How to Tell Direction Without a Compass

How to Tell Direction Without a Compass

We tend to forget that there might come a time when knowing how to tell direction without a compass could save our lives. In this article, we will talk about several strategies that you can use to tell direction when lost in nature. The answer to where we should go is in the stars, the sun, the moon, the moss, etc.

If we are going to be completely honest, we have all gotten lost at some point in our lives. Being in the great outdoors is an overwhelming experience for all our senses, and sometimes we lose track of time… and space. Despite technological advancements, we still use traditional instruments for spatial orientation. We tend to forget that there might come a time when knowing how to tell direction without a compass could save our lives.

Indeed, in the 21st century, it seems highly unlikely that such a situation occurs. However, as outdoor enthusiasts, we decided to try and find out what to do in case of an emergency.

Right from the start, there are three basic things to keep in mind:

  • Don’t panic.
  • Look around.
  • Be ready to improvise.

Even an unfamiliar territory will give away important information if we know where to look for it. We learned that we should pay attention to the sky and the terrain. The answer to where we should go is in the stars, the sun, the moon, the moss, etc. In this article, we will talk about several strategies that allow us to use nature to tell direction when lost.

Now, we understand that not all of us are great at reading the signs that the nature sends us. Therefore, we also want to point out that we can make our own compass. We will explain that in greater detail later in the article, as well.

Ways to Tell Direction Without a Compass

Tracking the sun

Although this method takes a bit of time and requires a sunny day, it is worth the effort and patience.

First, we need to find a clean patch of land that gets a lot of direct sunlight. Then, we need to find a stick and plant it in the ground.

Track the SunOnce we have done that, we will be able to see the stick’s shadow. We should place a mark at the tip of it. After about 30 minutes, the tip of the shadow will move and we will need to mark it again.

Now that we have two points, we can connect them with a line. That line will give us a rough idea of the east-west direction.


Visualizing a clock face

It would be ideal if we could remember to wear an analog watch (learn why here) when we go on our outdoor adventures. But, let’s face it – most of us don’t. In any case, this method uses the clock face to determine where south or north is, depending on the hemisphere. For the sake of argument, we will imagine that we do have a wristwatch on us.

First off, we need to take the watch off and make sure that the hour hand is precisely aligned with the sun. After that, we should be able to see a space between the hour hand and 12:00. What we need to do is imagine a line that cuts across the middle of that space. For instance, if it’s 6:00, the imaginary line will be pointing to 3:00.

If we are in the Northern hemisphere, the imaginary line will be pointing south. If, on the other hand, we got lost in the Southern hemisphere, the line will point to the north.

Exploring the terrain

If we are out of luck with the sun, we should turn to our environment for help. We probably all know that the moss on trees and rocks points to the north. However, we need to be careful about taking this fact for granted. It proved to be wrong in many cases.

Namely, it is very important to be aware of the type of environment we are in. The moss rule does not literally apply if the terrain is generally wet or shaded.

Moss on TreeBasically, the most reliable way to use moss as an indicator of the north is if we found it in a sunlit grove of trees. We need to make sure we see multiple instances of moss all appearing on the same side before moving in any direction.

If, however, we are not sure whether we can trust moss or not, there is another way. We can pay closer attention to the hillsides. The less-vegetated slopes will point south if we are in the Northern hemisphere. Obviously, if we are in the Southern hemisphere, the dry-loving flora will be facing north.

Looking at the stars

It is a widespread belief that it is extremely difficult to find one’s way at night. However, it is easier than one might think.

In case we’re lost at night, the best thing we can do is to look up at the constellations. Now, we don’t have to be expert astronomers to find Orion or the Big Dipper.

First of all, Orion is one of the brightest and most recognizable constellations in the sky. The Orion’s belt, consisting of three stars that form a line, is visible from pretty much any place on earth. The ends of the belt point to east and west, while Orion’s sword points south.

Find the North Star
North Star on a sunny day

Moving on, the Big Dipper looks a lot like a large ladle. We can easily spot it if we live in the Northern hemisphere. When looking for the Big Dipper, we need to keep in mind that it will not tell us where to go per say. It will, nevertheless, help us locate the North Star. So, we need to look for the two stars that form the so-called pouring side of the ladle. That line points straight at the North Star.


Looking at the crescent moon

There is no need to panic if we fail to locate the North Star and Orion. There is another way to tell direction at night – for example, we can look at the crescent moon when it is at its highest position. Then, we need to find the tips of the crescent and draw an imaginary line through them. If we are in the Northern hemisphere, tracing that line all the way to the horizon will give us a point that shows where south is. In the Southern hemisphere, however, that point will show where north is.

Making a compass

This type of DIY project requires a bit of time and a few basic supplies. Namely, we need a needle, a cup, and possibly a magnet, a leaf or some paper.

Since needles can float on water, we can use one to make our own compass. First of all, we need to magnetize the needle. We can do this by stroking it in one direction on a magnet or by stroking it on natural fibers half a dozen to a dozen times. Next, we need to fill the cup with water.

We need to be very careful about how we lay the needle on the surface of the water. There are three tricks that can be used to prevent it from sinking to the bottom of the cup:

  • Laying it on a piece of paper or on a leaf – even if the paper/leaf sinks, the needle will keep floating
  • Putting some grease on the needle
  • Laying it down gently with a fork

Once the needle is placed on the surface of the water, it will start spinning until it finds the north-south position. The only problem here is – we will not know whether it’s pointing north or south. To avoid making wild guesses, we can simply use this method together with another one from this list.

Final Thoughts

In the words of Bear Grylls, one of the world’s most renowned survival experts,

Survival can be summed up in three words: Never give up. That’s the heart of it really. Just keep trying.

Having finished our research on the topic of how to tell direction without a compass, we came to agree with Mr. Grylls. Survival is about not giving up. And so is orientation in extreme situations.

While it is not impossible to find one’s way back without all the gadgets and instruments, it is hard work that requires staying calm and focused. Indeed, standing in the middle of nowhere having next to no idea where we are is not a promising backdrop. But it is not a reason to panic either.

With a little bit of luck and some basic survival knowledge, there is no reason not to succeed. Whether we tend to lose our way often, or we just want to acquire basic survival skills, we need to remember several things:

  • We were all born with a survival instinct.
  • It is important that we stay calm.
  • We need to avoid making panic-driven decisions at all cost.
  • It is really important that we evaluate the environment with great care.
  • We must never forget the basics. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. We can always find the North star in the north. The sun will always be on the south.

We honestly hope that this article helped you understand how to tell direction without a compass. It certainly helped us a lot.


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