cross, about four times the distance between the head and foot, moving away from the star at the foot).


Orient a Map Using Terrain Features

If you’re a considerably experienced navigator, you may be able to accurately orient a topographic map to the terrain around you simply by matching the features represented on the map to actual features of the landscape. When the sky is completely clouded and obscure, you may have to rely on this method. Otherwise it’s always a good idea to make sure you’ve oriented your map accurately using one of the methods above.


Getting Home Without a Map

Worst case scenario – no map, no compass, no clue where you are. Your exact procedure will vary, but here are some tips to keep in mind –

  1. Use any given method for finding North to maintain a stable sense of direction.
  2. Take advantage of landmarks to ensure that you’re traveling in a straight line. Choose a distinct feature in your desired direction of travel, walk straight to it, and then choose another destination aligned with the first.
  3. Search for “handrails” – terrain features like bodies of water, valleys, and gullies which are easy to find and follow.
  4. If you aren’t sure where to go, always move downstream and downhill for the best chance of reaching a populated area.

For the knowledgeable navigator, no compass, no problem!




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