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Methods to Determine Direction

Are you one of those people, who can’t tell which way is north, without a compass?

So you are hiking in the wilderness and things go incredibly wrong. At first you just notice that you do not quite recognize your surroundings. 

You might keep going in the same direction, or you might try to retrace your steps. 

Unfortunately, in most cases you will be heading further away from the trail and further into the wilderness. You’ll start to pick up the pace which most often makes things worse. 


Quick Navigation

  1. Tech Devices
  2. Maps and Landmarks
  3. Using the Sun and Stars
       3.2. Wrist Watch
       3.3. North Star
  4. Building Your own Compass
  5. Blazing a Trail

Finally, you realize you are completely lost and must try to plan a route to get back to safety, but you forgot to pack your compass.  Your life is now in danger.

But do not panic.  When you lose your cool, you typically do not move in a logical direction.  This just makes things worse.  Stay calm and come up with a logical plan to get where you need to be even without a compass!


Here are some methods that you can try to help you get back to the trail:

1. Tech Devices

Let’s get this one out of the way right upfront.  Yes, having a cell phone or a GPS device can get you to safety.  Most phones have the ability to track your location on a satellite image.  However, these devices can get wet, can be broken, or can lose signal.

Satellite images and GPS work by receiving a signal directly from a satellite in space.  This means that anything between you and that signal can shut the device down.

It could be trees, mountains, or even heavy clouds.  Do not rely upon technology to save you, but certainly use it if you have the capability.


2. Maps and Landmarks

If you have a map but do not have a compass, you can still potentially find your way.  Both topographical and road maps often have landmarks on them such as mountains, bodies of water, trails, and roads.  Your first step is to get to a high point from which you can see a long way in all directions.

It could be a mountain peak, a hilltop, or you could even climb a tree.  Note down where you see these landmarks in the area.  You will need to see at least two landmarks to orient your map.

Estimate your distance to each landmark and then find the landmarks on your map.  Rotate the map until you have your estimated distances right, and then triangulate your rough location.

From there you should be able to determine the best general direction in which to travel.  Your goal is to get to a linear landmark that will guide you back to safety such as a road, trail, river, stream, or shoreline.


You can also use landmarks to navigate without a map.  In order to do this, you need to note the location of landmarks before you leave the trail.

They should be large enough that you can see them from a distance.  If you get to the point at which you feel like you are lost, get to a high area and locate those same landmarks.

This should give you an idea of where you need to head to get back to where you left the trail.

For example, you notice before you leave the trail to the North that there is a mountain peak to the NW and a tree taller than all of the others to the South just off the trail.  You head north for about a mile and notice you are lost.

The mountain peak is now directly to your left and the tree is directly behind you.

At this point, you can turn back toward the tree with the peak on your right and start walking towards the tree. As you walk towards the tree, you should notice that the peak will move from directly to your right to slightly behind you and to your right.  This should roughly take you back to the point where you began.


3. Using the Sun and Stars

The sun and stars have been used for land navigation for thousands of years.  If you find yourself lost without a compass, this could be your best bet.  Obviously, the sun rises in the East and sets in the West.

This can give you a general method for navigation.  For example, if you want to travel North and the sun just rose you can keep it directly to your right and you will be moving in the correct general direction.

However, there is a more accurate way to use the sun.



  1. Stick a stick or branch into the ground
  2. Put a rock, or other marker, on the tip of the shadow, cast by the stick.
  3. Wait
  4. In a while (15 minutes or more) the Shadow will have moved. Draw a line between the rock, or other marker, and the current tip of the shadow. That line points East and West. The Rock, or first marker indicates West and the current tip of the shadow indicates East.

3.2. Wrist Watch

You can use your watch to determine direction. These are the direction, for those of us, in the Northern Hemisphere! If you are in the Southern Hemisphere, then your half-way point will be pointing North instead of South!

  1. Find the sun. If you look up and see a flaming ball in the sky, this could be the sun
  2. Point the hour hand (the little hand), on your watch at the sun.
  3. Locate the half-way point between the hour hand and 12.
  4. That half-way point will be pointing South.

wrist watch to determine direction

Even if you only have a digital watch, you can still use this same method. Just imagine where the hour hand would be if you this was an analog watch, then follow the same procedure.


3.3. North Star

Polaris, the North Star, Sits above the North Pole. In the Northern Hemisphere, it can be located using the Big Dipper Constellation.

  1. Locate the Big Dipper
  2. Mentally Draw an imaginary line through the 2 outer stars that make up the “bowl” or “cup” of the Dipper. (These 2 Stars are named Merak and Dubhe)
  3. Follow this imaginary line straight (about 5 times the distance between Merak and Dubhe)
  4. Bang! There’s the North Star, Polaris!


north star direction

4. Building Your own Compass

Even without a compass you can build your own to find magnetic North.

  • meghan-schiereck-dKQCBGLuvS0-unsplashYou will need a container of some kind that will hold water. This could be a cup, a pot, or you could cut open a bottle or can.
  • You will also need an item that floats such as a cork, a piece of rubber, a piece of styrofoam, or a dry leaf.
  • Also, you need a thin, straight piece of metal along with a larger piece of metal. The small piece could be a straightened paperclip, a pin, a small nail, or a piece of wire.  The larger piece could be any type of tool or hunk of metal.  You want to rub the large piece on the small piece or strike them together.  This should magnetize the small piece.  Fill the container with water and place the float in the center.
  • Put it on flat ground and place the small piece of metal on the float.  Give it a few minutes to rotate, and it should settle on your North/South line.


5. Blazing a Trail

mika-luoma-fLrgGNvFDk0-unsplashIf you are going to leave your primary trail, there are precautions you can take to ensure you can find your way back.  The best option is to blaze a trail.

This is the process of leaving a series of markers along your path that you can follow to retrace your steps.  It also can give rescuers a way to find you if needed.  The most common way to do this is to use a knife, hatchet, or machete to chop a piece of bark off of a tree every 20 to 30 yards.

This exposes the lighter wood underneath leaving a noticeable marking.  I have also seen people use brightly colored tape or cordage to tie on branches.

Using something brightly colored means that your markers can be seen from a longer distance and be further apart, but the tying process tends to take longer than chopping off some bark.  Either way, you are being prepared by giving yourself a definite path back to safety.

If you are one of the lucky people,  who has an internal compass, congratulations! Make sure you don’t grow complacent. Navigation and direction-finding are skills you must constantly use, or you may lose them!

And, just an extra layer of precaution. Maps (like the Delorme Atlas Gazetteer), Compasses and GPS are great tools to have and to know how to use the next time you plan to get lost in the woods.

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  1. I was running a course on field craft a number of years ago and in a test asked trainees to detail a way to determin direction using a watch. One answer was that you tie a piece of string to the watch, swing it around your head until its going real fast then let go the string. Your watch is said to have gone west!


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